Toronto sax player and big band leader Chelsea McBride takes her Socialist Night School circus on the road

There is strength in numbers.

But there is also a smaller paycheque.

It’s something that most travelling musicians know, which is why a solo act is often the choice for those seeking greater monetary rewards than, say, a duo, trio, quartet or, gasp!, a quintet.

Now imagine heading out on the road with a band that numbers 19 (or a neuftilliontet, pretty sure is what it’s called), imagine splitting that pie into slivers or crumbs.

It’s something that Vancouver-born, Toronto-based sax player, composer and educators Chelsea McBride is beginning to fully comprehend as she’s getting set to head out on a tour with her Socialist Night School — a big band that actually numbers 19 at including recording their acclaimed 2017 debut The Twilight Fall.

But now, finally, band leader McBride is taking the circus on the road across Canada for the first time.

She laughs. “It’s finally beginning to feel like a very real and very large project. It’s good, it is a little bit of circus, but how often do you get to take a big band across the country? How often do I get to do this? I’ve never done this before.”

One of those stops will be in Calgary Saturday, June 16 at Studio Bell as part of the JazzYYC Summer Festival, which runs June 14 to 17 at various locations around Calgary.

McBride will also participate in an afternoon panel on Women In Jazz on Sunday, June 17 at the Ironwood with Maya Rae, Melody Diachun, Michelle Gregoire and Kaely Cormack moderated by JazzYYC president Deb Rasmussen.

And while that, in itself, is a pretty great indication that there is a healthy female contingent in the jazz ranks in this country, McBride is something of an anomaly as a big band leader.

She admits it was never what she set out to do, but something that she was introduced to early in her musical life.

“I kind of fell into the big band thing, is sort of the best way to put it,” she says. “That was the place you stuck kids in high school who were into music and had a passing interest in jazz. So it wasn’t really the first medium of choice, but at a certain point it just became the thing I knew and the thing I was known for and good at. So I stuck with it.”

Stuck with it and began composing original material for it, finding it was the best way to bring to life her contemporary jazz vision.

She says that early incarnations were composed of “people that I could find in the halls of Humber (College) — somewhat literally walking into the hall and grabbing a musician and being like, ‘I need a flute today, are you free for the next couple of hours?’ ”

Now, though, it’s become what McBride calls “a nice little mix of seasoned pros and super young students.”

That, of course, includes the sax player and leader herself — her being seasoned, yes, and having graduated, but also still only 26, which in jazz years is, like, six.

To illustrate this point at the most perfect moment in the interview, McBride puts it on pause so she can order a Chicken McNuggets meal at the drive-thru.

“Yeah, I’m still kind of child,” she says and laughs again when confronted with her dietary choice.

It’s actually a common point that’s made about McBride and her work, with everything written about her including her age, one writer actually using the word “precocious” to describe the artist.

“I make a point of it,” she says. “I mean, I think it’s becoming more of a business decision as I go along, but, yeah, I’ve always made a point about the fact that I’m super young and doing this thing because a.) no one does it, and the crazier thing is that I’m not the only one, I’m just the one that some people happen to know about. There are big band leaders in Toronto that are younger than me that are playing music that is just imaginative and just as crazy, and you would never know unless you started digging.”

She continues. “It’s one of the coolest things to be a face for this scene that is slowly coming back. There is a revival of the big band and it’s not starting with the old guard, it’s starting with the young people.”

But, that said, McBride isn’t only about Socialist Night School — as a working jazz musician she knows she has to keep busy, keep involved in various aspects of the scene, keep chasing a paycheque while also satisfying herself musically, on an artistic level.

On top of the big band, she also has a jazz-pop sexted called Chelsea and the Cityscape, a straight-up jazz group and, wonderfully, an act called The Koopa Troop, which is a video game cover band where they dress up in Nintendo-themed costumes.

“Most of what I do is music that I’m really, really excited about and I’m really into … I play a lot of video games, so I’m in a video game band, and I used to play in a lot of big bands and now I run one,” she says.

“That’s how a lot of these projects came about was just being with people that I was excited about playing with and playing music that I’m super into.”

(Photos courtesy Evan Shay.)

Chelsea McBride’s Socialist Night School performs Saturday, June 16 at the National Music Centre’s Studio Bell as part of the JazzYYC Summer Festival. For tickets and more information please go to www.jazzyyc.com.

Mike Bell has been covering the Calgary music scene for the past 25 years with publications such as VOX, Fast Forward, the Calgary Sun and, most recently, the Calgary Herald. He is currently the music writer and content editor for theYYSCENE.com. Follow him on Twitter/@mrbell_23 or email him at mike@theyyscene.com. He likes beer. Buy him one.