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Bobby Watson

by Bob Bernotas

Originally done in 1991 and published in Windplayer.

Bobby Watson and I first worked together in The Keystone All Stars which included Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson, Mulgrew Miller, Lenny White, Jeff Chambers, Jerry Gonzalez, Bobby and me. We immediately found a rapport that has continued with him appearing in Bebop and Beyond 2000. (Pictures below) Along with trumpet great Jack Walrath, we have established a strong front line. Bobby has a wealth of experience as a sideman with Art Blakey and others and as a leader of a number of fine groups. He is one of my favorite players and individuals, a true original. I am very happy to present to you my very good friend... Bobby Watson.


"Art Blakey used to say, 'If you don't think you're a mother, nobody else will,'" alto saxophonist Bobby Watson recalls softly. A decade after leaving the late master drummer's Jazz Messengers, an unequaled incubator of nascent jazz talent for nearly four decades, Watson has earned respect within the jazz world as a sideman, a bandleader, and most of all, a clear-headed, influential figure in the modern mainstream of jazz. He is, in his own quiet, modest way, a "mother."

This thoughtful, soft-spoken native of Lawrence, Kansas, began his musical training on piano at the age of 10, and the next year joined his school band program. "I wanted the saxophone first," Watson rememberers, "because of my father, but he made me start clarinet. My father plays tenor. He didn't do it professionally, because his main profession was in aviation-he worked for the FAA and taught as a flight instructor for many years-but he also tuned pianos and repaired instruments. The only time I'd see him perform live would be in church. Otherwise he'd be in the house, practicing his licks and listening to Gene Ammons, sometimes."

Like so many jazz musicians, Watson is the most notable-and most persistent-member of the proverbial "musical family." His mother plays piano by ear and all five of his younger brothers played instruments in school, "but as we got out of high school, I was the only one that didn't quit. I knew I was going to be a musician. I didn't realize it was a jazz musician until later, but I knew I was going to play music. And I knew I wanted to perform and improvise." He stuck exclusively to the clarinet until his last year of junior high, then played tenor saxophone for a year before switching to alto in 1970.

At about that time he bought his first jazz records, a Charlie Parker album, "and then Clark Terry," he remembers, "because we saw some of his clinics back in the '70s. To me, he was the first one to be out there doing it. But for sure, Charlie Parker had a great influence on me, as well as a lot of the rhythm and blues players-Maceo [Parker], King Curtis, Junior Walker."
After high school, Watson spent two years in a junior college in Kansas City. He originally planned to enter to the jazz program at North Texas State, but a friend, guitarist Pat Metheny, was a student at the University of Miami and helped change his mind. "We were talking, and he told me that I should go to Miami. So I went down there to study composition for my final two years of undergrad, and I graduated with a music theory and composition degree."

Watson believes that it is unnecessary for an aspiring jazz musician to earn a formal degree in jazz performance. "You've got to do all the work yourself, ultimately," he maintains. "I could still attend the jazz classes. College in general is a great place, and if it has a good jazz program you can collect a lot of information. So if you're hungry to learn anyway, you just sort of use it. You don't have to have a jazz degree. I think it's a waste of time.

"I left Miami and went to New York in August of '76, and met Art Blakey in October of the year. I was sitting in around New York and Art always seeks out young cats. A friend of mine brought him and his wife down to a club called Storyville for his birthday-October 11-to have champagne. The next thing I know, he's up on the stage playing, and he pulled me in the back and asked me if I want to join the Jazz Messengers." Less than five months later, in January of 1977, Bobby Watson enrolled in Professor Blakey's exclusive and exacting graduate school of jazz.

In Watson's view, that often overlooked late '70s, pre-Marsalis brothers edition of the Messengers-featuring front-line mates Valery Ponomarev on trumpet and David Schnitter on tenor saxophone-"put Art back on the map. And then when [pianist] James Williams got there, we were together for a long time. We sort of helped bring the attention back into the Messengers. That was a very pivotal band for Art."

Ponomarev, who joined the group only a short time before Watson, shares his first impression of the young alto player. "I was amazed at how well he commanded the instrument already-he was still a young man at that time. Nevertheless, his command of the horn was incredible-his technique and sound and range. And of course, he could read music very well." Ponomarev also marveled at Watson's dedication. "He was really attracted to the instrument. All the time he was thinking in terms of his alto saxophone and practicing, and neglecting whatever free leisure time we had-always dedicated to his horn."
But, Watson realized, this was merely what any fresh-out-of-college player would have to do to pass the master's grueling, nightly tests. Was working under Blakey a demanding experience? "Yes," he responds quickly. "Musically, yes. And as a human being, also. You had to have a certain spirit to be around Art. "It was trial by fire. Either you could play or you couldn't, otherwise, `Next-'. A lot of guys couldn't deal with Art because they wanted to know, `How much am I making a week?' and `What is this and what is that?' They were a little too rigid in their thinking. To be around Art you had to have a lot of heart and courage because you're just taking a plunge into the unknown through music. The gigs come up and you just trust the music to take you wherever it is you're supposed to be. And not many people can deal like that."
It was a hot house to be sure, and Watson's artistry began to bloom. "He was already a well-schooled musician," Ponomarev notes. "He wrote very well, and of course he knew harmony and solfeggio and everything. But it was a totally new sphere of music, being with Art Blakey. Art, of course, is known for that. He would see the potential in a person, and he would help the person to disclose his potential to the utmost possibility, and that's what happened to Bobby. He was discovering talent within himself he was not really aware of."
In time, Watson, following in the footsteps of such notable ex-Blakey sidemen as Horace Silver, Benny Golson, and Wayne Shorter, was promoted to "musical director" of the Jazz Messengers. But by 1981, he was ready to leave the nest. "It was a mutual decision. He says, `You can fly,' so it's time to go."

Shortly after his departure from the Messengers, Watson toured with the George Coleman octet. The veteran saxophonist was delighted both with Watson's musical strength and his originality. "He's got power," Coleman observes, "and he's got a certain style of his own, as far as playing the horn. You know it's him. I see a bright future for him, and I think his career has blossomed in the last couple of years. He deserves the best-a fine young man."

After the gig with Coleman, Watson worked with drummer Louis Hayes and pianist Harold Mabern, among others, and put together his own band, Horizon. "I started rehearsing my group actually a week after I left the Messengers, and started getting gigs right away."

Watson's friend and one-time Jazz Messenger colleague, pianist James Williams, feels that since the saxophonist has been on his own, a sort of "quiet confidence" has infused his work. "I think his playing has matured tremendously," Williams observes. "Well, I saw leaps and bounds even during the period we were with the Messengers, but since that time there is a certain maturity. He now seems to realize that you don't have to prove everything every night on the bandstand."

Watson agrees that his playing is now more grounded, less frenetic than in the early Messenger days. "It's, maybe, gotten more relaxed. When you get more relaxed, a lot of things start to happen. Your sound can get fuller because you've relaxed on the embouchure, and allow the reed to vibrate more. And also, you can breathe better when you're relaxed. You don't get tired and you focus your energy and you pick your notes. Yeah, I'm playing fewer notes. I just find that I trust the guys around me more."

To Valery Ponomarev, the most significant aspect of Watson's recent work is the evolution of his sound. "He keeps working on articulation, he keeps working on sound, and on every aspect of playing the horn. It's like with anybody else, it never stops-it either goes down or goes up. And with Bobby, it goes further and further up. He was always swinging hard, but now it becomes more and more on the level of the greatest alto players there ever were in jazz music. His sound was always solid and very firm and definite, but now it has become fuller with more overtones to it-more precise, if you can say something like that about sound."

As the leader of a working band, Watson spends a great deal of his time of the road. "I tell him," Williams laughs, "`You're definitely one of Art Blakey's children, you're still on the road.' He's a road warrior. All of us, I guess, have some of that ingrained in us, which is good, because the one way you keep a band together is just keep them working."

Watson reflects on the difficulties of being a leader, "trying to keep a band together," he notes, "and keep the guys inspired, and remain honest with the guys. And the sidemen always have advice, but they don't ever do their own thing. So that's the hardest thing, to always have to hear advice from people who aren't doing it. Certain situations come up, like a situation may come up at the airport, and it's, `Why wasn't this taken care of?' or, `I would've done this.' Well, go ahead. I invite anyone to do it."

He also points out that musicians who become leaders can have difficulty getting work with other leaders. "Once people find out you're a leader, they don't hire you too much for sideman gigs because they figure you're always doing your own thing. They say, `Why even hire him? The minute I get used to him playing the music and then he gets a gig with his own band, he's going to do that,' because I have to. So it's a double-edged sword. But if you believe in it, I feel, in the long run it pays off. And I get tired of working for other people."

So he works for himself, as if any creative artist in a business controlled by pony tails and gold chains, six-figure salaries and two-digit IQ's, truly could be said to be working for himself. Still, Watson voices few complaints. "I think I get everything I deserve out of life" he believes. "I'm not one of those guys who says, `I should be doing this, I should be doing that.' So wherever I am, I deserve to be."
But all Watson he has to do is look around and see how many of his contemporaries have fallen through the cracks. Caught between the 80-year old "living legends" and the 25-year old "young lions," these "late-thirtysomethings" are neither young enough nor old enough to capture the attention of the recording conglomerates and the narrowly focused mass media that feeds off them. They are in danger of becoming jazz's "lost generation."

"People like Jack Walrath, Billy Pierce, James Williams, Steve Nelson," Watson explained, "there's so many cats that haven't gotten a chance to express themselves, that sort of got phased out right when they were at their peak. They had over a decade of experience working with different bandleaders, the apprenticeship that's supposed to be there. You know, there's a danger that you can destroy the whole apprenticeship thing, which is an ancient tradition-it goes back to Africa. We're talking a very dangerous situation. You can't destroy that balance between the young and the old.

"When I first got to New York, people of my generation looked up to people who were in their late '30s or early '40s. That was our goal, before Wynton [Marsalis], because Wynton changed everything. Then everybody else was trying to look for their own young phenomenon. And that's how the industry is, they copycat."

Williams agrees, arguing that the music business, and the record companies in particular, have placed undue responsibility-and pressure-on the newcomers. "It's very fashionable to go with a much more glitzy kind of thing," he observes, "and in rare cases it has some substance to it, too. By the same token, they're calling our generation a lost one, but it's really not. I think it's going to be that generation that they're putting that emphasis on, because if they don't happen to sell records for those major record companies, they're going to be dropped.
"Then they're going to end up being 28 and 30 years old, and not having had the experience of playing with a great leader. They won't know which way to go, because they feel like going and playing a sideman gig would be a step or two down. And [the record companies] will be looking for some more 22-year olds to market."

And so, the right kind of handling by a record label can be crucial. "I'm just hoping that Blue Note [Watson's current label] will realize what they have in a talent like Bobby," Williams cautions, "that they really give him the financial backing and the marketing that he not only needs, but deserves. That's the difference between what's been done with Wynton, as opposed to some other musicians that are probably and actually-and I don't mind saying it on record-more seasoned, better and more natural musicians.
"Probably Bobby makes most of his records in three days or two days, just like most of us do. Whereas in Wynton's case with CBS, he has seven days-that's not counting mixing-and if he wants to go in longer, fine. And so, he can do 20 takes on a tune, which really, I think, is in poor taste for a jazz album. Naturally, it sounds like a so-called Grammy Award-winner when you can go in there and `Punch-and-Judy' like that. But it teaches a different kind of discipline to be able to say, `Well look, we're on a time limit, we're on a budget limit, and so we have to go in here and do this.'"

But Watson is not pessimistic. Maybe, he hopes, his experience and leadership can have an impact on the young phenoms. "I believe that I can influence them another way with the music, because the music that I'm doing is strong and it's real and it's honest. And then, you never know, that may start a trend for honesty, for a while, and make everybody bear down. It would be better for everybody."
One thing that Watson advises aspiring players to do is to get out and listen to the music and to spend time with other musicians. "One of the most important things you have to remember in jazz is that it's a social art, too. Hanging out is very important, so I think a lot of guys make the mistake of not hanging out in clubs. I was hanging out the night I met Art Blakey, and I was hanging out the night I got the gigs with George Coleman and Louis Hayes and many other gigs. Hanging out keeps you in there-you make contacts and you work. You sit around, there's a lot of BSin', too, but it's very important."

He also feels that some players fail to take full advantage of their musical opportunities. "A lot of guys go through a lot of stuff to get a gig, but once they do get the gig," he lamented, "they're complaining, `Oh, this ain't right, that ain't right.' Then the gig is over, and they may have missed a chance to give up something musically. So I think whenever you get a chance to get a gig, you should always play like there's no tomorrow. If you can't come off the stage and give yourself an `A' for effort, then something's wrong. Even if you didn't like what you played, at least you tried."

When asked about the mistakes he has made in his own career, Watson's answer seems a bit surprising. "Sometimes I'm too nice to people, and I'd like to be a little more firm." Too nice to whom? Record companies, club owners, other musicians? "All of the above," the mild-manner saxophonist replies, "at different times. You have to think about what you need. Nobody looks around and says, `Oh, Bobby's a good old chum, let's give him an extra boom, boom, boom.' You have to look out for yourself. That's part of being an artist, knowing your worth.

"At the same time," he emphasizes, "I have a mission to prove that you can be nicer, and still make it. There's nothing wrong with being nice-you can still be a human being. You know, bringing people into your world is very important."
* * *
In 1992, Bobby Watson signed with CBS-Sony, which records Wynton Marsalis. He made three albums for its Columbia label, the second of which, 1993's Tailor Made, premiered his 17-piece big band, but was dropped from its artist roster in 1995. Since then, he has recorded for a tiny independent, Kokopelli, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Watson continues to perform with Horizon, formed an electronic, fusion-oriented group, Urban Renewal, and in 1997, began reviving his Tailor Made big band.



© Bob Bernotas, 1991; revised 1999. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Color Photos by Lenny Bernstein

Black and White photos by Will Gamble and Hillary Turner

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