June 14, 2024

Conversation With
Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts
by Mark Ruffin

Almost inexplicably, Jeff ‘Tain” Watts’ second album on Columbia Records, Bar Talk, is out in stores across the country. To celebrate, the drummer, who came to prominence with both Wynton and Branford Marsalis, is touring with his new quintet featuring the great guitarist Paul Bollenback.

Despite the recent purging and gutting of the jazz department at Columbia, including all things Marsalis, Watts survives. Even though it was Branford, then an executive with signing power, who originally gave Watts, the deal, the former Tonight Show drummer is still a Columbia jazz artist.

“I’m as surprised as anybody,” Watts replied when asked how did he remain with the company. “It’s bizarre.

“The fact that I could survive Branford not being there and it was him who brought me in is just kind of wild,” Watts continued. “(Columia’s ) just giving me my own leg to stand on as an artist, which is great. They’re behind me and not behind Branford’s boy. They don’t have to make sure I’m okay because Branford might get upset. It’s purely on my own terms.”

“Tain’s a bad (expletive) musician, that’s why Columbia kept Tain,” Marsalis said earlier this spring when both he and Watts performed at Symphony Center. “If Tain gets to stay at Columbia,” Marsalis continued, “and Columbia does what a company like Columbia is capable of doing for an artist, that’s good for Tain,” “It would be in my best interest to know more specifics about why they’re doing what they’re doing, but I just don’t know,” said Watts with exasperation. ” The best way that I can access them, because it’s somewhat of a unknown quantity right now, is just have good management and refine my band so we can make a good presentation.”

It could be said that Watts’ chance to shine as a solo artist, indeed his whole career owes both the Marsalis brothers a tremendous debt. Or it could be speculated that a musician this talented was pre-destined to become one of top drummers in jazz regardless.

Watts wasn’t headed that way at all as a youth. Surprisingly, he didn’t start listening to jazz until he was in college. But the city he grew up in, Pittsburgh, is known for producing, arguably, the two most important drummers in jazz history, Art Blakey and Kenny Clarke. The Steel City has also produced Ahmad Jamal, Billy Eckstine, Billy Strayhorn and countless others, including the great guitarist George Benson.

When asked about Watts earlier this year, Benson told this writer that Watts is “probably the number one jazz drummer in the world today.”

“I wasn’t aware of him because I was between five and eight years old when he knew me running up and down the street where he lived in my neighborhood,” the 42 year-old musician said. “But he knew me and he made me aware of it later.”

Watts was into pop and was studying classical music at a Pittsburgh college when he first started listening to jazz. Then he transferred to the world famous Berklee School of Music in Boston. It was there where he formed an unbreakable bond with a classmate. That buddy was Branford Marsalis.

“I was very new to jazz,” Watts remembered. “He had all these tapes with his high school band, and with his father and Wynton with various people, He really let me hear how his brother sounded, then a few months later Wynton came to town trying to get in Art Blakey’s band, and that’s when I met him.”

Between 1982 and 2001, Branford, Ellis and Wynton Marsalis, incredibly, made close to 65 albums for Columbia Records, and Watts was on many of them. He also became a first call session and touring player, leading him to perform with a list of jazz stars much too numerous to list, and was with Jay Leno’s music crew from 1992-1995.

Now that that period, the Marsalis era, is over in jazz history, Watts, ironically, finds himself as the artistic anchor of the newly revamped Columbia jazz department.

“Maybe they foresee me doing something in the future,” Watts once again contemplated why Columbia dropped every act Marsalis signed as their Creative Consultant, but kept his best friend. “Maybe they thought, ‘hey, let’s build up some catalog on this guy and see what happens.’

“Another thing I think about is maybe perhaps, the fact that Branford and Wynton no longer records for them, just the fact that I have a connection with them means if I do records with them, they may have some more stuff with them playing on it.

Watts, a smart, but shy, soft-spoken and modest guy with a sharp mercurial wit, rethinks the reason once again, as to why Bar Talk is actually in your favorite record store.

“Someone did tell me that my first record id sell more than Branford’s last couple of records,” he laughed at his friend. “And you know Columbia, if it isn’t anything else, is a bottom-line record company.”