Interview: JazzU alumni Christian McGhee on his award-winning score for, “The King and the Pawn”

Christian McGee at the drums

Jazz St. Louis is very proud of JazzU alumni Christian McGhee (2011-2017) who scored the original music for the short film, “The King and the Pawn,” which was just awarded Best Childrens Short, by the Los Angeles International Film Festival. The film is also a being featured at the St. Louis Filmmaker’s Showcase. He is currently a rising senior at the Manhattan School of Music where he received a full scholarship. Gene Dobbs Bradford caught up with him to ask a few questions.

Gene: So, tell me a little about the film?

Christian: The film was about a young, African-American kid and how he connects to his father through chess. It’s a heartwarming story. His dad was always working, but then they found a common love of chess, and they’re really able to connect and build a strong bond. It’s just mainly about the father and son bond and how the love of chess passes down through generations.

Gene: How did you come to be involved in the film?

Christian: Caleb Blue – he’s from Illinois, but he comes over to St. Louis often, had asked me to do the music for the film. He had storyboarded the whole thing, so he had everything planned out. This was senior project for Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta, Georgia.

Gene: That’s wonderful. So how did you develop this skill for film scoring?

Christian: I’ve always, kind of been into it because Terence Blanchard always came to St. Louis and he’s definitely one of my bigger inspirations. So it’s, like, seeing him come in. I’m like, “Oh, he’s doing film scoring.” And then I knew he did the opera, and he was the writer and composer. So, I always looked up to him and was inspired by him, and I always just loved going to going to movies.

When I got to Manhattan School of Music, I ended up taking some film scoring classes.  That’s where I really dipped my toe in the water. (laughs) Yeah, so I took about two years’ worth of film scoring classes at Manhattan School of Music, and some of it was audited because the teacher was just like, “oh, yeah, you seem to really be loving this, so I’ll definitely let you just come in sit in.”

I ended up scoring short films for students that went to Columbia University, that was our final project, we went through the whole process of working with the filmmaker.

I’ve done a lot of self-study. But, yeah, I’ve really been inspired by a lot of different composers like Terence. Then going to the Manhattan School of Music and being exposed – being able to take classes on it as well. I even took a class on writing for orchestra, and I was able to have a piece played by an orchestra, too. It was in-depth.

Gene: Cool. So, other than school and film scoring, what are you doing in, in New York?

Christian: With Coronavirus, gigs are not as frequent, but last summer, I went on tour with this vibraphonist, Sasha Berliner. She won this competition, and then we ended up playing at SF Jazz, the Blue Note, Montrose Jazz Festival, DC Jazz Fest, and Rochester Jazz Festival. Then we went to Canada and played the Montreal Jazz Festival. That was great. I was planning to tour, again this summer or do some more festival gigs, like Joshua Redman ended up calling me to play two gigs with him at the DC Jazz Fest.

Gene: Oh, wow.

Christian: And that was in June. Um, but, yeah, it got canceled ’cause of Corona. But I, I think he’ll call me for some others in the future.

Gene: Wow. Could you imagine? You know, could you imagine? (laughs) you see him, you see him on the Jazz St. Louis stage, and say, “Wow. Those guys are great,” and now he’s calling you up, right? (Christian laughs) Do you think that your time in Jazz U has, has helped you to get to where you are today?

Christian: Oh, definitely. Definitely. I don’t even know could’ve gotten to New York and done everything without all of you guys.  Yeah, you really helped me so much. The weekly practice, the weekly rehearsals, the teachers that really care about the students, and they’re really investing in the students.

I mean, just everything. I feel like JazzU was, like, one of the best education programs. The teachers are great and they can play.

When I’m talking to my friends, they’re like, “Yeah. We didn’t have any education programs, where we’re from.” Or, it’s you know, “It’s very expensive to get tickets to the shows.” Or, “We don’t, you know, we don’t get those type of acts that Jazz St. Louis has or those type of artists.” You guys, like, book international artists that are the best. Everybody I’ve met through the Jazz U program, like all the artists, like Obed or Sean Jones or Terence- those are people I see somewhat often in New York. They’ll be playing a show. They’ll still remember me from when I was, like (laughs) when I was 12.

So, all those relationships built from there, you know? All those people I met in St. Louis are the same artists I’ll see in New York or see on tour. So, yeah, you guys really helped me build a whole community of people who know me and then support me and will mix with me. Thank you guys so much. (laughs)

Gene: Well, we just, we just opened the door for you. You did all the work, so, you’ve got a lot to be proud of.

Christian: Thank you