Bobby Watson talks KC jazz

U-News Staff

Amidst opening night applause and more than 80 musicians mindfully exiting the Helzberg Hall stage at the 2011 gala, saxophonist Bobby Watson stopped and hugged vocalist Kevin Mahogany, and then Diana Krall. As the three musicians huddled in warm embrace, Krall began to tear up, and the men followed suit.

“You did it,” she said. “You played Bird’s horn, man.”

Charlie “Bird” Parker’s plastic Grafton saxophone was Congressman Emmanuel Cleaver’s great gift to Kansas City. It was played at Bird’s Massey Hall concert of May 15, 1953. By special request to the 2011 gala, the horn was on loan from The American Jazz Museum. It was placed in Watson’s expert hands by an armed guard. Wearing white gloves and a permanent frown, the man had been toting the horn around for Watson most of the week.

The guard followed Watson in the mammoth back stage area. He was there through rehearsals, run-through’s, countless blow-ups and offerings of Watson’s meticulously planned multi-media tribute to Kansas City. Krall and Isaak Perlman performed opening night, followed by Watson with The Kansas City Symphony and his Eighteenth and Vine Orchestra.

During his tenure with Art Blakey, a drummer and bandleader known for playing and recording with Parker, Watson came of age. Many of Blakey’s generation built their careers on Parker’s legacy. Blakey built his own legacy. He called his Messengers, “a University,” and the band helped launch the careers of Horace Silver, Wayne Shorter and countless others, including Watson.

As the director of Jazz Studies at UMKC, Watson mixes life lessons learned with Blakey into the music curriculum. With a passion for setting young musicians on the right path, he balances family, travel and a 40-year international recording career with the needs of his annual top-notch crop.

Bobby and his wife, Pamela Baskin Watson have deep roots in Kansas City. After being back more than 15 years, the realities of being home have become clear. Pam lost her dad last year. Bobby and his brother are trying to move their folks from the family home to an easier and more comfortable existence.

Bobby remains constantly on the move, jetting from gig to festival, while maintaining an award-winning jazz program at UMKC. He has good help with Dan Thomas, who keeps a keen eye on the shop in Watson’s absence.

Bandleader Duke Ellington once described composer Billy Strayhorn as “my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brainwaves in his head, and his in mine.” The collaboration between Ellington and Strayhorn lasted nearly 30 years and produced some of the most remarkable and enduring American music of the 20th century. That same sort of collaboration is developing between Watson and Thomas.

Thomas said of his close friend, “Big personality… open mind.” Watson attended The University of Miami and studied with Rich Sidner. Bruce Hornsby, bassist Jaco Pastorious and Pat Metheny were classmates. Thomas says they have worked in unison at UMKC “…like a two-headed monster.” They have developed a complete jazz studies curriculum and a large well-funded summer jazz camp.

Blue Note, Columbia, Palmetto, Muse, Evidence and the Italian record label Red have all recorded Watson’s music. For the last two recordings, Watson created his own record label. It’s a family affair, with his daughter Lafiya doing the artwork and the song-writing duties split between Mr. and Mrs. Watson.

Having this label has allowed Watson to speak his mind about the things that he is passionate about. “The Gates BBQ Suite,” is a tribute to Kansas City’s gastronomic claim to fame, the most amazing barbecue in the world.

After achieving financial success with the “Gates Suite,” he then set his sights a bit higher. On “Check Cashing Day,” Bobby tells the story of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. from the perspective of the debt owed to African Americans for the atrocities of slavery. “Check Cashing Day” stayed at the top of the jazz charts for several weeks. Adding poet Glenn North and his wife Pamela on vocals, the album’s pre-release was a command performance for the Black Congressional Caucus, in Washington, D.C.

A young jazz artist, senior Nate Nall, described Watson’s seemingly endless energy.

“I’ve studied with some amazing musicians, but not like Bobby,” Nall said. “He comes from an older generation. He teaches, plays, tours, and attends the students’ recitals. Why, just last Saturday, after teaching all week, Bobby attended two recitals, and then played an impromptu set at Take Five Coffee Bar.”

If you listen, you hear musician after young musician tell their versions of the very same tale. This fall, Nall will have a graduate assistantship, which will keep the young trumpeter around the jazz program and playing gigs in Kansas City.

Attending the Jazz Education Network gatherings each year, Watson is instrumental in the Monk Institute. He works closely with The American Jazz Museum, and he ventures into all genres of music. He has done sold out shows with the Kansas City Symphony, the Kansas City Ballet, and his original music and performance has been featured in several plays and literary productions. Last fall, Watson was inducted into Kansas City’s newly established Walk of Fame.

Drummer Matt Kane was recruited for the Jazz Studies Program at UMKC by Watson’s predecessor, Mike Parkinson. But like most musicians that come in contact with Watson, Kane has developed a high degree of respect. Bassist Christian McBride allows Kane to hold mentor sessions at his “Jazz House Kids,” a non-profit organization in Montclair, New Jersey, run by McBride and his wife, Melissa Walker. McBride credits Watson with giving him his first job in New York City, and Pamela and Bobby with giving him positive encouragement as a young man.

“Bobby Watson genuinely cares,” Nall said. “When my grandparents died in November… he made sure every day, I was OK.”

Watson is that kind of musician. In the early years of his tenure at UMKC, he picked a university hangout, Mike’s Tavern on Troost, as the Thursday night place to be for students in the Jazz Studies Program. Trumpeter Clint Ashlock remembers performing there with brass-man Howard Johnson and drummer Victor Lewis, a long-time New York bandmate of Watson.

In fact, most of the guest performers who came to UMKC during Watson’s early years also visitied Mike’s.

“We were driving across Missouri,” Ashlock said, “a bunch of us who had come through the program. And, we started to wonder how Bobby could be talking to folks, hanging at the bar at Mike’s and playing video games, and know exactly what we were doing wrong on stage.”

It is this combination of perception, intuition and wisdom that sets Watson apart at UMKC and in the world of jazz. A one-of-a-kind performer himself, he has the unique ability to instill that same drive in his students. He has a much different career than the one had by KC icon Parker, but he is no less important in the history of Kansas City jazz.