McBee was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on 19 May 1935. He studied clarinet at school, but switched to bass at the age of 17, and began playing in local nightclubs. After gaining a music degree from Ohio Central State University, he spent two years in the army, during which time he conducted the band at Fort Knox. In 1959 he played with Dinah Washington, and in 1962 he moved to Detroit, where he worked with Paul Winter's folk-rock ensemble from 1963-1964. His jazz career began in earnest in the mid-1960s, after he moved to New York, when he began playing and recording with a number of significant musicians including Miles Davis, Andrew Hill, Sam Rivers, Jackie McLean (1964), Wayne Shorter (1965-66), Charles Lloyd (1966), Yusef Lateef (1967-69), Keith Jarrett, Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw (1986), and Alice Coltrane (1969-1972).
He established his own group in 1975, and has made a number of recordings under his own name, but is best known for his work as a sideman; he continues to be in high demand, and has gone on to work with Chico Freeman, Freddie Hubbard, Grachan Moncur III, Bobby Hutcherson, Charles Tolliver, Pharoah Sanders, Lonnie Liston Smith, Sonny Rollins, Michael White, Joanne Brackeen, Horace Tapscott, Anthony Braxton, Abdullah Ibrahim, Buddy Tate and Harry Sweets Edison. In addition, he teaches at the New England Conservatory in Boston, Massachusetts.
McBee is often ranked with bassists of the calibre of Jimmy Blanton, Charles Mingus, and Oscar Pettiford, and has played on some of the most highly regarded jazz recordings of the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s.
Pharoah Sanders/David Murray/McCoy Tyner/Cecil McBee/Roy Haynes, Blues for Coltrane: A Tribute to John Coltrane (MCA, 1987) Winner, Best instrumental performance, individual or group, Grammy Awards, 1988.
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