May 19, 2024

Poncho SanchezA Conversation with
Ernie Watts
Fred Jung

I first met Ernie Watts at the House of Blues during the ’97 Verve Jazzfest tour. He was playing with Charlie Haden’s Quartet West, of which Watts has been a part of since the mid-’80s. Through the years, I have had the privilege of seeing Watts in a variety of contexts, from working with Mark Isham, to his time with the Tenor Trio, to his own quartet. The one constant has been Watts, who often was criticized unfairly for his “commercial projects” (whatever that means). One of the true gentlemen in jazz, Watts sat down with me to speak about his beginnings, his musical goals, and his new album on JVC “Classic Moods”.

JazzUSA: How is it that you started playing the tenor saxophone?

EW: I started playing the saxophone when I was thirteen, in grade seven, and it just, sort of, started as a fluke. I was with a friend of mine. He knew he wanted to play the saxophone. The music department at the school had instruments to lend for kids to start on, so he knew he wanted to play the saxophone. I didn’t really know, so I was just hanging out with him. So I figured, well, maybe I’ll try the trombone because it looked like it was an interesting instrument and I think I might have seen “The Glen Miller Story” or Tommy Dorsey or something like that on TV or a movie, so I had the trombone in my mind. We went to the music department at the school and my friend got his saxophone. They were all out of trombones in the school music department so I got a baritone saxophone, that was what they had left. I was given a baritone saxophone because I was tall for my age and the teacher figured that I’d be able to carry in marching band. That’s really how I started. It was, like, one of those kind of things you really can’t explain. We have a lot of those as we go through our lives, one of those little things. I liked it. I practiced.

JazzUSA: At that early stage in your development, how crucial was practicing to you and did your parents play an important role in your direction?

EW: I’ve always been self-motivated as a person. My parents never had to force me to practice. My parents were very, very supportive of me doing what I wanted to do, but they were no musically oriented people, so they didn’t really know how to direct my energy. They listened to whatever was on AM radio. But, they were very supportive, as far as, my practicing, not complaining about the noise and that general kind of thing.

JazzUSA: Did you formally take lessons?

EW: Well, Fred, I was studying in the school with the school music teacher. This is early. This is when I was about fourteen, and practicing at home and learning how to play. I wanted to hear people playing the saxophone so I could get an idea of the sound. And there wasn’t a lot of saxophone players on the radio at the time. I think one of the few saxophone players during that period of time that had hit records was a guy named Earl Bostic (alto saxophonist with Lionel Hampton) and I would hear him now and then on the radio. But mainly, there wasn’t any, so I started listening and looking around and found that my neighbor, my next door neighbor had this wonderful jazz collection. He started to lend me records and I remember the first saxophone player that heard that influenced me, that was a positive influence was Paul Desmond, who played with Dave Brubeck and they were very popular at the time. They had, you know, “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo A La Turk,” and they had a lot of successful albums during that period of time. This was the late fifties, I think. I think I started playing around 1958, maybe I was thirteen around then.

So I heard Paul Desmond and that encouraged me. I could hear what he was playing because he played so clearly. He played very melodically and very simply. I could hear what he was playing and I could play some of those things as I practiced. So it was very encouraging to me. It was like, ‘Well, maybe I can do this jazz thing.’ I’m thinking to myself, because I can hear some of these things and I can play them on my horn. So that was very encouraging and I went on from there. My neighbor kept lending me different players so I got a chance to hear Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, all of these great musicians, my neighbor was introducing me to, through these records. So, after I’d been doing that for about a year or so, studying in school. I always took lessons. I always studied, so at the same time I was learning how to improvise, I was also learning how to read music and studying music and playing in bands. So it has always been a combination of the study of, the science of music, and the study and the practice of the art of music too. It’s always been together for me, all of it at the same time.

JazzUSA: But there must have been a turning point, where the music evolved?

EW: Well, after I’d been playing for about a year or so, a couple of different things happened. The school got an alto saxophone and so I switched from baritone to alto. Also, I started studying privately. I started studying the classical saxophone repertoire privately because there were no jazz programs in my school system at the time. So I started studying with a classical teacher. Also, my mother bought me a little record player because she realized that I was fairly serious about this music and borrowing portable record players and listening to records from my neighbor, so she bought me a little record player from Sears and she joined the Columbia Record Club. I think it’s pretty much the same, when you join one of these record clubs, the first one is free and then you get into the program and you order from there. She joined the Columbia Record Club and she ordered the free-be and the free- be at that time, because like I was saying, Fred, this was 1958, ’59. The free record at that time was a Miles Davis album called “Kind of Blue”, because it had just come out. That was, sort of, the turning point for me because I had been listening to all of the different saxophone player’s records that me neighbor had been lending me and then I heard Charlie Parker. I really liked Charlie Parker. I got this “Kind of Blue” album and I heard Cannonball Adderley. He was on this and Miles, of course, Jimmy Cobb played drums, and Paul Chambers played bass, and it was Wynton Kelly on piano and Bill Evans too. The tenor player on this album was John Coltrane. I heard Coltrane play and it just totally captivated me. I had never heard anything like that before and it blew my mind. So, from that point on I was just really focused on Coltrane.

There was something about the way he played that really connected with me. I’ve sort of been a student and aspiring to that level of playing all my life, since then. As far as sounds on the saxophone go, I really loved the way Coltrane played tenor and I really loved the sound that Cannonball got on alto, so as I continued to play alto through the school system, studying and learning, and playing with different bands. I was listening to a lot of Cannonball for sound, the sound quality of the horn. And I was listening to a lot of Coltrane because of what he was doing melodically and harmonically. I was a young kid, so I really didn’t understand what he was doing on a technical level until later, but there was something about what he was doing melodically that really captured me. So that’s how I really got interested in jazz, was through that music, through the bands of some small groups, through the bands of Miles Davis especially, later on, John Coltrane’s quartet. Miles had several great bands, so his band in the ’60s, I was very, very attached to, too. The band with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams, who was just about my age, so it was very inspiring to me at the time to hear an eighteen year old kid playing so incredibly with Miles. So all of that kind of stuff, kind of, inspired me along the way. That was the beginning, beginning, beginning.

JazzUSA: Why do you feel the groups of John Coltrane and Miles Davis have had such a continued impact through the years?

EW: I think mainly with the intent of the music, at that particular time, I would say that both of those groups, Miles’s group in the ’50s and the ’60’s, Coltrane with Miles in the ’50s, and then Coltrane with his group in the ’60s, the intent of that music was to create music. The intent of that music was to create a particular, or a special, or an elevated level of music. And so, I think musicians are attracted to that music because it is unpretentious music. It’s pure music. When these guys got up and played, there was no posturing. It was music. They were there and they were doing music. It was music for music and that’s why it was so beautiful. That’s why it’s so clear. That’s why it was so strong and that’s why it effected us the way it effected us, because it was the energy of the music. That’s the way I feel about it.

JazzUSA: Is that attitude lacking in musicians today?

EW: Well, young musicians are young musicians. The implications of that are in the word young, so, I mean, when Miles Davis was eighteen or nineteen- years-old, he was dealing with his ego and dealing with various things, and learning how to play music, and being competitive. I’m sure that when everybody is nineteen or twenty or twenty-two-years-old or whatever, they’re still dealing with themselves. They’re still trying to work out who they are, so no matter how well they play the instrument, no matter how many notes they can play, or how proficient they are on an instrument, they still have to get through certain aspects of growing up, of maturing emotionally, of going through life. So it takes a certain amount of time for a person to get to the point where he’s really involved in doing this music, and some people as you know, Fred, never get through their egos. Those specific bands were very special because of that. They got through a lot of ego shit. Miles always had his stuff. Miles had his Miles mystic, but in those particular bands, when the music was going on, the music was really what it was about. It takes a while to get to that. Young performers have to get through all their personal stuff. They’re still young people. Now a days, there a lot of young, incredible instrumentalists. I call it like, the way I think of myself is, I’m a really good saxophone player, aspiring to be a really good musician. It’s one thing to be a really good instrumentalist. It’s one thing to play a horn. It’s another thing to be a musician. You can play all the notes in the world, but what you bring to it, and what you hear when you play, and the substance of what you play, and the substance of what you write, that’s what makes a musician. You can be a horn player or you can be a musician.

JazzUSA: Give me an example of a musician?

EW: Now, Wayne Shorter is a prime example of just a wonderful, wonderful, evolved musician, because everything he plays is unique. It’s personally him. It’s on a very high level technically and it’s on a very high level musical substance wise. He’s one of the best composers in this music and has been for thirty years. That’s a musician. It takes a while to get to that.

JazzUSA: Is the current environment in music, the marketing and the hype, allowing young “players” to develop into “musicians”?

EW: No one allows or no one disallows anyone to learn anything. That’s up to them. That’s up to their personal consciousness. That’s up to their personal energy. That’s up to their personal aspirations. All of the information is there. I think there are a lot of great, young musicians that are growing and learning and all of the information is there, so nobody is holding the information back from us. It’s just a matter of when we are individually ready to assimilate the information and that happens for different people at different times. It’s not a matter of anybody allowing it or not allowing it, because if it was that, there wouldn’t be any jazz. Jazz has never been allowed.

JazzUSA: Reflecting back on your musical education, what are your feelings towards the jazz education that is being presented to young students today in school?

EW: There are a lot more opportunities, but there’s not enough music programs. I don’t know if it’s a government responsibility or it’s a personal responsibility of families. It used to be a part of our culture that part of a child growing up and learning about math and science and that kind of stuff in school, their parents had them in some sort of music program, so it didn’t really matter if the school had a music program or not. These kids studied music or there was a piano in the house. All the kids took some kind of piano lessons or something. In our culture, at one time, that was thought of, music education and music training was thought of as part of a well rounded, cultural education. So, I mean, that’s just, kind of, drained out of our culture, probably, mainly because of economics. So, I don’t know if it’s our responsibility. I don’t know if we can put personal responsibilities onto the government.

JazzUSA: You honed a great deal of your playing “chops” in big bands, Gerald Wilson, Buddy Rich, and Oliver Nelson, how did the larger ensemble setting aid in your development?

EW: I think, mainly, the craft of music, learning to play my instrument consistently well. With Buddy, we were working every night. With Oliver Nelson, we did tours and we worked every day. It’s very important to be consistent and I think playing in big bands, playing in ensembles puts that importance on consistency of performances and that’s very good for a young player. It’s a discipline. Every time you play, it’s a discipline. Whether it’s a small band and whether it’s a large band, every time you play, it’s a discipline. It’s another opportunity to get better. They were very good bands. All the musicians were very good and the music was good. The writing was good. Oliver Nelson was an incredible composer and arranger. So listening to his music, playing his music, being in the ensemble and hearing how his harmony worked did a lot for me as far as learning about chords and learning about harmony. The same thing with playing with Gerald Wilson, because he’s such a wonderful writer. And then playing with Buddy Rich, we played very good arrangements and so it was a matter of that day to day consistency of performing your best or aspiring to perform your best every time you pick up your instrument. That sets up patterns for your whole life. There’s a lot of discipline and there’s a lot of things you learn in discipline to, sort of, follow through in other aspects of your life too.

JazzUSA: How important is discipline to becoming a good musician?

EW: I think it’s personal. I think it’s really personal, because I know musicians that are incredible musicians and they’re not disciplined people. It doesn’t really necessarily have a lot to do with that. I think what we have to find out for ourselves, individually is who are, and what we want, and how it works. For me, I’m not a naturally talented, gifted, out-of-the-egg musician. I didn’t wake up with all of this music coming out of me. I wasn’t born with all this music jumping out of me. I’m a person that heard music, that loved music, and loved the things I heard, loved particular aspects of the things that I heard, then I learned about it. I studied it and I disciplined it. So, for me personally, I’m a product of discipline. I’m a product of will, aspiration. I’ve always wanted to do this, so I’ve always worked at it. For me, that’s the way it worked for me, but for somebody else, I know people that can just get up and they can play anything they hear. The only reason that they have to practice is to just have the physical endurance on their instrument to play the things they hear. So, everybody is coming from a different place. It’s a matter of figuring out, I know I have to practice so I do. That’s the difference. It’s not like I know that I have this magic stuff and I don’t have to do anything but let it come through. I know I have to practice in order to do the things that I want to do. Then the magic happens too and it all works together.

JazzUSA: You have been a member of Charlie Haden’s Quartet West for quite some time now, how instrumental has that time been to your development as a musician?

EW: We’re getting ready to record again in February. There’s a few things that we’ve done, that I’m never sure when they’re going to come out, especially the way record companies come and go and get bought and sold (Verve, the label of Haden’s Quartet West has been sold as part of the Seagrams/Universal/Polygram mega-deal and is being combined with Impulse/GRP as one unit called The Verve Group) and everything. For me, with Charlie, and Lawrence Marable, and Alan Broadbent, we all have the same values as far as music goes. We have a similar picture. We have similar aspirations, so when we play together it’s very, very natural. We don’t have to talk about what we’re going to do because we already have an inner picture. That’s the mark of a band that really works together, you know, and I think Charlie had that vision when he put together the group. He had played with all of us and he could hear that we’re all coming from the same place, and because of that, the music really flows. It’s a very beautiful concept and it really works. It’s not like a lot of all-star bands where it’s, like, four band leaders on the stage slugging it out. It’s a band.

JazzUSA: Let’s talk about your new album on JVC “Classic Moods”.

EW: The players are people that I’ve always respected and Jimmy Cobb, the drummer, was the drummer for that incredible quintet in the ’50s with Miles Davis and Coltrane. He replaced Philly Joe Jones, so I grew up listening to Cobb, so it was part of my concept of time, it’s really related to the way that he played with Miles on those records. When I was learning about what jazz is and when I was learning how to play, he was the drummer. It was just a real big honor and treat to have Jimmy Cobb on the project. George Mraz, we went to Berklee at the same time, and so did Alan Broadbent and I. Alan Broadbent and I were at Berklee at the same time, in Boston, so we’ve known each other forever. Getting back to George Mraz, we did a tour a couple of years ago with Charlie and the band. We did this Verve jazz tour (’97 Verve Jazzfest). It was Charlie’s band, and it was Joe Henderson’s trio, and it was the big band made up of musicians that had played on that movie “Kansas City” (Robert Altman film). I heard George play every night with Joe Henderson and he just sounded so great. We, kind of, renewed our relationship again and he’s a good friend, a good person.

So when I did this project I wanted George to be on it because he’s such a beautiful player. The other player on it is Mulgrew Miller. Mulgrew has played on a couple of my other projects too (“Reaching Up”). He’s a wonderful player, a great player. He’s, I think, for me, one of the most natural players for me to play with because we have the same values. We grew up listening to same people. We grew up with those same aspirations and you can hear that in people’s music, and we all get along well personally too. That’s a big part of it, if you get along, and you can be relaxed, and you can enjoy each other’s company. And really, the concept of the record was classic tunes that I’ve always loved that I grew listening to that I’ve never really got a chance to play. They’re really beautiful tunes and as we put it together and started doing the music, it’s basically a ballad project, which I hadn’t really thought about it when I started putting it together, really it was tunes that I wanted to play because it was tunes that I had grown up listening to like “On Green Dolphin Street.” Miles, I grew up listening to Miles play that. I grew up listening to Miles play “‘Round Midnight” and a lot of these tunes. Coltrane with the “Lush Life” album, it was a trio thing on most of that particular album, and then this particular tune was a quartet on that album “Lush Life.” I grew up listening to all that stuff on Prestige, with Miles on Prestige and Coltrane on Prestige. It was, sort of like, getting in touch with my background and tunes that I’ve always wanted to play and never really had a chance to. I’m very happy with it. It’s a beautiful, beautiful CD.

JazzUSA: You seem to have an affinity towards ballads, is there a strings album in the near future for you?

EW: I don’t really know. We’ve been talking about a lot of things, I mean, I wouldn’t mind doing a string album, but I don’t think string albums are magic or anything. I used to until I started working with orchestras. Now I’ve played with a lot of orchestras, with a lot of string ensembles and it’s a beautiful sound, but I think musically you can do just as much with a really great piano player too or a guitar player. So really for me, the format, the surroundings, the environment that I’m in doesn’t really matter as much as the substance of music that I bring to the situation. So I am very involved in practicing. I’m very involved in studying harmony and hearing things, so that whenever I play, if it’s just with two people or it’s with a symphony orchestra or whatever, there is substance in what I do, that I just don’t play some kind of silly shit because I’ve got a lot of chops. That’s what I’m getting very involved in now is that everything I play has some substance and is of melodic content. You know? And then whatever situation that I’m in, it doesn’t really make a whole lot of difference because you bring the knowledge and the substance with you. So that’s what I’m, sort of, dealing with right now, is getting deeper into myself.

JazzUSA: Are you comfortable with where you are at musically, now?

EW: It’s an on going process, Fred. You never really look back. You’re always going forward because you’re always aspiring to something, just like we were talking about, Fred, more substance, more knowledge, more clarity, and you’re always going forward, so looking back, I don’t really know.

JazzUSA: If Ernie Watts had a mission statement, what would that be?

EW: Just to create something beautiful. To bring something beautiful to the world. To help people feel a little better than they normally do. To elevate people’s consciousness a bit. I would say that’s about it.

JazzUSA: From a musician’s perspective, is jazz music in the United States declining or growing?

EW: I really don’t know because I’m really not in touch with the scene. I’m in and out of town. I travel a lot. I do my own projects. I play with Charlie, so I’m not really here all the time to pick up a gig here, or pick up a gig there, or hear the general comments of the musicians that are here all the time. I’m, sort of, in my own little orbit (laughing), so I really don’t know. I would say off hand though it’s like any place else. There’s always musicians that are working on the music, so the music will always be because it’s stimulating and because it keeps musicians alive. The music will always be. Clubs come and clubs go and all of those kinds of situations, sort of, ebb and flow. Things pick up and things slow down, but basically the music will always be. The music will be in all of its forms, even back to Dixieland. There’s guys playing that. There’s guys playing everything from traditional music to whatever you want to call it these days. I don’t know if acid jazz is an old term now because terminology, and fashions, and fads come and go, so people change the names of things, but still it’s the same basic concepts. It’s the same basic essence. The music always goes on. That’s a part of what we are.

JazzUSA: What can we expect from Ernie Watts in the future?

EW: Probably more focused, more intense music. Probably more and more music that is higher and higher evolved as I learn more about music and continue to study. I see, I see myself as continuing to go on, to continue to grow, because that’s the way I’m made up. That’s my nature. My nature is to learn and to grow, so I try to learn something, well, I do, I try to learn something every day.

JazzUSA: At the close of your career, what would you like your legacy to be?

EW: Looking back, I would hope there was some substance in what I’ve done and it had touched some people’s lives, and it had brought some beauty into some people’s lives, and it had brought some joy to some people’s lives. I would say that would be it.