Jeff "Tain" Watts: The Tain Self-Test

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The whole process is really fun for me--just like thinking of something, trying to write it--and 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.
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 band—came out of Miles' quintet. I don't know, upon moving to New York I just started to check out more cats—being 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 Hicks—John 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 me—just like thinking of something, trying to write it—and 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 process—from making it to bringing it to my group or Branford's group and actually playing it for some people and they like it—I'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.

AAJ: And what's your process? Do you write with a keyboard, pencil and paper, on the computer? How do you go about writing a song?

JTW: Just about every kind of way. Early on I wrote with just pencil and paper and I was really into that. I carried around a manuscript book and I would write at home in New York on the piano, I would write in hotel rooms in Europe and Japan or whatever, just go find a piano and try to write some stuff. Now I mostly use the Sibelius program and I'll write at the piano. I'll think of melodies in my head and I'll sing them to myself and then I'll figure out the skeletal thing of the harmony, the basics of the harmony. I'll go to the piano to verify what I hear and I have an acoustic bass at home, so I'll usually check bass lines to make sure they're not too awkward for the bassist, that they make sense. Lines that are technically too difficult for me to try to pick out at the piano, I'll go to my marimba and play them there. A combination of that and Sibelius kind of makes it a little easier for me.

AAJ: Let's go to your new record and label.

JTW: Dark Key is the label and the record's called Watts.

AAJ: This is with Terence Blanchard, Branford and Christian McBride—first time you're using a trumpeter and not using a pianist. What's it about?

JTW: It's about—ah I don't know—I just start to accumulate tunes and I start thinking of how to present them and part of the inspiration for this record is...I guess Mingus Presents Mingus [Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus (Candid, 1960)] in a way—the piano-less quartet vibe there—and so that kind of pushed me in the political direction. I don't really know what to say about it. I just wanted to hear these musicians in a space where they have some room to play. There's not a lot of stuff with McBride in a piano-less setting, so that you can just hear him really stretch out and feature the bass. We really haven't done much without piano in the last ten years probably, so it just seemed like a natural thing. And Terence—I just ran into him in Sweet Rhythm and I was thinking of using trumpet and I hadn't recorded anything with him since his first Columbia CD.

AAJ: How do you like having your own label?

JTW: (laughs) I recommend it to a lot of people. Once you get past the initial fear of funding your own project—because everybody is just accustomed to, "Okay, I'm getting this much money and they're going to help me sell my recording and basically I'll be a slave to them for a while because I'll probably never recoup enough to get anything other than publishing royalties." But once you get past that, it's really cool. In one respect, you're really testing yourself to see how much you believe in your music because you're putting your own money up.

AAJ: What advice do you have for the young drummer starting out in jazz today?

JTW: Listen to a whole lot of music; be really, really open. Take advantage of the technology that's available to assist you in acquiring documented music and also for composing. Just for drummers in general, I would say play hand drums and play some keyboards. But mainly just trust yourself and not be so locked in to convention, to allow for some different stuff to happen.

Selected Discography

Jeff "Tain" Watts, Watts (Dark Key Music, 2008)

McCoy Tyner, Quartet (Half Note, 2007)

Branford Marsalis, Footsteps of Our Fathers (Marsalis Music-Rounder, 2001)

Jeff "Tain" Watts, Citizen Tain (Columbia, 1998)

Branford Marsalis, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (Columbia, 1991)

Wynton Marsalis, Black Codes (From the Underground) (Columbia, 1985)

Photo Credits

Top photo: Courtesy of Hans Speeken Brink

Bottom photo: Barry Quick

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