The most visible and exciting drummer of his generation, Jeff "Tain" Watts burst into the jazz spotlight in the early '80s as a member of Wynton Marsalis' first quintet and into the general public's eye in the role of Rhythm Jones in Spike Lee's film Mo' Better Blues (1990) and as a member of The Tonight Show band led by Branford Marsalis, in whose quartet he's drummed for over 25 years. Since leaving the world of television and returning to New York, Watts has been a very active member of the city's music scene, both as a highly regarded sideman and, increasingly, as the leader of his own trailblazing groups.
All About Jazz: Let's start with what everybody wants to know. How did you get the nickname "Tain"?
Jeff "Tain" Watts: Oh, Lord [laughing]. [Pianist] Kenny Kirkland gave me the name. I was playing with Wynton around 1983 and we were driving from West Palm Beach to Miami and Kenny passed a gas station called Chieftain Gas with a symbol of an Indian with a headdress and he said, "Chief Tain, you're going to be Jeff 'Tain,'" and I said, "No I'm not," but then I could not avoid it.
AAJ: How did you develop your style, which is a bit unorthodox? It's kind of free-ish, rooted in Elvin Jones and Tony Williams, but it's also very soulful.
JTW: I don't know. I came out of a certain amount of R&B and my classical background [Watts studied classical percussion at Duquesne, playing tympani] and I got exposed to fusion in my late teens, so I was kind of into Billy Cobham and Lenny White and people like that, but when I started to play jazz I just became attracted to strong grooves, so Art Blakey was attractive and Elvin Jones became immediately attractive.
Tony Williams I was aware of and I kind of got into him later, I guess mostly when I started working with Wynton because a lot of that work came out of that bandcame out of Miles' quintet. I don't know, upon moving to New York I just started to check out more catsbeing able to go see Ed Blackwell, Billy Higgins, Dannie Richmond, stuff like that. It's still a work in progress; it just depends. It's always been easier for me to play in a modern type of fashion, but then I'll look back and see someone like Papa Jo [Jones] and hear him on something like Lester Young's Live At Birdland (ESP-Disk, 1951) and he is playing almost as modern as anybody.
AAJ: Is Branford your main gig, what you call your primary work these days?
JTW: I guess so, yeah. Of course, around New York I'll do some work with some people, but Branford's group is pretty much my home base and I'm actually trying to do less random sideman things, just to give more space to my projects.
AAJ: You're one of the more prolific drummer-composers out there. What drove you to become a composer? Your writing style is somewhat unusual, also.
JTW: I was really shy about writing at first. When I did Geri Allen's CD The Nurturer (Blue Note, 1991) everybody brought in music and she asked me to bring in a tune and I was just really shy about it and kind of regretted it later, so it stimulated me. In addition, Wynton would always encourage me to write, Branford would encourage me to write. When I started to do some of my early pieces it was John HicksJohn Hicks was really encouraging of me. But I guess after a while, when I was doing The Tonight Show, Kenny Kirkland and I were basically living under the same roof and he just encouraged me not to be so concerned about traditional things about composition or traditional rules and just to trust my ears and trust whatever I'd come up with and that helped open me up a lot.
AAJ: This is a tough question, but what are you trying to achieve with your compositions? Your writing tends to have a narrative, kind of storytelling quality. What makes you write a song?
JTW: Early on, it was just to be able to present a certain type of vibe. Like if I wanted to play something like a Monk tune or whatever, I would just kind of write something that was similar. If I wanted to play something like "Lonnie's Lament" by Coltrane, that kind of made me write a thing like that. But then now, every tune comes from a different place and a different kind of inspiration and it's just really fun for me now and I'm starting to enjoy it just as much as playing, and now that I'm able to do a certain amount of gigs with my own group, I just get into the whole process.
The whole process is really fun for mejust like thinking of something, trying to write itand the way it is now, I get a third of the way through it and the tune just kind of takes over and completes itself. So just the whole processfrom making it to bringing it to my group or Branford's group and actually playing it for some people and they like itI'm really into it. And also, I just have a thing where more and more I am just trying to address things that I want to expand upon or express in my playing; I'm just trying to create context for me to improve my musicianship.