Kobie Watkins: A Drummer's Voyage

K. Shackelford By

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Chicago native Kobie Watkins is a leading voice in the new generation of jazz drummers. I saw Watkins several months ago at The Jazz Room in Charlotte and his performance was bananas—the crowd was in awe and after each solo there was thundering applause. An absolute wonder to watch, his polyrhythmic creativity and concepts create unique musical art that has put him in the category of a young jazz master. For this reason, he has been sought after by the best in the industry.

Watkins has toured with a number of jazz greats such as Sonny Rollins, Curtis Fuller, Ken Chaney, Ron Perrillo, Bethany Pickens, Ryan Cohan, and you hear him all throughout Kurt Elling's 2011 Grammy nominated The Gate. Currently, he tours with jazz guitarist and composer Bobby Broom and plays weekly at the Kobie Watkins' Jazz Jam Playhouse at Beyu Café in Durham, N.C. You can find the charming and popular Café packed with Southern jazz enthusiasts as Watkins leads a number of musicians in creative and ad-hoc interpretations of popular jazz standards.

In addition to being a drummer, Watkins is also a composer who penned all of his compositions on his 2006 debut CD entitled Involved. Involved consists of a sonically penetrating set of grooves with fusion, latin and gospel undertones. The ten track album is an absolute must have for the jazz connoisseur's collection.

When asked about his sound, he quickly credits gospel music as a vital influence on his technique and sound development. Yet, he also gives honor to his father and a host of jazz greats who helped him become the outstanding drummer he is today. This knowledge has made him a top music educator, and he passes his jazz wisdom with other talented and upcoming drummers at jazz clinics and camps across the United States. Watkins is interested in one thing: doing his best for the music and serving the people.

All About Jazz: So you've accomplished so much in your career. You've played with so many greats. Looking back, when was the moment you decided that you wanted to be a professional jazz drummer?

Kobie Watkins: I became serious about the drums in between high school and college. Right after high school, there was a period where I worked regular jobs. I worked at Old Country Buffet, similar to Golden Corral, and I was still working at McDonald's a couple of days on the weekend. I was working three different jobs at 1 point. Working those jobs, I realized when washing dishes at Old Country Buffet that I didn't want to do exactly what I was watching these older men do. So at that point, I'd completed the audition for Vandercook College of Music and I told myself, once I get into school, I'm going to stay focused and I'm never going back to this.

AAJ: And let's go back even before that—when did you come in contact with the drum set?

KW: I started playing the drums while I was three or four years old in church. There, I listened to the drummers, in addition to hearing my dad playing drums in the church. I listened and observed those before me when I was three then went home and tried to replicate what I saw. My older brother remembered this moment! He explained to me how I would set the bowls, pots, and pans in order in tones. I was really big on tones and what things sounded like and so even today, I am really persnickety about how drums sound. Is it viable, can it reach the listener? And then how do they sound for me? Also, am I able to play them and make music for them? It gets interesting. Even today, when I'm touring my early decisions when learning the music revolve around how I want the drums to sound.

And I learned the ABC's or rudiments of drumming with my dad and those concepts stuck with me forever. I had maybe five lessons with him, and after that I've never had a drum set lesson with any person in the world. Now, yes, I've gone to clinics, I've talked to my elders and talked with drummers older than I am. I'm also good friends with people I can actually call today and say, "Hey, what do you think about this, can you tell me about XYZ" in terms of technicalities such as Steve Smith. It's pretty cool. It's a give and take journey because I've never taken lessons, and there are times I feel like I probably should have taken lessons—but that's life.

AAJ: When growing up were there particular jazz musicians or really popular jazz musicians that influenced you like Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Max Roach, etc, or would you say it was those people you had access to?

Sure. In genre order, people who influenced me would be gospel drummers first---people like Michael Williams from Commission, or Joel Smith with The Hawkins Family. In addition, I learned from Joe Maxwell who played with gospel great Andre Crouch, Kevin Brunson with Milton Brunson and The Thompson Community Singers, and Seeden with The Soul Children of Chicago. Also a guy named Kenny Coleman who showed my brother and I a lot of stuff by just watching him at church.

AAJ: Wow.

KW: Then, in terms of jazz drummers, I started listening to fusion jazz. I listened to artists such as Dennis Chambers, Dave Weckl, Steve Gadd, Wood Kennedy and others. Another group that influenced me was the Weather Report, although I didn't listen to a lot of it. I actually stayed away from Tony Williams for at least most of college, most of grad school. I did not know how to appreciate his sound and what his contribution and innovation was to jazz music. I like organized sound. Tony Williams is a master of organized sound but I didn't appreciate it and understand it at that time because I was a kid basically. Then there was Art Blakey. I just studied Art Blakey for his time. Time was a big thing for me to learn. I was drawn to those drummers who had good time, a great feel and power. So I listened to a lot of Art Blakey and a lot of Buddy Rich. So Art Blakey first,then Buddy Rich second. I was working at McDonald's listening to that stuff like fusion, standard jazz and traditional jazz. It was interesting. And then yet, it felt like I was also learning with every group---such as with groups and artists like the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, specifically with Orville Davis, Bobby Broom, Bethany Pickens and with Kurt Elling. They all have had a specific structure and way that that they presented music which I could tap into.

AAJ: I want to know about your style. What would you say is your style, and how do you distinguish yourself or do you try to distinguish yourself from drummers that are out there? How would you characterize what you're doing with what you're playing?

KW: Actually I never went for trying to create a sound. That was never a goal for me. But here's the easy part, I always try to develop a touch for the drums which creates the sound for me. I developed my touch from playing timpani, latin music and at church. I always feel like pulling the sound out of the drums is better than beating into the drums. So the way I try to play the drums and communicate (the drums) is by pulling the sound out, making sure that the tones interact with the music.

AAJ: I really like your sense of orchestration, and the way you seem to use the full set verses always using the ride symbol as a leading voice. Is that correct?

KW: Well I do, but as I get older, not that I'm getting away from the ride symbols, I always felt like this music needs to have toms and drums and the feel of rhythm in its entirety with symbols and without. So I've always tried to play the drum set without having a lead voice per say, the leading voice is whatever I can play. So it has to have quality that people can follow, and if it doesn't have that than it's kind of helpless. I can play the ride symbol, but I can also be playing a side stick, yet I'm leaning more with a side stick than I am with the actual ride symbol. In this way, I'm just coloring and painting with that but everything else is going on in my left hand. And that was more of a development, when just playing with Bobby Broom week to week on Wednesday. I figured out like, "Alright, I can do this over this song, let me try this, etc." He (Bobby Brown) would say things that were pertinent, tangible, and things that I could get to that I was able to change how I thought.

As for Kurt Elling and recording for his album, he not telling me to do this, try this, or did you hear the Stevie Wonder "this"---that was a really big notable thing for me because when you go and listen to Stevie, it's like he's got some subtleties going on. The kind of person I am, there is a whole lot going on, but I don't have to be the dominant voice. I still listen to Marvin Gay and with him, it was like that was a lot of music man. I don't get why people don't check out music in its entirety, which means all carefully listening to the qualities the music should have. It's amazing. I thank God for how I can hear music. It's different from how everyone else hears music. I attribute that first to gospel music. It wasn't spiritual music, it wasn't hymns, it was gospel music. It was Walter Hawkins, a lot of Walter Hawkins and a lot of Andre Crouch. Their music had layers.

AAJ: I know you're from Chicago, which has such a great jazz scene, so tell us about some of the lessons you learned there and from others?

KW: In Chicago, my career did a step-by-step escalating motion. People who shaped me was Bethany Pickens a female pianist, that was my first gig. I came unprepared and she shared with me never go to a rehearsal unprepared again in your life. But the thing was she said it, and then we walked through the tune. It was just her and I. She played piano and I played drums and we walked through all the tunes. And the lesson stuck with me, I never came to rehearsal unprepared and that was when my professional career started. Then I worked with her father, Willie Pickens, Orville Davis and Kim Janey. I was around Chicago working with these folks who were in different circles of jazz. And then I started working with Bobby Broom, in 2001, who was totally different from everybody else in respect to how he approached the music. So I was going back to school basically learning things with Bobby Broom. Then during the period of time with Bobby, I connected with Kurt Elling.

AAJ: As well as playing for Elling, you were the drummer for his 2011 Grammy nominated studio album The Gate. On The Gate, Elling and Producer Don Was presented an eclectic set of popular tunes and swung them in the most stunning and elegant way. What was it like to study for an album that featured an almost 25 year range of music from so many genres? How did you prepare?

KW: I prepared with a couple of rehearsals and a couple of gigs with John Patitucci on bass which was just great. And also by just listening. For Joe Jackson's Stepping Out, I didn't hear his version of that until maybe six months after that recording. So I prepared by listening to the music the way Kurt was presenting. So I didn't do my homework. I guess people would say, "Hey, that's a bad thing you should have listened to such and such." But I didn't and for that particular song I didn't listen to it until 6 months later and then I was like "Oh, that's how the original tune sounds." But in another form because I didn't initially listen to it—it didn't influence me. By not hearing the tune I didn't get influenced by what was before me.

My focus was to hear what Kurt was saying, swing behind it, make it work, and move forward. And I love Don Was, the producer of The Gate. Not too long ago in an email conversation he was like, "Man we're still amazed about that recording session!" Because there were some takes during the recording session where he just flipped out in the booth and was like, "Oh my goodness, we have to put that one down!" So we did seven takes of that tune. The way we did it live and the way we did it in the studio were completely different.

AAJ: Amazing. You've had so many experiences with great musicians and it seems your career has presented great musical lessons from people all around you and we can see the evidence on your fantastic debut CD Involved.

KW: Sure. Having all these options was a key learning moment for me because you're able to listen to what someone has to say and then learn to give them what they need. That's first and that is what being an artist is about. Let's look at the color red for example. You're not going to all of a sudden create red. Red has been around for a while so you can't say this is the new red because I am an artist. No, so you have to pay attention and respect those before to create and develop who you can be, who you should be first and then who you can be next. So it was really cool to learn how to present music that way.

Photo Credit: Courtesy Kobie Watkins

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