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

By Published: March 13, 2004
AAJ: You're more into stretching more where it's possible, or incorporating other elements into the music?

JW: I guess I am. But there's always a kind of a balance. When do you kind of let go of tradition and speak your own mind? I think maybe a few years ago I would look at things and look at certain musicians, even myself, and kind of say perhaps they could have used a little more foundation in their approach before they experimented. But ultimately, it's not for me to say. Some people are going to sound a certain way and it's all good. Ultimately it's about expression. Musicians have to satisfy themselves and I'm definitely not the one to try to tell them how to solo or what the backdrops for the improvisation should be.

AAJ: This controversy with Wynton and the Ken Burns film, "Jazz." Was it too conservative or harmful, or is the discussion just a lot of hot air?

JW: It's probably harmful, certain things that were omitted from the film. As an entry, for people just learning about the music, ultimately they'll find it, if they investigate at all and they're really interested. It should be taken as just one man's or two men's story, and not the be-all, end-all of what's going on.

My main quibble would be the fact that I think that Miles Davis, despite any detraction made by anybody just based on their preference, to not explore [his whole career]... It's kind of like Miles Davis' story ended with the Bitches Brew thing and it just died. But if you pick up that arc of his life from when he retired up until the present, you have a really, really hip artistic story. It's really a beautiful story. Some people aren't really feeling the records of his that came out in the 80s. I could have had a slightly stilted view toward some of them, but I was actually at that very first gig when he came back in Boston. I was living in Boston and I stood in line for hours to get those tickets so I could see Miles Davis play.

I think that they needed to show the complete art. It seemed like the film just said: He had some good bands; he knew how to put them together, then he kind of dropped the ball in the 70s and lived happily ever after.

AAJ: Like Wynton's stance. That's probably why it ended so abruptly.

JW: Yeah. It's a really beautiful story of an artist. To show that Miles did his stuff in the 70s, and he felt like he wasn't hearing anything, so he took a break. And then came back in conjunction with Marcus Miller and some other people. But people should know that music that came out influenced jazz today. Miles also managed to have an influence on pop music. So texturally, I think that artists like A Tribe Called Quest, or Erykah Badu, certain feelings and grooves and colors that are used by people like Mary J. Blige, probably Sting and probably some other people, a lot of that texturally and feel-wise wouldn't sound the way it sounds today if Miles Davis hadn't specifically done that stuff in the 80s.

It's cool. You don't have to say it's oo-bop-shabam jazz. But, when you cover an important artist, they needed to show that whole arc, and show how he had an influence on all this music. The stuff from the 70s is still influencing like drum and bass, jungle music and also popular music. To take a break, and be in the center of something that influences music that's going on right now, whether you like it or not. Just say something about how you can use jazz to do different things, other than just play your baddest solo.

AAJ: How did the "Tonight Show" thing go? You were already with Branford.

JW: Yeah. I'd been with Branford. I stopped working with Wynton in 1988. Over the next year and a half I was just bouncing around. I did some work with McCoy Tyner. I did almost a year touring with George Benson, doing mostly his pop thing, but at European festivals it became a more jazzy thing. We did things in conjunction with people like Jack McDuff and Clark Terry and James Moody. I definitely learned some things from that. The Branford put together his quartet. We toured for a couple of years.

The quartet became a trio for a time and we worked on some other music. I was able to learn some things from that setting. And then the opportunity to do the "Tonight Show" presented itself. I actually think that Branford didn't want to do it. He didn't see himself doing it. The guys in the band said, "You might want to look at this." It was actually something we never actually pursued. It wasn't a question of "Let's do it," so something can happen or it was such a happening job. It was more of a sense of, "Why not do it?"

AAJ: Branford didn't seem comfortable in the non-music role Where he'd banter with Jay Leno.

JW: Who Branford? Yeah.

AAJ: I don't know if Branford influenced it, but it seems like you guys had more jazz guests. I remember when you had Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, Herbie and Wallace Roney in the tribute after Miles died. That probably wouldn't have happened if Branford wasn't there.

JW: There was definitely more accommodating jazz during the first couple years that we were there. Sonny Rollins came on. Joe Henderson came on. Also, we played with Betty Carter there. The Lincoln Center Orchestra was on. Harry Connick Jr., who will still be on there, for other reasons.

But, at a certain point the show was really getting beaten up by the David Letterman show, as far as ratings, which is the bottom line. There is a tendency within the hierarchy to keep pointing fingers until you get somewhere where everybody can really point the fingers. It was really easy to point the finger at this bunch of New York guys that moved all the way out here and they're playing a bunch of crazy stuff. They instructed us to play things that were "upbeat and recognizable." Those were the specific words. So, we kind of did that.

We started out playing fusion, jazz, Latin jazz, rock, a variety of things. It kind of turned into that. After a while it wasn't upbeat and recognizable enough, so they specifically cut the jazz jugular vein. Then we really had to sneak and disguise jazz to play it at all during the show. Even though it's just to keep the audience excited during commercials. We used to play with a lot of musical guests and artists on the show, but some people in the group really didn't want to do that. But I thought that was one thing that really kept it somewhat interesting for me. So we started backing up less musical guests, and we just really turned into a hokey house band.

The whole experience was fun for like maybe a year, a year and a half. I played with Lou Rawls, Johnny Mathis, Elton John. It was definitely fun on that level. But after a while the grim reality set in that when you do something over an extended period, it becomes who you are. I started to see that's who I was. I'd grab my lunchbox and jump on the Freeway in my nice car and drive to the valley and work with these people every day, every day, week after week.

It was to the point that among the jazz cognoscenti of the area, I became kind of a local. So when jazz guys from New York would play in Los Angeles, people would talk to me like I didn't even know these people. They would say, "You really gotta see this. Have you ever heard this guy?" I was like, "Yeah. He's one of my best friends." "Yeah, but you gotta go see him." I was like an alien in jazz. It was really bizarre.

That experience made me start writing, out of frustration. So I started to write. Whenever certain guys would some in town, I'd rent studio time and we'd go and record some of my music, so that I'd feel like I was working on something when I lived there. I definitely learned some things about myself, being out there. Cause I was left with not much else.

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