A saxophonist, composer, arranger and educator, Bobby Watson grew up in Kansas City, Kan. He trained formally at the University of Miami, a school with a distinguished and well-respected jazz program. After graduating, he proceeded to earn his "doctorate" – on the bandstand – as musical director of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. The group, created in 1955 by late legendary drummer who died in 1990, showcased a rotating cast of players, many who, like Watson, would go on to have substantial careers as bandleaders in their own right. The Jazz Messengers – frequently referred to as the "University of Blakey" – served as the ultimate "postgraduate school" for ambitious young players.
After completing a four-year-plus Jazz Messengers tenure (1977-1981) that incorporated more than a dozen recordings – the most of any of the great Jazz Messengers, the gifted Watson became a much-sought after musician, working along the way with a potpourri of notable artists – peers, elder statesmen and colleagues all — including, but not limited to: drummers Max Roach and Louis Hayes, fellow saxophonists George Coleman and a younger Branford Marsalis, celebrated multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis (who joined the Jazz Messengers at least in part at the suggestion of Watson). In addition to working with a variety of instrumentalists, Watson served in a supporting role for a number of distinguished and stylistically varied vocalists including: Joe Williams, Dianne Reeves, Lou Rawls, Betty Carter and Carmen Lundy.
Later, in association with bassist Curtis Lundy and drummer Victor Lewis, Watson launched the first edition of Horizon, an acoustic quintet modeled in many ways after the Jazz Messengers but one with its own distinct slightly more modern twist. Among the groups' other talented members were pianist Ed Simon, trumpeter TereIl Stafford and bassist Essiet Okon Essiet. Clearly, by all critical accounts, Horizon, which still performs together on special occasions, is now considered as one of the preeminent small groups of the mid-1980s to mid-1990s and even into the 2000s. The group recorded several highly acclaimed titles for the Blue Note and Columbia record labels including Post-Motown Bop (Blue Note) and Midwest Shuffle, Live! (Columbia); the latter is a compendium that captured the group in concert at a number of locations in 1993.
In addition to his work with Horizon, Watson also led a nine-piece group known as the High court of Swing – a tribute to the music of Johnny Hodges – as well as the GRAMMY-nominated 16-piece, large ensemble Tailor Made Big Band. The lyrical stylist is also a founding member of the well-respected 29th Street Saxophone Quartet, an all-horn, four-piece ensemble.