3 Recordings and Moving Forward as a Jazz Saxophonist

with Bobby Watson

Date Posted: October 13, 2021

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Interview conducted October 2021

VandorenUSA: Looking back for a minute, what was the NY scene like when you were coming up?

BW- Well I got to New York in August of 1977 - 45 years ago! I came up from Miami and when I got to New York I started to meet the cats. People like Billy Higgins and Rollin Trance and all kinds of folks. And the first thing they told me was “Man, you sure missed it, you missed the good days.” And I'm like, wow, but the scene was still happening you know. And the main thing that I can say, is that us young musicians, we made sure we stayed up under our elders, and the older musicians. And if we would get gigs, we would make sure to get some of them on our gigs, and to do gigs with us. People like Slide Hampton, Harold Mabern, Kirk Lightsey, John Hicks, Woody Shaw and Art Blakey to name a few. We would ask them to do gigs with us and they would do it, and that would help us get our foot in the door with places like the Vanguard and all the clubs around town.

I don’t see this happening too much now. I don’t even know if it as necessary as it was then. But it was a real apprenticeship situation going on, being around all the older cats – Frank Foster, George Coleman, Louis Hayes. So, they helped us establish ourselves and took us in. It was like that kind of progression.

And then you stayed in New York for the whole time?

BW: I was in NY for 25 years. I moved back to Kansas City in 2000 when I got the endowed position as UMKC Director of Jazz Endowed Professor. During that time, I got tenure and we did a lot of great things with the band. We went to Europe, Japan, and we won several awards at different festivals – Elmhurst Jazz Festival, Notre Dame, and the one at North Texas State.

We made a great record “The Gates BBQ Suite”, went to #4 on the Jazz airplay charts in 2013.

You retired in 2020, what made you step back from UMKC?

BW: 20 years. I kind of had a 20-year plan, in my head because I knew I wasn’t going to stay there until the end. I said at 20 years I’ll evaluate and see where I'm at and see how I feel and maybe put in another 5 or so.

I wanted to go back to full-time writing and playing, being selfish and thinking about what I want to do. Teaching takes a lot of energy. I would lay up at night thinking about the students, trying to decide how to approach the student in a productive way that will help them. I don’t teach a cookie cutter syllabus. My syllabi are more organic and tailored to each student’s needs because everybody is at different level, with different strengths and weaknesses. That takes a lot of energy.

And, I felt that It was time for new blood. Now, Carl Allen is in the position I held there. He is going to do a great job. It was a big weight lifted off my soul, to be able to get up and have my day back, to practice when I want, write when I want. Now I say that every day is like Saturday!

You released an album in 2019, ‘Bird at 100’ and another in 2020, ‘Keepin’ It Real’, as well as the ‘Gates BBQ Suite’. Wow! You are hard at work, tell us something about each of these great albums.

Gates BBQ Suite

BW: Ollie Gates, who is the patriarch of Gates B-B-Que, and his father George Gates, started the whole franchise. Mr. Gates is a huge supporter of jazz. He used to have a jazz club as well, and his dad played a little saxophone. I told him that I wanted to write a piece for him and that I wanted to call it the Gates Bar-B-Q Suite. I also told him that my wife and I would take our kids on a cross-country drive from New York every year to visit our K.C. family for the summer after the kids got out of school. Once we arrived in Kansas City, our first stop would always be Gates. As adults, that tradition continues whenever either/both of our kids comes home to visit. On the way home from the airport, the first stop is always GATES! Also, my grandmother and grandfather had a B-B-Q place called Wilkes’ B-B-Q, so I grew up around smoked meat. So, Gates B-B Que and my grandpa and grandma Wilkes were the inspirations behind that album.

During the pandemic, I hooked up with this company out of France called Diggers Factory that will put out a limited addition of your work. Nicholas Payton turned me on to it. If you own the master and send them the artwork, they will have it re-mastered and put out a limited number of LPs. We released 100 limited edition LPs of the Gates BBQ Suite last year. They sold out. That record represented probably the best band I had while at UMKC.

Listen to Gates BBQ Suite here

Bird at 100

BW: 2019 album, was actually released by Smoke Sessions, out of New York. That was a Vincent Herring project. He asked me and Gary Bart to do this tribute to Bird at 100. We recently did a couple of gigs, finally. We had several gigs lined up before the lockdown, celebrating the centennial of Charlie Parker… Bird at 100. So, we were all gearing up to do all kinds of gigs that year. That project together, as well as our own personal gigs, you know. Being from Kansas City, playing alto, I mean, it’s a perfect storm, that Bird at 100 year. I had all kind of gigs lines up, playing Charlie Parker’s music with big bands and some orchestras… all kinds of stuff! Then in March, around St. Patrick’s Day of that year, that’s when things just shut down and gigs started going away. And we were still celebrating the 100th year of Art Blakey. And so we had a lot of Messenger Legacy gigs with Ralph Peterson, God rest his soul. Then the rest of the year just dissipated. Didn’t have to use my date book that year!

Listen to Bird at 100 here

Keepin’ it Real

BW: We recorded that one in February of 2020 in New York. About a month before the lockdown. So that was amazing, we got that in just under the wire! But the unfortunate part about it is that it came out in June 2020 and went to #1 for about a month and we couldn’t do no gigs! Keepin’ It Real is like my personal statement, we recorded it and I hope people listen to it. I’m very proud of it. It introduces my new band, New Horizons.

Listen to Keepin' it Real here

"...that thought of playing ‘that inner song you were born with’ becomes essential to your reason for playing." - Bobby Watson

What was your life like during Covid? Do you think we’re coming out of it?

BW: The good thing about the lockdown was I had a chance to do a lot of self-internal things, a lot of listening, writing, and arranging. I think I have enough for a big band album now. I did about new 5 charts and arrangements for big band. Also, I got in touch with a lot of folks that were hard to catch because we were all busy working and travelling around. I got closer with Charles McPherson and George Coleman, a lot more of my friends and heroes. It was nice, that part.

Little by little I got my shot, Pam, and I (my wife), got the Moderna. I was anti vaccine at first, but I listened to both sides. Everyone knew the vaccine was coming, I was able to go 360 on the whole idea of it. So, it was good. I have to say though that 2020 put a dent in our financial situation, as it did for most of us. Luckily in 2019 I was still on salary at UMKC because my retirement was not official until Sept. 2020. They hired me back part time for last year teaching 3 classes by Zoom. I thank God that I still had my university income through all of last year. That was a blessing!

During the lockdown I did a lot of Zoom masterclasses. It was like I was travelling all over the country from my basement…I could just go downstairs and get to my laptop. I came to appreciate that option because I was able to invite a lot of ‘special guests’ to spend time with my students during that lockdown. I had Joe Lovano, Vincent Herring, Branford Marsalis, Charles McPherson, Curtis Lundy, Nicholas Payton, James Carter, and Donald Harrison – all kinds of cats!

We didn’t have to fly them in or find lodging, and they still got paid! That was a nice little financial band aid. But with jazz…, and all kinds of music actually! The best teaching scenario is in person, hands-on. There is no substitute for that.

Bobby, tell us about your setup over the years. What are your thoughts on equipment?

BW: I worked a lot on my embouchure and experimented a lot with mouthpieces. I started off with different Vandoren mouthpieces like 5,6,7 (V16 mouthpieces). Because I was playing on an 8S+ and with a 3.5 JAVA Green. When I came out of the lockdown, I was playing a 5S+ with a 2.5. I went down a whole reed strength and then I started moving around. Right now I'm back up to my 8S+ and a 2.5 JAVA Green.

It was nice to go through, experiment, re-evaluate and learn to play with a softer setup. I didn’t realize that I was making myself work too hard, that I can still get a good sound with a nice easy setup with softer reeds. I learned that from Charles McPherson… he’s the one who convinced me to come down on reed strength.

So, what’s next for you? Are you wanting to take more of that album on the road? You mentioned some big band charts you’re working on.

BW: Absolutely. I would like to tour the ‘Keepin’ It Real’ album! Curtis Lundy and I have some gigs down south, in Atlanta, Alabama, Nashville, Memphis, that are coming up at the end of Oct- first week of November. And hopefully, back on the east coast, doing the Tru Blue Festival in Delaware, as well as performances in Philadelphia and Baltimore.

I’ve also got these big band charts. I'm looking for the opportunity to get them recorded in New York. Also, there are some collaborations brewing in Europe, Spain, Italy… things like that. Hopefully by next year things will be happening. I just want to do more of what I do, which is to go out and play and make people feel good.

Any other closing thoughts/reflections about being a musician?

BW: I'm 68 now, I’ve just been listening to myself a lot while I practice, and the way I practice. I’ll find something that gives me a challenge so, I'm making my own technique book that’s geared toward me, the things that I need to work on. I’ll maybe record ideas on the voice memo on my phone, go back and write it down. I’ve been doing that for a long time, especially during the lockdown. I was able to get into that. I am trying to get more into my self-expression and melody when I'm improvising. The technique of the players out there today is incredible. They’re playing the saxophone at a very high level. But what I don’t hear is individuality and the expression.

I’ve been very blessed to have my own sound,…when people hear me they know it’s me. I’ve been working on playing what I’ve been hearing my whole life and trying to get that to come out. I can play as fast as I need, I don’t need to play any faster. I'm into that, I can do that. Even though the young players are incredible and playing at such a high level, I don’t remember anything they play. That’s one step, to being memorable. When they hear me, they recognize my sound and I leave them with something that they can remember. That’s what’s most important to me. I love who I am, I love my sound, and this is how I'm going to do it. If you don’t like it, you just don’t like it. Some people like it, some people don’t, I really don’t care. Take it or leave it, you know.

At a certain point, the older you get, that thought of playing ‘that inner song you were born with’ becomes essential to your reason for playing. That ‘knowing’ comes out in your playing,… that kind of ‘take or leave it’ type of playing. I'm not worried about letting people know that I can play a lot of notes. I have records with me doing that, playing with different types of groups, whatever style,… I have a body of work, I’ve done that now. This is the stage of my life where I'm thinking more poetic.

Where can people get your CDs and records?

BW: You can find most of them, all digital and physical. Mainly now it’s digital downloads. I think you can go to Smoke Sessions website to get my Smoke Sessions recordings. Listen to “Made in America” here.

I also have an album I did of the 50th anniversary of the march on Washington, it’s called Check Cashing Day. Listen here.

You can find me at bobbywatson.com. I’m also on Facebook and Instagram.

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