MusicMusic Features

Howard McNair’s Improvisational Jazz Has Roots in Gospel

Debut album borrows from musician's past

a portrait of jazz musician Howard McNair on keys.
Howard McNair rehearses for his album release show. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Sitting behind his keyboard, Howard McNair counted in his band members to kick off rehearsal at The Playroom. The snap of drums came, followed by the strum of guitar, and then the rest of the group joined in. They easily slid into a jubilant, upbeat song which immediately had toes tapping and heads bobbing.

He may not have looked like your typical jazz musician at that moment, in a black baseball cap and black-and-white Jordan 11 Retros, but McNair was in fully his element as he kicked off that rehearsal at The Playroom.

On July 7, McNair would celebrate the release of his debut album, Hear Me Out, with a show at Middle C Jazz that doubled as a birthday party, as he would turn 40 years old three days later. As he tells it, all 40 years were spent playing jazz. 

“I don’t remember not playing,” he said. “Music has been a part of my life all my life.”

Speaking before the rehearsal, I got the chance to talk to McNair, who performs as Howard B Thy Name 7, about his lifelong love of music and where he hopes to take it as he drops his new project. 

The art of playing by ear

Growing up in the rural town of Goldsboro, McNair didn’t have many options for hobbies outside of sports or church. His family was heavily involved in the latter, so that’s where he spent a lot of his time. And in the Black church, music and praise go hand-in-hand. 

“Everybody went to church,” he said. “Everybody played something.”

His father was a preacher who played a few instruments and sang, as did his mother, while his sister directed the choir. In fact, it was his mother who introduced him to the instrument he still sits behind today. 

“She’s the first musician I’ve ever heard, and she showed me around the piano, and the rest is history,” he said. 

McNair started playing instruments at a young age — drums at the age of 2 and keyboard at 9. While church is where he developed a love for music in general, he grew to appreciate all forms of music.

While his dad was strictly a church guy, his mom had a more diverse taste, which she shared with her son. 

“She started taking me to hear symphonies and ballets,” recalled McNair. “I remember going to The Nutcracker and things like that when I was a kid. I remember hearing Herbie Hancock play when I was about maybe 6 or 7, and it was just an awakening.” 

Because of his religious upbringing, he couldn’t exactly dive into secular music the way he wanted to. He recalled sometimes sneaking to listen at times when his father wasn’t around.

His passion for all music never faltered, however. In high school, he started playing trombone for a jazz band and fell in love with the genre. 

“That was pretty much it,” he said. “I didn’t just want to be just a church guy. I wanted to explore all kinds of music.”

And he did. Listening to secular music allowed him to develop an eclectic taste in music that ranges from rap group NWA to Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. 

He leans heavily toward jazz and blues music, but despite his decades-long effort to branch out from the church music he started with, gospel still holds a special place in his heart. 

Read More: Charlotte Jazz Scene Attracting Bigger Names with Continued Growth

“The gospel that I grew up on, my mom had records, and my grandmother had records, and they would just play the records; I would come home from school and sit on the piano and just try to play whatever I heard,” he recalled. “I would sit for hours and just listen to the radio and try to play whatever song came on the radio.”

McNair’s mother taught him to play by ear, as is usually done in the church. He never learned to read piano sheet music until he attended North Carolina A&T University, where he earned his degree in General Music. 

“Growing up in church, you really train,” he continued. “In my opinion, I feel like church musicians are the best musicians because the ear training that we have is just second to none.”

a portrait of the band rehearsing McNair's album 'Hear Me Out' at The Playroom in Charlotte
McNair and his band rehearsing at The Playroom. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

In school, his peers could all read sheet music, but they couldn’t play by ear. 

“I was hearing things that they didn’t hear, but they could read what I couldn’t read,” he said. “So school taught me that I was playing all the stuff, but school taught me how to read it and recognize it and prepare and be professional and that type of thing. So I didn’t feel like I was at a disadvantage, but it was just once I put the pieces of the puzzle together with reading and playing by ear, it opened everything up.

“And then from that, I developed my own sound.”

The gifts of gospel roots

McNair’s roots in gospel helped prepare him for a life in jazz, where the ability to improvise trumps all. 

“I feel like jazz is the most expressive music,” he told me. “Between jazz and gospel, it’s the most expressive because the spirit of improvisation is all in it, where I’m not structured to what’s on the page. I can go beyond that. You’ll hear some of that today if you stick around for rehearsal.”

At The Playroom on the afternoon we met, McNair rehearsed with his band: lead guitarist Carmelo Smith; bass guitarist Elliott Foster; saxophonist Marcus Jones; drummer Brian House; background vocalists Jade Spratling, Emmanuel Thomas, and Jae Nelson; and lead vocalists Jay D Jones and Tyra Scott. 

While rehearsing the soulful, funky song “Change the World” at The Playroom, McNair asked the vocalists to add some harmonious ad-libs to the chorus.

Without missing a beat, the vocalists complied, to a magical result. In another moment, he asked that they all change the key to G mid-song, and after a brief moment of confusion, the players got back on the same non-existent page. 

Drawing influences from his many musical tastes, McNair can’t pinpoint his exact style of jazz, insisting that he’s reluctant to try because he doesn’t want to be pigeonholed.

Howard McNair directs his band at The Playroom during a rehearsal. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

“I will describe my style of jazz as whatever feels good,” he said. “Sometimes the word jazz boxes in because everyone has their opinion of what jazz should be. But my music, much like jazz, evolves. It changes based on my mood.”

He described some of the songs on his album as “vibe-y, warm, and chill” while describing another particular track, “Black Queen,” as a different experience altogether. 

“I just thought, a lot of times, men, we don’t ever do anything to appreciate our sisters,” he said. “It’s no knock to anybody. It’s a piece where it contains spoken word, and there’s some vocals on there. My ancestors are Liberian, so it’s [a bit] of Liberian language on there. It’s jazz, but it’s a piece that’s going to make you think.”

At the heart of it all, McNair just wants to use his music to make people feel the way great music makes him feel. 

“I just want people to feel good,” he said. “I want people to remember their experience, and I want them to feel good.”

As he bobbed his head and smiled eagerly while playing his keyboard at rehearsal, he exuded a joy so infectious that everyone in the room was hard-pressed not to catch it. 

If you’re willing to hear him out, there’s a great chance you’ll catch it too. 

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