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Ernie Watts: Flying High

By Published: September 11, 2007

AAJ: A less obvious choice perhaps is [vocalist] Rickie Lee Jones' "Company.

EW: That's a very beautiful tune. I heard it when [vocalist] Diane Reeves sang it at the funeral of a friend of mine, the road manager for George Wein's Festival Company, and it made me cry, so I decided to record it.

AAJ: Taking you back if I may, your first major gig was with [drummer] Buddy Rich—you left Berklee to join his him in the mid-sixties, but why did you leave the Buddy Rich Orchestra?

EW: Well, I had been there for about a year-and-a-half, and we recorded about three albums, and it was just time to move on. I wasn't sure whether to move to California or New York but I preferred California so I moved there. I started to work in the studios doing record sessions and films and TV, that kind of thing.

Ernie<AAJ: Did you become disillusioned with jazz as a career at that time?

EW: No, it just evolved. When I left Buddy's band I didn't know what I wanted to do. I knew that I liked California as a place to live but I didn't know anything about the studio scene, what was involved in all of that and I figured I would just get with another band out of California and play; that's what I always wanted to do.

So I went to L.A. and started getting calls to substitute at rehearsals and concerts of saxophonists who were very busy—Buddy Collette, I started subbing for him and other great studio players like Plas Johnson, and Bill Green. You know, so I started as a substitute for them and then what happened was I started getting my own calls and getting my own gigs. It just grew, it evolved. I did that for years. I still had my group, I had a quartet and I would play my music and work on my tunes and do clubs so it was always a combination of that.

AAJ: You've done a truly phenomenal amount of recording sessions. Are there any that stand out as ones you are particularly proud of?

EW: I enjoyed all the Motown sessions a lot, working with [saxophonist/arranger] Oliver Nelson. Touring with Oliver Nelson, [saxophonist] Cannonball Adderley. [Guitarist] Frank Zappa was very interesting—he's quite a musician. A lot of musicians who were improvisers—I did a lot of things with [saxophonist] Benny Golson and [trombonist] J.J. Johnson.

All of these people were in L.A. at that time and they were getting into films and TV When I was working with Oliver Nelson we were doing The Six million Dollar Man. He was writing all that stuff and we were playing on all of that too besides playing with his band.

There's a wonderful composer and band leader in L.A. called Gerald Wilson—I played with Gerald for years and then I was also in the Tonight Show band for twenty years.

AAJ: What years were you with Oliver Nelson?

EW: It was when I moved to L.A. in '68 so I played with Oliver from '68 up until the time he died. We did a State Department tour to Africa in '69 with the Blues and the Abstract Truth (Impulse!, 1961) seven-piece band. We played all of that music.

AAJ: How did that go down with the Africans?

EW: They loved it. People really love live music. They get connected with the energy no matter what the genre is. I think they really connect with the energy. We played some with them, they had their bands and we went to hear them in Mali and Senegal. There were all these great players with the drum choruses so it was quite a nice experience. That was fun.

AAJ: Gerald Wilson, who I guess is in his late eighties, won the Jazz Journalists Association Award for Large Ensemble in 2006. Has he been an influence on you as far as arranging music goes?

EW: I enjoyed his music. He really has a sound, the way he writes for the sections and it's a real jazz band. You know, a lot of big bands are mostly ensemble and then there's a solo here and a solo there, but it's usually the writer's skill. But with Gerald's band it was a real jazz band. When you had the opportunity to play, the solos were long and it was a very creative environment to be in and he was very flexible in that way.

ErnieAAJ: You mentioned Frank Zappa, you played on Zappa's album The Grand Wazoo (Zappa Records, 1972); do you think Zappa was a jazzer at heart?

EW: No, I think what he was at heart was a classical composer, a contemporary classical composer like [Olivier] Messiaen or those people. The music we did on The Grand Wazoo and some of his other things were like contemporary, symphonic pieces with a rock rhythm section. He used the rhythm section with orchestra colors and orchestral technique, and the orchestral vocabulary that he had was contemporary classical music. It was like Stravinsky with a rhythm section.

And then during that same period we did [violinist] Jean-Luc Ponty's album King Kong (World Pacific Jazz, 1969). That was some of Frank's tunes and Frank produced and arranged that. That was a jazz project and he did a beautiful job.

AAJ: You've played in a lot of big bands, have you ever wanted to lead one yourself?

EW: Not really. The main thing I'm interested in is improvising, and to me it seems like the smaller the group the more freedom you have. If I'm playing with a quartet and I want to do a duet with the pianist I can look at the bassist and the drummer and they'll lay out, so there's a lot of little flexible things that you can do with a small group that you can't do with a big band.

I like small groups and that's what I grew up with. I grew up listening to Miles, Coltrane, and Cannonball so I've always been a quartet/quintet person, that energy, that kind of interplay.

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