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  • Writer's pictureJAM

Bobby Watson, Jazz Messenger

Updated: Jul 2, 2020

by Joe Dimino & David Basse 

“Retirement, for me, will just be more touring. Doing more of what I was up to, before I landed in Kansas City. More writing, more practicing, more listening, more studying, more traveling and just getting back to where I was before. Getting ready to fly again.”

Bobby Watson 2020

You probably know by now that 2020 is the 100th Birthday of Charlie Parker. Here is Kansas City, there have been 5 years of events leading up to this moment. Then there was the Pandemic, and we all had a chance to settle in at home. But some of us have been moving so fast for so long, that settling in is not an option.

Take saxophonist Bobby Watson. The Smoke Sessions album, Bird At 100, began 2020 by topping the jazz charts. With such a powerful line-up, and the music of Charlie “Bird” Parker, this album had to be a fun to make. Recorded with Vincent Herring and Gary Bartz, Bobby Watson, hit it and has not stopped for long since. Bobby spoke with JAM magazine’s Joe Dimino in February, about where “it” was then.

Talk to me about Bird at 100.

It was fun to record this live album with 2 other alto players and I learned a lot, being around these guys. Especially Mr. Bartz as he turns 80. That's amazing! 

What does it mean to you, to honor the Patron Saint of Jazz, Charlie Parker, here in his home and yours Kansas City?

The stars line up, you know. Bird at 100 is a once in a lifetime event. As I have been saying the past couple of years, it's a very blessed and fortunate time to play the alto saxophone and to be from Kansas City. I'm so happy to be a part of this celebration in so many ways. 

Do you have an upcoming tour in the US and in Europe for the album, Bird at 100?

Well, once again, if the stars line up, we will be going to Poland!

The Polish musicians were here during the first week of February. We have made plans to go there with Vincent Herring and the band for a concert. The celebration will continue in August around the birthday of Bird. There is a concert scheduled in Buffalo, NY on August 29th, during their Charlie Parker Festival, and hopefully a concert at The Folly Theater, here in Kansas City, this November, in conjunction with the American Jazz Museum. 

What are your thoughts on your 20-year tenure at UMKC?

It's been quite a ride being at UMKC. An incredible experience that changed my life in many ways. I have grown as a musician, able to access any type of music I’ve wanted to explore, the repertoire I have always wanted play.

The band presented the music of Oliver Nelson, Duke Ellington, Frank Foster and Jimmy Heath. We were able to bring in important living artists such as, Cuban saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera, and world class trumpeters Jon Faddis, Nicholas Payton and Sean Jones.

Kenny Drew Jr. came to Kansas City from his home in Florida as part of the program, (right before his untimely passing). Alumnus of Art Blakey’s Messengers, Curtis Fuller and Benny Golson honored us with their presence. And there was the legendary rhythm section players, Ron Carter and Joe Chambers, all part of the program.

Watching students grow as people, and as musicians is a thrill for me. Many of them have families now and most are still playing, or they are teaching at major universities. Nate Jorgensen is at the University of New Hampshire and Michael Shults is at the University of Memphis.

There was a positive learning environment created by my actions and the way I dealt with the musicians. I treated them as adults and professionals, not as students. I told them that the big band was mine. It was not a class. It was Bobby Watson's Big Band. Otherwise known as the Concert Jazz Band 303. In reality, they were in my band and I treated them as professionals. We had the chance to travel to Japan, Europe and all across the country.

Then there was having that band there. It was right. We made it to number 2 on the Jazz Week charts with our recording The Gates BBQ Suite. The other day, I was trying to make a list of all of students and, even I couldn't name them all . . . there are so many, it's overwhelming!

The thing is, I didn't do this by myself. I set the tone for the department and the environment that the students would have to work in. I would challenge them to get that flavor by using my experience and sharing that with them in a real-life manner. Then, we had a very supportive administration. Co-Director Dan Thomas was my right-hand man through the years, recruiting and remodeling the curriculum.

We had a very supportive faculty. Folks like Bob Bowman, Todd Strait, Gerald Spaits, Stanton Kessler, Roger Wilder and Marcus Lewis were all there. In the beginning we had saxophonist Horace Washington and drummer Mike Warren.

What are you going to miss the most?

Walking into work and hearing all of the music being played in the practice rooms in the morning! Some mornings you may not feel so up, but you walk in and say, “What could be better than this?” It's raining cats and dogs outside, it's 10 o'clock in the morning and we are getting ready to talk about some music. I hear all the students in there practicing. A big cacophony of sound. Man, I'm gonna miss that! I was up there today (2-24-20) teaching private lessons all day and the time just flew by. It's great doing something you love. 

Kansas City has become a Destination City. It used to be a springboard. What do you think about that?

I agree with that. The older jazz community readily embraced these younger cats, they have been feeding off of their energy. I think they have inspired the older ones to create, because the younger ones have that energy. They are eager to learn and cut their teeth and get that experience.

So, these musicians and their energy have really fueled a whole renaissance here in Kansas City. Most of the guys that came here from out of town ended up staying. Kansas City is a great place to live and there is a whole lot going on here.

It is a destination city. I believe there will be some musicians from the east coast that will be moving out this way, because of the scene and the openness of the musicians here. The cost of living is so good. Students can live well here. It's been wonderful. It's beyond my wildest expectations. 

You are leaving the program in good hands with Trombonist Mitch Butler. Certainly, this tradition will continue. 

Oh yes. He came in here from South Carolina. Yeah, people are coming here. We have people like Dominique Sanders producing in the R & B and Hip-Hop worlds, as well as jazz.  He's in California and now he's in South Africa working on a big project. Herman Mehari resides in France for a good portion of the year and comes back and forth.

It's just incredible to see. I feel very fortunate. During the time when I came back here, I always said it's a great time to be in Kansas City. It's growing. So many positive things are happening, since I have been back. The whole community has embraced me, along with the students. It's been like a dream come true.  

Many times, in life we are only as good as the shoulders we stand upon. Who was the biggest mentor in your life?

Without a doubt it was Art Blakey. The Jazz Messengers were an institution. It was a jazz finishing school, where you got your graduate degree. He saved so many young musicians like me; I would’ve spent at least 10 years searching around, it was the way he laid it out, he taught by example, and that's what I have always tried to do when I teach.

I always keep my horn in the students' faces. I taught by example. I didn't want to be a talking head at the blackboard. I can demonstrate. I think that is very important. As a jazz musician, I could demonstrate what I was talking about. That really earns respect from the students.

You can talk about it, but they actually want to hear you do it. That has always been very important to me. To be able to demonstrate what I'm talking about, no matter what I'm talking about.

That motivates them to go and try and see that it's possible.

Then, bringing in guest artists of all ages, that the students can see and hear them play. They would see the older musicians, and the students would say sure he can do it, cause he's old. Then, I would bring in the younger ones, that could do it as well.

Then they would say, “I guess we better get on it.” Just because you're in Kansas City doesn't mean that you shouldn't have that drive and dedication and that focus.

I would tell the kids all the time that there are people all over the world your age practicing right now and there's no reason you can't be doing that right here in Kansas City.

You know, Kansas City itself is a big recruiting tool. You know they have nice schools out in Des Moines or Kalamazoo, but they don't have a scene. You have to drive hours to get to Chicago, or Memphis, or Cleveland. But, right here, it's right here.

This city is an international destination for tourists and artists. It makes recruiting for the UMKC Jazz Program so much easier.

The students have been our biggest recruiter over the years. When they get here, they tell their friends and then the friends come in, from places like St. Louis, Southern California, the East Coast, Texas, Minneapolis and Chicago. We get students from all over. 

There's probably no better person to ask this. As an educator, recording artist and performer, how is jazz as an organism in 2020?

It's a very healthy and strong organism. I think the most important thing for the young musicians coming up, is to get experience and to keep reaching out to the older musicians. I tell the young musicians that I was their age once, but that they have never been mine. I understand what I needed at their age, so we are trying to give it to them, too. It's our duty to pass it on. It's so great that there are so many performers and players that can walk the walk, as well as talk the talk, inside of academia in schools all over the country. 

A typical retirement is likely a lemonade on the front porch. But things will be different for you. What does retirement look like for Bobby Watson?

More touring! I was just in New York last week. And the week before that I was touring with my group, Horizon and we were up in Pittsburgh, then Vermont and down into Maryland. We did several nights at Dizzy's Coca-Cola, the nightclub at Jazz in Lincoln Center, in New York City.

I did another recording last week, in New York for Smoke Sessions Records. A quintet date this time, due to be released July 16th, in Kansas City. 444

Retirement, for me, will just be more touring. Doing more of what I was up to, before I landed in Kansas City. More writing, more practicing, more listening, more studying, more traveling and just getting back to where I was before. Getting ready to fly again.

What do you like best about being a performer on stage?

I like to take the audience on a journey, making them forget about time and uplifting them with the music. I love feeling their appreciation for hearing live, acoustic jazz and knowing that jazz is still a vital and viable art form, in terms of swinging. Just knowing there is a proven formula for this acoustic music, that works all over the world, is enough for me.

It's great, to get a crowd that didn't think they could hear great jazz anymore. We're holding up the banner! I just love playing for people that are listening and enjoying.

It's not the opera. So, if they want to stand up and start clapping, start dancing a little bit. It’s O.K. We want to move people.

As Art Blakey used to say, jazz will, “Wash away the dust of everyday life.”

I want the audience to look down at their watches and say, “Oh wow, where did the time go?” 

What was the first live jazz show you saw in person that made you think that you wanted to get on stage and do the same thing?

Believe it or not, the first one I ever saw was the Buddy Rich Big Band when Richie Cole was in the band, back in Minneapolis.  Then, I saw Phil Woods, Count Basie, Weather Report and The CTI All Stars, here in Kansas City with Freddie Hubbard and Stanley Turrentine. I saw Grover Washington back in the day, down at Union Station when they used to have jazz down there. 

Let's say you have a dream tonight and you run into a younger Bobby Watson around say your late 20's to early 30's, what advice will you give that younger version?

That's a good question. I would say don't worry. Be patient. Keep the faith. Stay positive. Stay humble. Keep that horn in your mouth and everything else will work out fine.  

Why do you love jazz?

I love it because I can express things on my horn with feelings and emotions that I cannot put into words. Whether it be sadness, joy, reminiscing or projections of the future that I can express through music when words don't work. Jazz is the perfect vehicle for that. When you are up there on stage, you are naked and you're baring your soul. It takes a lot of courage and I like that. You're out on a limb. You don't know what's going to happen. You don't know what's going to happen each day even though you know the music, because it's always different. It's always fresh. 

Everyone has their perception of who they think you are. Your family, friends, students and fans, but you know yourself best.

Who do you think you are?

I'm a messenger. I'm like a pied piper. I want to try to bring people into the music. I want to try to heal people through music. I'm just a messenger. I'm a scribe. When I write the music, I hear it and write it down before I forget it. They call it being a composer. You have to have certain skills of the craft as they call it, but basically, I'm a scribe. 

I heard an interview on the radio recently and you were quite profound about the importance of taking in water. As a musician and just a regular person. Can you elaborate on that?

I was talking about water being the new oil of this millennium. So many people don't drink enough water. That's the thing I learned over the years and that's to drink a lot of water. It helps so many things in your body. You can drink tea, energy drinks or juices, but it's not water. Water is the pure fuel for your body. I encourage everybody to drink more water.

It's going to be at a premium. I remember when they first started to bottle water and that was weird. We were up in Vermont the other day and it's hard to find bottled water up there. I said, ‘Hey we are in Vermont and can drink the water right out of the tap’.

Believe it or not, Manhattan (NYC) has some of the cleanest water in the country. 

What do you like the best about Kansas City?

I like the open space. I like the pace. People are friendly here. It's my home, so it's hard to say. I'm home now. I feel like this is my home. We were lucky enough to be here for my parents. We were with them until the very end and that was very important.

I have had offers to put my name in the hat for other jobs at places like Julliard, UCLA, Chicago or Oberlin, but I told them all that I'm home now. I don't want to leave.

I love the wide-open skies. I love the sound of the trees and the wind. I love the clouds, too. Those are like our mountains. It's just beautiful here. I love the four seasons. It's great here. I just love it. I will always love New York, but I can't wait to get back. I last about two weeks, then I want to come back. I need to come home.

Bobby Watson and UMKC

“Around the turn of the century, William and Mary Grant wanted to create a Jazz Professor Chair in the UMKC Department of Music and Dance. Everyone,” said Herman, “even a non-musician, can tell that Bobby is an extraordinary musician. When there is music being played, Bobby can find a spot with ALL musicians, age, race, social status and musical styles don’t matter.”

It was Mike Herman, whose brother had a career in jazz, who introduced Bobby to Mr. and Mrs. Grant. He told them, “He’s a really good guy, from Kansas City.” For decades Mike and his wife, Karen have been funding UMKC music scholarships.

“Part of the fun,” said Herman, “is having lunch with the students and getting to know them and their education. They all LOVE Bobby.” Herman said the students all say they learned more from Bobby Watson than any teacher they have known. “Extraordinary person. Extraordinary teacher,” said Herman, “Bobby leaving UMKC is a great loss.”

A special thanks goes to Mike & Karen Herman and the many scholarships they have created through Herman Jazz Fellows in support of Bobby Watson’s years at UMKC. Herman’s response, “Kansas City’s music scene has truly benefitted from his presence.”

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