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Jeff "Tain" Watts: Moods and Melodies of a Drummer

By Published: March 13, 2004
AAJ: Were you gigging around town, or mostly school?

JW: Mostly school when I was in Pittsburgh. When I really started to play around town, it was while I was in college, an occasional jazz gig, and R&B group called Flavor that was around. We played stuff on the radio and it was fun. When I transferred to Berkley and went to Boston, I really started to play with people a lot on the drums and really fell in love with jazz specifically. I was still trying to play everything and prepare myself to get some kind of gig, any gig, when I got out of school.

AAJ: You ran into a lot of jazz musicians at Berkley?

JW: Yeah. It was also when Branford [Marsalis] went and also Donald Harrison, Marvin "Smitty" Smith, and Cindy Blackman and Kevin Eubanks. There was like a dozen or so people pretty prominent today. It was a very different time. There were a lot of people experimenting with jazz education as it existed during that time. It's probably better now. There's a lot more curriculum and facilities and stuff like that, specifically for jazz now as opposed to then.

AAJ: When did it start really becoming serious with jazz for your career? You went with Wynton [Marsalis] around this time?

JW: I guess so. That's pretty much it. I was trying to prepare myself to do gigs. By the time Wynton called me, I'd been pretty much listening to jazz just for a couple of years. He called me and we made his first record.

AAJ: You knew Branford from school.

JW: Yeah. Brandford put together Wynton's first band. Because Wynton was pretty busy. He was doing Art Blakey's thing, then he had a stint with Herbie Hancock's quartet, and doing classical stuff. So he was around New York, but I guess he trusted his judgment, so Branford kind of put the first band together.

AAJ: Was that your first big break?

JW: Yeah. That's about it.

AAJ: You were with him for how long?

JW: About six years. All of his recordings in jazz that have won Grammies, I'm on those. They kind of stopped giving them to him later on. But he has a Pulitzer, so I guess who needs a Grammy?

AAJ: When Branford split from Wynton, you split with him?

JW: Branford and Kenny Kirkland, they stopped working with the group in 1985. The band started in 1982, from his first record. They went and started working with Sting. I stayed around. The band changed into a quartet that did a few records, with Robert Hurst on bass and Marcus Roberts on piano. It was a different direction from the first band, transitional as far as Wynton's palette. He's definitely started to play more standards and go into early music more. His first band was more about blowing and improvisation and trying to do things in different formats. The second band, we still interpreted a lot of original music, but we just played more standards. I started to add a lot of systems and sequences and things to make the time feel more improvised. I kind of implemented that stuff with Wynton and the band to kind of give the group a different sound.

AAJ: Who were your influences, as drummers.

JW: The same old names keep popping up, but there's a reason for it. You know. Definitely Elvin Jones was a big influence. Roy Haynes. Art Blakey, Ed Blackwell. Drummers from other music like Harvey Mason and Billy Cobham, stuff like that. The seminal jazz guys. When I was trying to learn about jazz, I tended to focus at first on bebop people and people after that, so the classic bebop guys like Roy, Art and Max Roach. And then going up into the modern thing with Philly Joe Jones and Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Ed Blackwell and people like that.

But, a lot of the way people tell you to study that stuff is based on learning what these people did and learning vocabulary and stuff like that. But then later on, I started to listen to Monk's music. It was less vocabulary based and more about the arrangement, helping the song to move forward and stuff like that. So, while I learned from these other cats, my approach, even though it might not sound like it, is more out of a simpler, broader thing that's really just from music; listening to Monk's music and also Papa Jo Jones. He was a virtuoso, but he didn't really have a lot of signature licks, he just could really play the instrument well, and it kind of opened things up for me. It may not be a classic jazz lick, but my criteria became: as long as it's swinging, and things are in service to the music, then it's valid.

AAJ: You were with Wynton Marsalis for quite a long time. He's become this lightning rod for the debate about the conservative approach. Is he too conservative? He says jazz has to be in a certain bag. Is he wrong? Why do you think that is and what is your take on it?

JW: I think his thing is some kind of template that maybe he feels needs to be implemented so that there's a very classical architecture that's somewhat etched in stone. My impression over the time I played with him is sort of like: He was trying to establish a criteria, really concrete thing, that makes jazz what it is, with a similar architecture to classical music. But the music is so esoteric and comes from so many places that to qualify deeply, it seems like it takes away from it.

I'm not completely into codifying the music and saying that it should be a certain way, the bottom line, I guess, would be that by presenting it in such a fashion—in nice, neat little chunks, neat little bites—he was able to make a very focused point for jazz education and have music become accredited, like it about five years ago or something like that. Which opens things up for government funding for the arts and things like that, which creates opportunities for musicians to have more instruments in certain schools and things like that. And ultimately, it helps the music.

Philosophically, point-to-point, I'm not completely on board. But, the result is good. It just gives the appearance of more structure within the music. So it's easy to involve young people and gets things done.

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