James McBride studied composition at The Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio and received a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. He was a staff writer for The Boston Globe, People Magazine, and The Washington Post. His works include the memoir The Color of Water, the biography Kill 'Em and Leave, and two novels entitled Miracle at St. Anna and Song Yet Sung. He wrote the screenplay for Miracle at St. Anna when it was made into a movie in 2008. He won the National Book Award for The Good Lord Bird.
He is a saxophonist and former sideman for jazz legend Jimmy Scott. He has written songs for Anita Baker, Grover Washington Jr., Gary Burton, and Barney, the PBS television character. He received the Stephen Sondheim Award and the Richard Rodgers Foundation Horizon Award for his musical Bo-Bos co-written with playwright Ed Shockley. In 2005, he published the first volume of a CD-based documentary about life as lived by low-profile jazz musicians entitled The Process. He is currently a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University.