James McBride's bestselling memoir, The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother, explores the author's struggle to understand his biracial identity and the experience of his white, Jewish mother, who moved to Harlem, married a black man, and raised 12 children. Readers may not know that the multitalented McBride has another dual identity: He's trained as a musician and a writer and has been highly successful in both careers.
After getting his master's degree in journalism from Columbia University at the age of 22, he began a career in journalism that would include stints as staff writer at the Boston Globe, People magazine, and The Washington Post. But McBride also loved writing and performing music, and at age 30, he quit his job as a feature writer at The Washington Post to pursue a music career in New York. After Anita Baker recorded a song he'd written, "Good Enough," McBride had enough contacts in the industry to spend the next eight years as a professional musician, writing, recording, and performing (he plays the saxophone).
He was playing tenor sax for jazz singer Little Jimmy Scott while he wrote The Color of Water "on airplanes and in hotels." Like the jazz music McBride plays, the book alternates voices, trading off between McBride's perspective and that of his mother. The Color of Water was a worldwide success, selling millions of copies and drawing high praise from book critics. "This moving and unforgettable memoir needs to be read by people of all colors and faiths," wrote Publishers Weekly. It now appears on reading lists at high schools and colleges around the country.
After the enormous success of The Color of Water, McBride felt some pressure to continue writing memoirs, or at least to continue with the theme of race relations in America. Instead, he turned to fiction, and although his second book draws part of its inspiration from family history, it isn't autobiographical. "My initial aim was to write a novel about a group of black soldiers who liberate a concentration camp in Eastern Europe," McBride explains on his web site. "I read lots of books and spent a lot of time researching the subject but soon came to the realization that I'm not qualified to write about the holocaust. It's too much." Instead, he recalled the war stories of his uncle and cousin, who served in the all-black 92nd Infantry Division, and began researching World War II in Italy -- particularly the clashes between Italian Partisans and the German army.
The resulting novel, Miracle at St. Anna, is "an intricate mosaic of narratives that ultimately becomes about betrayal and the complex moral landscape of war" (The New York Times Book Review) and has earned high marks from critics for its nuanced portrayal of four Buffalo Soldiers and the Italian villagers they encounter. McBride, perhaps not surprisingly, likens writing fiction to playing jazz: "You are the soloist and the characters are the bandleaders, the Duke Ellingtons and Count Basies. They present the song, and you must play it as they determine."
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McBride has written songs for Anita Baker, Grover Washington Jr., Gary Burton, and the PBS television character Barney. He has also written the score for several musicals and currently leads a 12-piece jazz/R&B band.
One of his most taxing assignments as a journalist was to cover Michael Jackson's 1984 Victory Tour for six months. "I thought I was going to lose my mind," he told USA Today.
For a book fair, he performed with the Rock Bottom Remainders, a rock band made up of writers including Amy Tan, Mitch Albom, Stephen King, Dave Barry, and Ridley Pearson.
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