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Artist Stories

A discussion with Jeff “Tain” Watts

July 2022 — As we waited for students to arrive for the Jeff “Tain” Watts Workshop, our Education Director, Dr. Patrick Brown, sat down with the jazz legend for a brief reflection on jazz education.

What are some of the more valuable teaching experiences you had as a student?

I feel like an extra extension of time and effort by teachers is what I remember most. Once teaching at a music camp, I brought my family with me, my wife and daughters. Once in a while, students would approach me like, “ I wanna work on something special, can I meet you after?” I was like sure, why not. I’m going to give this guy instruction off the clock. general, what I remember about any education experience is when I had teachers that would do the required stuff, but after school, offer an extension of their time. I remember a teacher saying, “Oscar Peterson is playing at this place… let’s go see him.”

During the time I came on the scene with Wynton Marsalis, I feel like jazz education grew exponentially. During that initial wave of Wynton being popular, he tried to reinforce core values and establish some criteria for traditional mainstream jazz, the classics. In 1980 when I was at Berkeley, there were only three or four places to go for a degree in jazz music performance. Now there are hundreds.

Before I went to college and formally pursued jazz education, I played in high school stage band. And there’s an American stage band culture, people that write specifically for that, which includes jazz tradition. I performed in that area and did okay, but without really understanding what Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong did. Not until I was a classical music major in a university, did I get to hear swing, and [John] Coltrane, and [Charlie] Parker. As a black person, I then learned the significance of black people to music. I was not made aware of that from stage band.

If Wynton Marsalis had not had a reputation as a classical trumpet player when he was 19, I feel he wouldn’t have been given the seriousness he tried to give to jazz. He noticed the treatment between when he would do a classical gig or lecture, in comparison to jazz music. I feel like (jazz) would be a third of what it is if he hadn’t been part of the classical community.

I remember at the first Thelonious Monk Piano Competition was an offshoot of the Beethoven Society in DC. Because of Wynton, some people with position and funding said that this jazz thing isn’t just messing around. This guy is the best classical trumpet player in world, so there must be something there.

For me, I enjoy finding that African American connection…a combination of folklore and connection to Africa and traditions. I’m also a math nerd, so, I feel there’s an amount of science to it. It is a combination of science and soul. I enjoy people loving the music and giving them the tools they need to pursue, and then plugging them into that spirit.

Do you feel like you had a big break? If so, what was it, or was it more organic?

I came out of the public school system. When I started playing music, it was just another activity. I was the worst shot-putter and wrestler and football player, and this was just another activity. Teachers would tell my parents that I should do this.

I decided to pursue and go to music school. If it didn’t work out, I was good at math and would just go to computer science. So, I tried it, and it never stopped.

Wynton Marsalis was a big break. I was just this guy from Pittsburg, in college, preparing myself. I thought If I can feed myself playing music, let me see. I was prepared to play any kind of gig. Jazz education was versatile, so I was working to be a studio musician. Wynton’s thing was really exciting when he emerged on the scene, with [Art Blakey and] the Jazz Messengers. ‘Who is this guy?’ Very obvious virtuosity, and energy. Powerful. I took a chance, but not much of one, as it seemed obvious, he was going to have an impact.

I went to Berklee [College of Music] with Branford Marsalis. He was like, ‘come do this music with my brother.’ I asked my family, and they said, ‘you gotta go back to school. Who is this – Wilton, Winston?’ Once it got rolling, I was in the center of the jazz scene. Staying at his apartment, four doors down from Art Blakey, watching him play piano and ride in his Rolls Royce. The older guys attached aspirations to Wynton. Everyone was very supportive. After a while, it felt like a pop gig for jazz.

There are many great classical musicians… [like] Joe Henderson and Sonny Rollins. But, if you play with people around your age, some might get to play with [only] one of those in your career. Within the quintet, I got to play with four unicorns. Each one, a transcendent voice that’s open and smart, with enough funk to carry it off. Kenny Kirkland alone is bananas. Playing with someone like that night after night… These guys hear and process music like not many people. The norm is not good enough for Branford and Wynton. Growing up in New Orleans, of course you are telling a story with the music. But how are you going to transcend?

The few times he had to dig in on the quartet. We were playing music and it was fine. Not phoned in, but from his standpoint, it was regular. Let’s not just do this. Let’s try to make a statement.

If a student’s goal is to play music as a career, what would your advise be?

Have your genius agenda. Work on your instrument, and your magnificent solo, so your peers are impressed. You can have your soloistic expressionistic side. But also, be mindful of your function. For a drummer, that’s just a groove. For the rhythms section, things that swing the band in addition to [your] solo. What are you doing and how are you using the weight of the instrument to swing the band? Take responsibility. Figure out how to use your musicianship to help the whole thing. Not, ‘I’m sitting in this section, playing my part until I get my chance to solo.’ Ron Carter calls that, ‘snake in the grass’, when the rhythm section is playing, and when it’s time for their solo, the intent and volume jumps. Put that love into whatever [you play] to support it. Maximize the opportunity to support people.

Versatility is a lot. Expose yourself to a lot of things. Talk to a lot of people. Get inside a lot of people’s processes. Kenny Kirkland was versatile, but versatile with depth. Do some deep digging. For some musicians, the folklore of music is not as important. Have some balance. Some people don’t want to be connected to tradition, but have an informed perspective.


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