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Christian Sands comes full circle with the Monterey Jazz Festival

Christian Sands
Anna Webber
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Christian Sands

I went to the Monterey Jazz Festival last year for the first time as the event returned live post-pandemic. I can't believe I waited so long to attend one of the world's most prestigious music events. One of the highlights was the all-star ensemble fronted by Dee Dee Bridgewater and Kurt Elling on vocals with Musical director Christian Sands on piano. The sextet also features Lakecia Benjamin on alto saxophone, Yasushi Nakamura on bass, and Clarence Penn on drums. If you missed the festival, you'll be glad to know that this talented group is soon coming to a venue near you. I had an entertaining conversation with Christian. Listen in to hear more about the Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour, his involvement with the festival and their educational programs and a whole lot more. You can learn more about the tour here.

Watch our conversation here:

Interview transcript:

Pat Prescott: For all the years that I've listened to all that great music that was recorded at Monterey, it is hard to believe that this is the first time in person that I was there, and I gotta tell you, it was just amazing.  We're going to talk a little bit more in just a moment about the Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour. But first, let's just get into you a little bit and a little bit about your career, growing up in the jazz hotbed of Connecticut. When you tell people you're from Connecticut, what do they say?

Christian Sands: I usually get a “Oh, really?”

Well, I know that music really was something that came to you early on. I'm kind of curious about how much your parents and your family at large had to do with your love of music since that's the case with so many of us.

Yes, a lot of my whole existence in music really comes from my parents. They both were involved in music. My mother learned piano when she was in either high school or elementary school. It was customary from where she was from for a young woman to learn a trade of some sort. She played a little bit of piano for the church. Not very much, but just one or two songs to get by. My father played piano, bass and drums, but he was also a painter. He was very creative and was also a photographer in high school. I believe they're just very creative people and so when I was born, a friend of the family told them to put me in music lessons and they did. I don't think they knew what was going to happen, but I think they're happy now.

I think also that it's clear that they exposed you to a lot because the music that you draw from—when you look at what you write and even some of the songs that you've covered—it's clear that you have a very wide range of music that you're into. Is that the case?

Yes, absolutely. I just I love music, whatever form it takes and so I think that's why a lot of my music takes different forms. Because I love human expression and whatever avenue or whatever track that it wants to take. It could be something from Brazil or something from Japan, everyone has a unique story. I try to use that and use sounds and certain palettes to tell those stories. I like to say that as a musician, I'm a storyteller. I try to tell these stories with sound so they take different forms, different expressions and different colors.

When you first started playing I'm sure that you probably didn't really think then about doing this for your whole life, but when did it seem to you that music was something you wanted to pursue as more than just, “I'm taking lessons and playing in the recitals”?

It didn't really dawn on me that this was a job, probably until maybe college because I'd done it for so long and it was something that I love to do and I still love to do. Even today it doesn't really feel like a job. It feels like I'm blessed to get up in the morning and to do what I want to do. To express myself the way I want to express myself and to impact the world in different ways. It was always something that I just liked to do and it just allowed me to move in this world. It was always something that I just liked to do and it just allowed me to move in this world. I'm just so appreciative of it.

It ended up being the world that you really want to spend the most time in your life. I know that mentorship has a lot to do with it too. Dr. Billy Taylor was an important part of your life and your development. How did that relationship with this great artist and music educator come about? I think that Dr. Taylor really hung the moon when it comes to contributing so much to the community at large.

Being with Dr. Taylor was such an amazing experience because not only was he just an amazing pianist, but he gave you all these things to learn from such as the history of jazz piano, talking about Willie the Lion Smith, talking about Duke Ellington. Knowing Taylor was such an amazing experience because not only was he just an amazing pianist, but he also gave you all these things to learn from such as the history of jazz piano, talking about Willie the Lion Smith, talking about Duke Ellington. And Dr. Taylor being underneath Art Tatum, learning things from him and teaching me the things that Art taught him as well as other amazing nuggets of information.

He was also just an advocate for how to navigate through life, how to navigate through business, how to navigate as a musician. I would watch him thoroughly read through contracts. A lot of our times our lessons weren't just sitting at the piano, but it was watching him be on a business call or having conversations with the Kennedy Center or with Jazzmobile, talking about, “This is what I want to do this year, this is what I want to do next year.” Like how do we bring all this stuff together and really create something for the masses, for people, for ourselves? That was the biggest lesson that I got from him.

I know that for many of us the first time that we got a chance to see and hear you was with Christian McBride, the Christian and Christian hookup, which was kind of a cool thing. How did you guys meet and when did you first get asked to play with him?

I met Christian during my first year at the Manhattan School of Music. A friend of mine (we were in class together) called me and he was like, “Hey man, Christian McBride is doing this listening session in Harlem, do you want to go tonight?” I was like, “Yeah.” I think it was our first or second week in New York. So I went. Listening to McBride talk about music, talk about jazz, talk about funk. And, of course, talk about James Brown, it was really inspiring and amazing.

Afterwards, my friend and I went up to him, “Oh, nice to meet you. I'm Christian, a fellow Christian.” He asked me what I did. There was a piano in the corner and he was like, “Oh, why don't you play something for me?” I sat down with the piano. Now this piano was terrible. It was missing notes, missing keys, missing pedals. It had been put through the ringer. At the time I was like, “Okay, I'll figure out what to play.” I played something. I don't even remember what I played.

He looked at me and he was like, “Yeah, all right, cool, keep at it?” I thought that my shot was blown. I was like, “Oh, that's it. I'm never going to see him ever again, and we're never going to work together. I’m going to go back to school.”

Years later, it was senior year at the Manhattan School Music. I got a call to be on the Marian McPartland show [Piano Jazz]. Marian was actually sick at the time, so her substitute was Christian McBride. We do the show and I get there early. I want to get there early. I know the show so I know I have to play something, so let me get myself together. Let me figure out what I'm going to play and all that. McBride comes in and he jumps on the bass and he just starts playing with me right before we even start the show. Already there's a thing. I don't remember if he remembers that I met him so I didn't bring it up either. We started playing and we started hanging out and the chemistry was just so amazing and it was just really great. We're playing duo, we're talking about music, and we're really, for me anyway, I'm feeling like, “Oh, I feel like I know him. I feel like I've known him all my life.”

There are certain things that we just do organically that we just have in our souls. Shortly after that I went to the Jazz Aspen program that he was running. I got a chance to play with him and Ulysses Owens at the time. He started asking me, “Hey, why don't you come up and play with me here, play with me there?” Then a couple months after that, I went back to school. Actually, that was my junior year going into my senior year. I got a call from his manager and he said, “Hey, McBride is doing a week at the Jazz Standard in New York. He wants to know if you want to come play that week.” And I was like, “The whole gig or just like a tune or two?” He was like, “No, the whole show.” I was like, “Oh, OK. Yeah, absolutely.” He sent me the music and that was the beginning of all that.

That chemistry that you allude to is really evident. It makes it look like when you guys are on the band stand together. This is not work at all. This is just a communion.

It is. It's the fact that we both love music and so we feed off of that energy together. Like I was saying before, I just love every aspect of it and I just love sound and so does he. When we get together, whether it's a duo, whether it's a trio, whether it's a quartet or a big band orchestra, we've done it all.

Is it always fun?

It can be just talking to each other on the phone. We talk about music all the time about different things, new records that have come out—old records. He's like, “Hey man, have you checked out this tune here?” We'll just reminisce on things that he's surprised that I even know about. Like these early James Brown cuts or these Bobby Womack tunes or whatever. I think that's the wonderful thing—our friendship—and you see that on the bandstand that we are friends. In fact, we are brothers so it's an amazing brotherhood that I have with him.

You can feel that too. That whole relationship that you have to the music as well. You talk about the things such as when I heard you doing “Can't Find My Way Home” by Blind Faith. I'm like, why does he even know this song?

The reason why I know this song is because my younger brother knows this song. My brother Ryan is an amazing drummer. I think I was in London recording with Gregory Porter at the time for his Nat King Cole album. One of the nights I was invited to the Royal Albert Hall and Eric Clapton was playing. It was absolutely incredible. Like really amazing music. I think Dr. Lonnie was playing on that too and Nathan East. Really incredible cats. After that I called my brother. I was like, “Man, I went to this concert, it was absolutely amazing with Eric Clapton.” We were just talking about music and he was like, “Yeah, I'm checking out this band Blind Faith.” I was like, “I know that band. I think I know that band.”

We just started talking about music and he was like, “I think we should play ‘Can't Find My Way Home’ at the next concert we do.” I was like, “All right, I'll check it out.” I learned it, came up with something. What you hear today is what was created from that. So shout out to Ryan Sands. He's a genius.

Did you guys get a chance to play together?

We do. If you've ever seen my show for the past two years, you've seen my brother play with me. He's in my trio and on my working project, so it's a lot of fun.

That's fantastic. Something else that is a lot of fun is to hang out with the folks that I saw you with at the Monterey Jazz Festival. When I saw that grouping, I was like, “Oh my God, this is a ridiculous group of musicians.” This sixth national all-star group from the Monterey Jazz Festival features Dee Dee Bridgewater, Kurt Elling, Lakecia Benjamin, Yasushi Nakamura and Clarence Penn. And, of course, Christian Sands on keyboards and also as the musical director. This is high cotton right here, Christian.

Yeah, absolutely. When I was asked to do it a second time and with these individuals, I knew this was going to be fun. We can literally do anything and it's so much fun. Because they’re music lovers, just like all of us. Writing for them and creating for them and being on the phone with them. “Hey, what would you want to do?” Or “I'm listening to this and I would like to do this tune here. What do you think?” Just having these collaborations with each other, it's really amazing. It's an amazing experience. Just the level, the high level of artistry is incredible. These are artists who are at the top of their game, and, as you alluded to, people who are very adventurous, who can go in a lot of different directions.

Monterey Jazz Festival at 60
R.R. Jones
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Monterey Jazz Festival at 60: (left to right) Clarence Penn, Lakecia Benjamin, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Kurt Elling, Yasushi Nakamura and Christian Sands

I love that you've got people who are legendary in this business such as Dee Dee and Kurt, but then you've also got Lakecia who is doing her own thing and bringing a different kind of edge in here. Talk a little bit about each of your band mates and what you have been most impressed with by them.

I'll start with Lakecia because I've been a fan of Lakecia's for so long. I first met her on the scene in New York. It seemed for maybe like a good four years that we were on the same circuit. My band would be playing, then her band would be playing, or her band just played somewhere, and then my band would be after hers. Every once in a while, we'd meet up and we'd see each other in the dressing room or we'd see each other in passing at the airport. We've always had this bond of friendship. It was always a wonderful time to talk to her and learn how soulful she is, how cool she is, the stories that she has, the music that she's gone through growing up in New York, playing in meringue bands and salsa bands and stuff. So did I. There's a thing that we have rhythmically. And musically we have a couple different backgrounds and the same backgrounds. She's just amazing and she brings this amazing energy to it and this amazing, if you really want to call it, New York swag. It's just like, “We’re going to do this and we’re going to have some fun. It's going to be cool and the party's going to be there.” Like anything I do with Lakecia, whether I'm talking to her, whether I'm playing with her, it's always a party. To to have that person in the band is amazing.

We can move to Kurt Elling. We are really good friends. I love Kurt so much. He is such an amazing human being, on and off the bandstand. What do you say about Kurt Elling? He's really incredible. When I first got together with him, it was the International Jazz Day in Havana, Cuba, and we ended up going to lunch together. He actually asked me, “Hey man, I’m going into Old Havana. Do you want to go grab some lunch?” And I was like, “Oh yeah, absolutely.” So we went, talked about life, talked about him being at that time a new dad. we talked about music, we talked about inspirations. We talked the whole night. Ever since then, we've been really, really close. He'll call me, every once in a while, he'll just say, “Hey, man, just want to check on you.” He's incredible. Then just making music with him is just always amazing because he loves experimenting with things he loves, the traditional stuff but he loves the non-traditional stuff. He's really incredible.

Then you put Dee Dee Bridgewater in that as well. The queen herself. Dee Dee and I go back from playing with Christian McBride. She would come in and sit in every once in a while. I think the first time I ever met her was at Monterey Jazz Festival. I was playing with the great bassist Ben Williams at that time. I was in his band and she was singing after us. I can't remember who she was singing with, but you know what, it might have been Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour. My first time meeting her and she was absolutely amazing. Fast forward playing with Christian McBride. She would sit in with us whether we were at the Village Vanguard or some club in the world. If she was around, she would come in and we just had a great rapport and a great friendship.

I ended up playing with her in her band a few times, and that was just always amazing. So we got a chance to play and to really create. I've been a fan of hers forever. Hanging out at the airport and just getting to know each other. Now being able to perform and to write music with her and write music and for her and, and to really be creative in this, it's going to be really amazing.

These guys are just absolutely incredible. Yasushi Nakamura, that's my buddy. If anybody's seen me, they know that that's my guy. We've been making music together for 10 plus years at this point. It’s the same with Clarence Penn, not 10 plus years, but it feels that way. That's another brother of mine. The trio, with Yasushi and Clarence, play together all the time and with so many different artists. They have this beautiful hookup that is incredible and most importantly, it feels really good.

Whether being an audience member or just me being at the piano, sometimes I'll stop and just listen to the two of them because they sound incredible. This is a fun band to write for and fun band to lean into this. I'm excited about it for the rest of the tour.

It was really cool watching you all and watching you all watch each other. It was an awesome thing, because you were in the audience and on the stage at the same time. I want to mention another thing about that whole experience. If you've never been to the Monterey Jazz Festival, I don't know what you're waiting for. You need to go. It’s special the way the fairgrounds are kind of compact there, but they've still created these great spaces to enjoy music. You can wander. It's not a big space to navigate. You can go from stage to stage and catch some of everything. The vendors are great. The vibe is fantastic. The volunteers are wonderful. I am never going to miss it ever again. Christian, I know you're no stranger to playing there, but I think that your role in this experience has grown. I want you to walk us through how you went from being a performer to being a totally immersed participant.

As I said, the first time was with Ben Williams. I can't remember what year that was, but we had such a great time. You hear about the Monterey Jazz Festival, but when you get there, it’s incredible. I think it was Chick Corea who was there that year. There was Kenny Garrett. It was the cats, right? All the people that you want to be around. It's the equivalent to, for basketball fans, the NBA All-Star game. Right where you are. Because the all-stars are there, especially pianists, like Benny Green, Fred Hersch, Cyrus Chestnut, Chick Corea, Danilo Perez and Herbie Hancock.

There's nothing else like it, especially after when they get off and they greet you and they're like, “Hey, so how was it?” You're like, “It was fantastic, it was amazing.” To watch these things is really incredible. Also, to be on the grounds and walk through different venues, since at the time I wasn't working as much, I got to hear a lot of different music like Esperanza Spalding with her group at that time. To watch people perform and to feel the energy in the space was absolutely amazing.

Then I came back with Christian McBride again, and it was the same thing. Now it's a different stage, a different animal with him and feeling that energy, feeling that love, feeling that hunger of the audience wanting us to perform. Then you also have the kids around too. The people that are younger. People that are just coming in too, because now I've passed that part.

I remember I was playing with Christian McBride in the trio. Playing in the center stage [by the main entrance to the festival] at the same time was James Francies. He was playing solo piano and it was his first time at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Watching that be his first time was incredible. Fast forward to where I'm immersed in everything because now I'm teaching, I'm the artist in residence, I’m the artistic director for the Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour, and I’m also teaching with the Next Generation Orchestra.

Now you’re seeing all these young kids that are 14, 15 years old that are definitely going to be at this festival later on. You hear it, you see it. Being a part of the Monterey Jazz Festival is an absolutely incredible.

Pat Prescott is a native of Hampton Virginia and a graduate of Northwestern University. After 5 years teaching middle school, she started her radio career in New Orleans, Louisiana at WYLD-FM. After a brief stint at New Orleans legendary rock station WNOE, she moved to New York to host the midday show at former heritage jazz station WRVR. During her 23 years on New York radio, Pat worked at WBLS, WLIB, The National Black News Network and contemporary jazz station CD 101.9.