Jeff "Tain" Watts: Moods and Melodies of a Drummer
JW: Yeah. I went to Duquesne University as a classical major, played tympani on a number of things; did operas and musicals and new music and stuff like that. I started my collegiate training to be a symphonic percussionist. But then as I started to play more drum set, I adjusted my thing. I wanted to be able to perform authentically and accurately on the classical percussion, but also plays different styles on the drum set. So I heard about Harvey Mason, and how he studied at the New England Conservatory, and how he was capable of all these different things in a studio setting. So I started trying to be versatile. My thirst to explore jazz was pretty much out of that, out of a wanting to be versatile and sound decent in a jazz setting if anyone asked me to do that.
AAJ: Were you gigging around town, or mostly school?
JW: Mostly school when I was in Pittsburgh. When I really started to play around town, it was while I was in college, an occasional jazz gig, and R&B group called Flavor that was around. We played stuff on the radio and it was fun. When I transferred to Berkley and went to Boston, I really started to play with people a lot on the drums and really fell in love with jazz specifically. I was still trying to play everything and prepare myself to get some kind of gig, any gig, when I got out of school.
AAJ: You ran into a lot of jazz musicians at Berkley?
JW: Yeah. It was also when Branford [Marsalis] went and also Donald Harrison, Marvin "Smitty" Smith, and Cindy Blackman and Kevin Eubanks. There was like a dozen or so people pretty prominent today. It was a very different time. There were a lot of people experimenting with jazz education as it existed during that time. It's probably better now. There's a lot more curriculum and facilities and stuff like that, specifically for jazz now as opposed to then.
AAJ: When did it start really becoming serious with jazz for your career? You went with Wynton [Marsalis] around this time?
JW: I guess so. That's pretty much it. I was trying to prepare myself to do gigs. By the time Wynton called me, I'd been pretty much listening to jazz just for a couple of years. He called me and we made his first record.
AAJ: You knew Branford from school.
JW: Yeah. Brandford put together Wynton's first band. Because Wynton was pretty busy. He was doing Art Blakey's thing, then he had a stint with Herbie Hancock's quartet, and doing classical stuff. So he was around New York, but I guess he trusted his judgment, so Branford kind of put the first band together.
AAJ: Was that your first big break?
JW: Yeah. That's about it.
AAJ: You were with him for how long?
JW: About six years. All of his recordings in jazz that have won Grammies, I'm on those. They kind of stopped giving them to him later on. But he has a Pulitzer, so I guess who needs a Grammy?
AAJ: When Branford split from Wynton, you split with him?
JW: Branford and Kenny Kirkland, they stopped working with the group in 1985. The band started in 1982, from his first record. They went and started working with Sting. I stayed around. The band changed into a quartet that did a few records, with Robert Hurst on bass and Marcus Roberts on piano. It was a different direction from the first band, transitional as far as Wynton's palette. He's definitely started to play more standards and go into early music more. His first band was more about blowing and improvisation and trying to do things in different formats. The second band, we still interpreted a lot of original music, but we just played more standards. I started to add a lot of systems and sequences and things to make the time feel more improvised. I kind of implemented that stuff with Wynton and the band to kind of give the group a different sound.
AAJ: Who were your influences, as drummers.
JW: The same old names keep popping up, but there's a reason for it. You know. Definitely Elvin Jones was a big influence. Roy Haynes. Art Blakey, Ed Blackwell. Drummers from other music like Harvey Mason and Billy Cobham, stuff like that. The seminal jazz guys. When I was trying to learn about jazz, I tended to focus at first on bebop people and people after that, so the classic bebop guys like Roy, Art and Max Roach. And then going up into the modern thing with Philly Joe Jones and Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Ed Blackwell and people like that.