Interview with Jeff “Tain” Watts

This conversation was done in May 2021 over Zoom and transcribed by Scott Douglass.

Ethan Iverson: The only time I met Ahmad Jamal, I thanked him for all the sounds and he replied, “Well, you know, there’s a lot of great musicians from Pittsburgh.”

Jeff Watts: It’s fairly bananas. I didn’t really discover the significance of African-Americans in Pittsburgh and their contribution to the music until college. But then I was really stunned to see how many cats were really from Pittsburgh: on every instrument!

EI: By “college” you mean Berklee?

JW: Well, I actually did a classical thing at Duquesne University for two years before I went to Berklee. I was a timpanist, playing in orchestra and percussion ensemble. My prior jazz background at the drum set was just playing in high school stage band. There’s a way that you can go through the American stage band system where you perform well but are not really given an awareness of the core of mainstream classic jazz — although jazz is certainly embedded in the country’s fabric, even in very rural places far outside of big cities.

EI: Did you play marimba and xylophone, too?

JW: Of course. Timpani was more my specialty, but I played a lot of Bach, various transcriptions, the Creston marimba concerto and some other études and pieces. I have a marimba here and a Musser Pro-Vibe.

EI: What were the best timpani parts? 

JW: Beethoven! It’s not a lot but it’s powerful. Dvořák, New World Symphony. Stravinsky is  famous for his use of timpani. I also played many interesting smaller pieces for percussion ensemble. Vic Firth had a great book called The Solo Timpanist and varied pieces from his Solo Impressions series. Firth was in the Boston Symphony and probably my idol on timpani. There was also a concerto by the German composer Thärichen that was really interesting.

I have perfect pitch, but I didn’t realize it at first. I would just go and tune the timps and play them. After maybe six months people were like, What are you doing? How come you don’t have a tuning fork or a pitch pipe? I just assumed that everybody had perfect pitch.

(In retrospect, I can go back to when my brothers had an early, battery-operated reel-to-reel player/recorder, and they started recording James Brown, different stuff off the radio, Funky Meters, whatever. When they would play it back at their leisure, I was able to hear when the batteries were going away. “Cold Sweat” is up here. [Sings like James Brown, “I don’t care…”] It’s not down here. [Sings lower.] I told my brothers, this thing is slowing down. But they couldn’t hear that it was slowing down.)

Some of the more difficult timpani pieces involve complex sticking, but usually there’s simply a lot of musicianship involved, especially with the orchestra. You’re supporting lower brass and you’re the backbone. When shit is really getting ready to go down, that’s when the timpani comes in. You can be in tune — but then you have to refine that pitch to create the right sonority with the orchestra. You’ve gotta really, like, earball it, I like to say. Really get in there and blend

In high school, I was doing a bunch of stuff: drum corp, the all-city orchestras, and the honors groups. Every Sunday I would take two busses into downtown Pittsburgh where I was the timpanist in the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony. I was a junior in high school, playing alongside graduate students from Carnegie Mellon and Duquesne University. So I thought I was pretty hot. 

But I love timpani and I want to return to it. I think I could play timpani with anybody right now!

EI: Billy Hart told me he met Elvin Jones’s timpani teacher.

JW: The guy I studied with, Michael Kumer, ended up being the Dean at Duquesne University School of Music. When I met him, he was a drum corps and classical music clinician, but he’s moved into leadership capacity and the philosophical side. Besides Kumer, I studied with Stan Leonard, the principal with the Symphony, and the associate timpanist, Bill Schneiderman.

EI: Well, what about the drum set? Who were the first serious people you played jazz with?

JW: At Duquesne University I met David Budway, who was in the conservatory program. I think we came in the same semester. He was playing a lot of Chopin then, but we were both interested in jazz, and of course we still play together until this day. Geri Allen was doing her masters there, she was already great.

I was coming from more of a fusion and funk background. I guess ‘70s fusion kind of ushered me into trying to find out about the more straight-ahead things.

EI:  What were some of your favorite fusion records?

JW: My brother was working at Flo’s Records, and bringing home all these cut-out LPs, giving a bunch of them to me on my birthday. It would be stuff like Mahavishnu The Inner Mounting Flame and other things with Billy Cobham, Crosswinds and Spectrum. The Weather Report recordings. Chick Corea and Return to Forever: Where Have I Known You Before, No Mystery, and, of course, the full-on Romantic Warrior! Then there were all the spin-offs that resulted, like Lenny White recordings. 

EI: The Adventures of Astral Pirates?

JW: The Adventures of Astral Pirates! That’s a groove. That’s right!

EI: You already mentioned a couple of these names, but let’s just get Tain’s thoughts on a few of these master fusion drummers for the official record. Billy Cobham. 

JW: That was perfect for me, because he had that drum corps background. Since I played in drum corps myself, I could understand how good his hands were — but he was also funky. I always dug that Cobham had his own music. He really featured the drums. 

In retrospect, some people might think it was too much, but it was never truly overplaying for me. He was just exploiting the times. It’s the mid-70s and you’re coming off of Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix Band of Gypsies, all this stuff that’s still in the air.

Billy Cobham was my favorite drummer for so long, and he garnered that type of respect for being the greatest drummer in the world. He had the flag. There’s always going to be differences of opinion about the greatest drummer in the world, but he wore that hat very well. And nice music, I thought.

EI: Harvey Mason?

JW: Harvey Mason inspired me from his studio work, for being so damn funky, and his versatility. I had found out that he had a certain amount of a classical background. Maybe he spent a certain amount of time at New England Conservatory. After a couple of years at Duquesne University, I transferred to Berklee — but, really I was trying to transfer to New England, but I couldn’t get a personal audition. And a lot of this is because I heard that Harvey Mason had moved in that direction. 

I just enjoyed him. He would keep it funky, but he could be creative at the same time. Most of my favorite rhythm section players are people that can exploit the situation but also have maximum function. Really hold it down, really keep the party happening, really have some groove, and really take care of the music. But at the same time, they’re expressing themselves on a high level. So that’s him, that’s Elvin, that’s Changuito, that’s Dennis Chambers. It’s Victor Wooten and Paul Chambers.

EI: Mike Clark?

JW: Yeah, Mike Clark. Like the second or third one of those fusion records was Thrust. What do you do with that? To this day, no one can play like that. That’s all you gotta say! It’s kind of like lightning in a bottle, because Thrust is one thing and then, you know, Flood has some stuff; but Thrust kind of has a little more magic for me, although the energy of Flood is happening, even though tempos tend to speed up…but that’s almost part of the jazz tradition. It’s cool. It’s not a terrible thing when the tempos move a bit. 

Mike Clark created that thing. He’s the textbook of that. And then the more you find out about him…there should be a film about Mike Clark because he’s kind of like Waldo. Any situation, he was either there or on the periphery of it. From all kinds of funk and Betty Davis records and all kind of obscure jazz and organ jazz and popular music. 

Mike loves tipping now; It’s almost like you gotta pay him extra to do the Thrust thing. There’s a thing in New Orleans where they talk about that: they’ll play certain songs, but you have to pay them to play the “Saints Go Marching In.” It’s like that for him. Mike, he’s just great and so humble. What he’s playing is everything at once. He’s ticking all the boxes, constantly.

EI: What about Lenny White?

JW: Man, you got the Avengers here, the Super Friends and shit! Lenny was one of my favorites. After Where Have I Known You Before came out, I went to the concert previewing material from Romantic Warrior

Lenny is a vampire, because he looks the same as the first time I saw him. That’s probably the key to his powers. He’s just such a musician. He makes all these great decisions. He’s the prototype of the modern musician because he has his own way of playing everything. I mean, you can hear some Tony Williams or some Philly Joe stuff that he chooses to inject into his swing playing, but I mean, he’s brave. He’s really smart. He’ll play that funk for what it is. He’s a rock star, too, and a fusion master and wrote some beautiful music, too.

EI: I was recently getting hip to how much Afro-Cuban music Lenny White knows.

JW: Did he almost play with Santana? He had a choice. It was something like that. 

Yeah, but, you know what? A lot of that is entailed in being a New York drummer. The real-deal drummers from New York, they take all kind of gigs. There’s not a whole lot of difference, like functionally, between Lenny White and Dennis Davis. Davis played with Stevie Wonder, was a rock star with Bowie, but you could find him in Harlem on a Saturday night just playing with Jorge Dalto or anybody. 

When we lived in Los Angeles during the Tonight Show time, Kenny Kirkland and I had this thing at the Bel Age Hotel. We would play there on Wednesday nights and it became a thing and everybody would come down. Once we were fortunate enough to hire Larry Gales on bass. 

Our thing had kind of evolved into a Latin jazz band. We had a conguero from Cuba playing with us. It would be a mixed bag. Like burning out playing Latin stuff and playing some Keith Jarrett. You know, just trying to keep it sexy because we’re in West Hollywood. We were doing the Latin stuff and Larry Gales had a tumbao that was just unstoppable, you couldn’t teach that to anybody. We’re like, Man! Where’d you get that from? Larry Gales told us, I’m from the Bronx. Of course I know how to do this.

EI: I was listening to some Mongo Santamaría recently and Al McKibbon was on bass. I only knew of McKibbon from Blakey and Monk, and there he is holding down the tumbao with Mongo. 

JW: Mm-hmm. Yeah, the more you find out, the more you discover that you didn’t know, and it’s just beautiful. Willie Bobo is another one to mention, he’s a phenomenon. 

EI: Let’s talk about your years at Berklee for a second. I can’t believe all the people that were at Berklee at one time.

JW: It’s crazy. I need to make a master list before I do these interviews — I remember cats and I’ll name twenty cats, but then there’s like another sixty cats that don’t come to my mind just at that moment. Yeah, Berklee was bananas. A friend of mine, this guitarist from my neighborhood named Stacy Grey, he had come home for the summer from Berklee. He’s a great guitar player, a really personal sound. And he’s like, Man you should think about going to Berklee. Man, this guy Kevin Eubanks, he’s got all this music. He’s like John McLaughlin or something like that. He’s really nasty. And this guy Tommy Campbell who’s like one of the baddest fusion drummers you’ll ever see. And this woman named Cindy Blackman, she’s incredible. And he just started describing all these people. So I ended up there.

I was with Don Aliquo, a tenor player that was in the jazz band with me at Duquesne University. We decided to go to Berklee and be roommates, and rented a U-haul truck and brought all this stuff from Pittsburgh. When we got to Berklee they had overbooked the dorm, so we had to sleep on various people’s floors for a couple weeks. Our stuff stayed in this truck…but then the truck got stolen. Wild.

So finally, after two weeks, we got into the dorm, but I didn’t have any drums. I’m going to classes, trying to do ensembles, and a couple friends of mine knew that I didn’t have a kit. So I would have to go to their drum lockers when they weren’t using their drums. One of them is Smitty Smith, who gave me his combination and said, Anytime you need something to make a class or make an ensemble, if I’m not using it just take it. 

People like Branford and Donald Harrison and David Kikoski and Jim Kost and the great Terence Conley and Kevin Eubanks and Mike Stern, all these people are all over the place making music. I was in George Garzone’s avant-garde ensemble with Ralph Moore and some other people. There was kind of like a Caribbean ensemble that I was in with Branford and the bassist Hilliard Greene and some other folks, you know, great musicians.

Smitty Smith was really doing well. Gene Jackson could really play; Billy Kilson would come through school later. It was just a really special time. Jean Toussaint and Walter Beasley…there were just constant jam sessions.

There was kind of a focus on people trying to get the standard repertoire together and really know what was happening with bebop, but everybody was playing all kinds of music all the time. There was a band called Morning Thunder that kind of had a progressive rock edge and they had a bassist, like a Jaco kind of cat, a great keyboard player; but, mainly: Steve Vai was in the band. They had groupies already, girls hanging outside of the ensemble room, and it was hilarious and cool.

I would go to jam sessions and sit in a little bit, but it took half of the semester for me to get a drum set. Eventually I wrote a letter to the dean and I said, My kit got taken because you guys sent me a letter saying that I should claim my dorm room by a certain day or else it’s going to get reassigned and I get there and you guys hung me up. So the dean arranged for me to rent a kit from Harvey Simon’s Drum Shop, like real old-school funky drum shop, a nice one. And they rented me a set of Ludwigs and I had it for a few weeks.

Then one day I walked into the jam session and I saw a guy playing my drums, the ones that had been stolen. I called the police. The police came and they took the drums. We’re going to hold these as evidence for a while, but at least you know your stuff is back.

The next day, I was in the cafeteria and my ear training teacher—a gentleman that just passed probably in the past year and a half; his name was Orville Wright and he was from Trinidad—saw me in the cafeteria. Orville told me, Come with me. He had the guy that was playing my drums with him. He put us in his car, saying, I’m gonna take you guys to the guy that sold him the drums. Somebody had taken the van, they emptied the van, and the drum set went through a fence, and my man bought them at a reasonable price. Orville was protecting this guy because he was also from Trinidad and he didn’t want him to lose his student visa. I’ll take you to the fence’s house, my man’ll get his money back, and eventually you’ll get your drums and you won’t press charges, right? And I said okay. So I went out there in the south end, like Roxbury or something like that. He had furs, mopeds, stereo equipment, amps, guitars…It was like a big drug dealer/fence. But anyway, I got my stuff back eventually. It still took a while because the police were exerting pressure on me and denying me my instrument because they really wanted to bust this cat and I had to hold on. 

So I had a very exciting first year. 

EI: Welcome to Boston!

JW: It was an adjustment because Boston has its own flavor, especially a different flavor of racial tension that I wasn’t familiar with. There was a lot of stuff that happened with police hassling people, or the time an African-American football player, Darryl Williams, was dating a white chick or something and got shot during a game.

EI: Do you remember meeting Branford?

JW: Branford was himself. He talked a lot. Sometimes he would practice in the practice rooms on my floor and I would go sit around and hang out with him. He always had his own ideas on how he wanted to play on chord changes. He was pretty strictly an alto player at the time. We were friendly but we didn’t play much. After a while in the dorm, he, Smitty, and Donald Harrison were roommates. And so me and my cohort from Pittsburgh, we would try to prank them once in a while like pulling out fuses and leaving stuff under the door and stuff like that.

Sometimes Branford would come by my room and we’d sit around. A lot of Coltrane getting played. My roommate was a tenor player so there was a lot of Coltrane on and also Art Ensemble of Chicago and stuff like that.  Once Branford came by and he played me his high school combo and that’s the first time I heard Wynton. This is my brother and he’s at Juilliard now. 

We would have parties and Branford would be a DJ. He was always very social. He always had kind of like an overview. He was trying to learn how to play, but he always had an overview for music and kind of like a producer’s mentality.

Eventually the Messengers came to Boston, so I met Wynton. When Branford moved to New York to play more with Art Blakey, to work with Clark Terry and Lionel Hampton, he sent me a message: My brother’s starting a band

Wynton was actually still touring with Herbie Hancock. Lew Soloff had called Branford to do a gig and Branford said, I’ll do the gig but can I choose the band? And Lew said, Cool. So Branford called me and I came down. Clarence Seay, the bassist, came down. And then we started hanging with Kenny Kirkland. So he kind of used Lew’s situation to workshop stuff for Wynton’s future group. 

EI: Really? That’s interesting.

JW: Yeah, so we had a handful of gigs like that.

EI: Was that the first time you met Kenny Kirkland?

JW: No, I had met him before that. He was like the urban legend. I kept hearing about him. I was very rebellious, so the more I would hear about somebody, the less I wanted to meet him. I’m like, I don’t care about this dude. Who is this person? Yeah, Kenny K, Kenny K is the greatest. Kenny K is a bad dude. Who is this dude? I think he came to Boston once and played with Miroslav maybe at Michael’s Pub or something like that, but I didn’t go because they were just like wearing me out with this Kenny Kenny stuff. I’m like, Man, later for this dude!

But on certain holidays, a certain amount of us would find a place to stay in New York and jump on the bus and go to New York and hang out and hear the music. I had met Tracy Wormworth by then, and during one of those trips, she brought me by Kenny’s loft. I always tell people, it took me a long time to figure out that this dude was heavy because he was so unassuming and really didn’t give a fuck. 

I knew he could play, from a Urszula Dudziak record called Future Talk that he was on with the violin player, Urszula’s husband, Michael Urbaniak. He was great on that record, it’s kind of like a mixed bag, fusion-y record. And then while I was at Berklee, John Scofield’s Who’s Who? came out. Kenny’s on that recording, too, and it shows a wide range of musicianship. 

Hearing him on records was one thing, but then playing with him….

Kenny Kirkland was always in command, but in a very relaxed way. He was one of the few cats that never had a problem with hearing himself or projection or anything. It never felt like he was banging, but he was always present. He was never complaining about monitors and stuff like that. He had that pretty naturally.

With some artists, it’s the breadth of what they do that lets you know what’s happening. Me and him were knocking out concerts with Wynton and that’s one thing. But then to see him command the terrain in all these other genres…!

There’s kind of a premium placed on versatility these days, and versatility is cool. But I like to say that Kenny Kirkland was versatile with depth. He would be spiritually connected and really in there with all this different music and loving all this different music. There was kind of like a, not quite a smooth jazz artist, but kind of like a saxophonist who was cool — but he wasn’t going out of his way to prove that he was Wayne Shorter or anything like that. And Kenny would play with this guy because he liked the music, he liked playing it. He had respect for any musicianship that was present in anybody, and he always wanted to nurture that.

Everywhere we would go, everybody wanted this cat. Cameo wanted him. Angela Bofill wanted him.  It was the combination of his musicianship and a little aura. It felt good to be around. It’s  the whole package, a really cool delivery system, like Wayne Shorter had. He could play really abstract stuff, but the package that it’s wrapped up in is so appealing that you follow him to those abstract places. Yeah. And he felt incredible.

EI: So Branford put the band together for Lew Soloff and then his younger brother got there and took charge. Is that sort of how it happened? I never heard that before.

JW: You could pretty much say that. Branford was kind of like the man in the street. He was kind of like looking around and he got hip to Kenny. Wallace Roney had transferred from Howard University to Berklee and he was playing recordings with Clarence Seay, who at the time had a real Paul Chambers kind of style. And he’s like, Man, this young guy’s playing all Paul Chambers stuff, man. It’s amazing. And somehow I ended up in there. But, yeah, Branford, he called me for the gig. Branford put it together because Wynton was so busy, doing classical stuff, and in Japan with Herbie and that quartet.

EI: When Wynton’s quintet finally did a hit, what was that like?

JW: It took me a minute to find my footing. I had found out who Bird was only a couple years before I did the first record. I don’t know. I just felt green. Probably I’ll always feel green to myself in relation to this great music and this great tradition on the drums or the music itself. But, I mean, it was also cool. It was something where all the pieces were there. We just had to play.

We did those gigs with Lew and then we got together with Wynton and we did a track for the Columbia Christmas record God Rest Ye Merry Jazzmen, featuring everybody that was on Columbia Records at the time. We played Wynton’s kind of esoteric arrangement of “We Three Kings.”  I flopped my way through that but they didn’t fire me. Maybe like six months later I recorded four tracks that are on Wynton’s self-titled first record.  I guess Ron Carter heard some of those, so I started playing in his “piccolo” quartet, I would take the bus down from Boston and do that. Later in the fall, there was an IAJE gig, that was like maybe our first playing gig as Wynton’s quintet. By then, although Charles Fambrough and Clarence Seay are on the recording, Lonnie Plaxico was in the band. Lonnie Plaxico had sent Wynton a package, he had come in second place in a Ray Brown bass contest or something like that. The IAJE was in Chicago, we went and put together a set of music from that first recording and played. That’s January of 1982, kind of like a preview, and then I just went home and waited for them to call. 

And then they called. I had to move to New York like March or April of ’82 and slept on Wynton’s floor and we just started hitting it.

EI: Phil Bowler was then the bassist for a minute, too, right? There were a few bass players.

JW: A lot of guys went through there. Different cats auditioned. I even had Hub from the Roots audition. He was my friend in Boston: Leonard Hubbard. I feel like he would have worked, but they asked him to play rhythm changes. I think he knew rhythm changes, but he just didn’t know them by that name or something like that. Or he needed the book to play rhythm changes and that made like a stigma. But he was a smart guy and he had a groove, also he had gone to Carnegie Mellon and studied with cats in the symphony in Pittsburgh. So I was like, call my man Hub, man. He’ll play that stuff. It was just bad timing.

But he kind of went through there, and then Phil and then Ray Drummond had a stint, so he’s on part of Think of One. Charnett came in the band but then he was too young. He was still young by the time we did Black Codes, but we played on the Grammys and stuff like that. We also spent a lot of time with Charles Fambrough. This was all like in a year and a half period. 

Even though Wynton was getting a certain amount of notoriety on early gigs, we were playing all the joints across the country, driving in a funky van with bad shocks across the country, staying two people to a room in the Holiday Inn. But then, by early ’83, he got the double Grammy whammy for his jazz and classical and, you know, it started being kind of like a pop gig — but we were playing jazz. The level of everything really went up.

EI: Did you and Kenny Kirkland talk about the way you were gonna play together? Or did you just do it? It was very different. It was fresh.

JW: Okay, good. Yeah. I still had some residue from fusion…but then I figured that the fusion had come from the modern jazz tradition anyway. So I started using that vocabulary and also emphasizing polyrhythms. 

As far as us talking about it, he let me know that he enjoyed interplay, that he enjoyed really swinging hard with emotion. Call and response. Kenny loved Coltrane. So did I.

There was a period of time where my primary mission was to find some stuff that Tony Williams hadn’t played, which is almost impossible. At one moment I was playing four on the hi-hat like Tony, and Kenny let me know he preferred it on two and four, like a backbeat. So, at least behind his solos, I would try to do that more. 

And he was also a drummer. So he would always say, Man, let me play your drums. I got a drum few licks from Kenny Kirkland! He would sit down and play some pocket for a while, and then he would play kind of like an Elvin style. He had this little cadence that he would play on the drums. He would play it and giggle while he played it. It really was hilarious.

But just through that, you could kind of see where he was coming from. And I would go see him play with other people, Ronnie Burrage or different drummers. Yeah, I mean, he was just so much fun to play with. And the more liberties that I took, it was never a drag for him.

In the end, our thing was mostly unsaid.  We could tell each other’s tendencies after a while, and we could kind of feel how each other were breathing. We spent a lot of time together listening to music. So that’s one thing, without having to say anything. Just listening to stuff and seeing what we like. We were probably more social than we were sitting around discussing what to play.

EI: When the band changed and Marcus Roberts is there, that’s a whole other level of organized asymmetry in the rhythm section.

JW: Yeah, it’s kind of like the first band was just visceral. Initially Wynton’s thing was trying to function as an extension of Miles’ band in the ‘60s with little elements of Coltrane and Ornette Coleman in there, while I was just trying to give the swing idiom some juice or energy that I got from fusion music (and other music) and try to have it transcend.

Then as the second band moved in, there was more discussion and study, other elements started to come in there. Wynton asked me to give the guys some stuff.  By that time, one of my goals was to extend Mingus’s thing, where Mingus would play off of the dotted quarter note or play off of the triplet in a gospel kind of way.  

In one early exercise, I was trying to get it so that everybody could deal with rhythm independently but still be comfortable in the form. The overall goal was to be able to get to the texture of free music or the avant-garde while still being in control. In fact, I need to bring that concept back and really get into it, because we were supposed to do it over standards, and do it for a while, and then start to apply the concept to original music. It is possible! 

Anyway, I gave Wynton, Marcus, and Bob Hurst a series of things. It would always be an asymmetrical amount of events that would happen over a form. As an example, for a blues at 180: four bars of the original tempo, four bars of half-note triplets, four bars of half time, and then — when going back up to the original tempo — instead of half-note triplets I would stick dotted quarter notes in there. (Because a lot of people confuse the two, saying “I’m playing in three” but they are playing dotted quarter notes, or the converse. I’m playing triplets. No you’re not. Yes I am. I’m in three. No, not really.) 

So I just had cats do it, and we started doing it. Especially with Bob being there: Hurst is going to be somebody that enforces the integrity of the harmony, because there’s going to be of course instances where you have a choice of anticipating the harmony or resolving it later. He had the tools to make it sound like you’re legitimately in the tempo du jour that’s happening. So we got into that.

Another device was influenced by Kenny Kirkland. There was a tendency in the early ‘80s, where somebody might be taking a solo, and play a rhythm, and then everybody played the same rhythm. It’s kind of a cheap way to get applause. Everybody’ll latch onto the rhythm and they’ll do a big downbeat and everybody’s like, Wow, that’s incredible! Well, Kenny Kirkland hated that. He was like, you know, Use your imagination. What’s wrong? Why do people do that? So he didn’t like that. So I thought of a thing where if you hear a rhythm you try to imagine the opposite of that rhythm. So it resembles a conversation. It’s like there’s the essence of what the question was, but you’re not just simply repeating the question back to the person.

And then, from checking out Monk’s music, there started to be more elements of motivic development. If somebody played a motif in their solo, the motif could become a comp, a figure for a spontaneous arrangement. The comp could be in the time of the moment or it could be displaced into some parallel universe. We were just having fun with that, trying to create tension and release and texture. 

Eventually I tried to introduce more European polyrhythms, like really playing five beats over four or seven beats over four. Not just in a linear fashion, but really trying to use that over song form.

I made that arrangement for “Autumn Leaves.” We were in Toronto, Canada, playing at Ontario Place, one of those rotating stages, and Wynton was trying to get arrangements of standards. When we finished the soundcheck and he said to me, Think of something for “Autumn Leaves,” and I said okay. So then I went to dinner and I’m just sitting around thinking about it and then I said, this is what we’re going to do. And I wrote it down and said, here

People that have checked that out, they know that every two bars there’s a beat added, like an evenly spaced beat one through seven, through eight, and then it resolves off to the bridge. A lot of people have analyzed it, but I never wanted it to be a gimmick.

In my own music, advanced polyrhythms are there either for an organic reason — like “Vodville,” which is trying to simulate drunkenness when drinking vodka, modulating in the form and telling a story —

(“Vodville” with Branford Marsalis, David Budway, and Eric Revis, 2002)

— or on other occasions, certain passages of tunes sound better in different tempos. Some of these devices eliminate the need for a conductor.

The use of accelerating polyrhythms in “Autumn Leaves” was absolutely organic, there was poetic imagery. It was simply the way that the leaves fall. You come out of your house and you see a leaf or two. You come out the next day, there’s more and the next day there’s even more. And then it tapers off. 

So that band, it really developed this thing, we called it the “language.” It definitely was a language. You could set each other up and create spontaneous arrangements. I guess a lot of that vibe is on Live at Blues Alley. If we had explored it more it could’ve really been bananas, I think.

EI: Why did it stop?

JW: Well, that band ended. Wynton was trying to connect with people more or something like that. Initially, his thing was let’s experiment and try to play things that people haven’t played before. And then I feel like his priorities changed. Maybe he wanted a less active background because, although we developed this language, but he wouldn’t really participate in it. He would kind of play over it. But Marcus Roberts was able to internalize it. It was just interesting to play, to explore. Yeah, but I feel like Wynton’s priorities in the music changed. He wanted clean lines. I guess the groovy thing became paramount for him. I never felt like any of the bands were not groovy but he just had a different priority.

EI: On Live at Blues Alley, I perceive a tension between the pieces that are “going for it” versus the pieces that are sort of contained or almost in an older style.

JW: Yeah, definitely. I feel like he went home to New Orleans and played with those cats and he was like, Man, I like playing with this. Let me write some music that goes with this. And so he made a change. Yeah, somehow I should get back to that, if I get the right personnel. I should have a separate band just to explore that thing conceptually.

EI: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe you and Marcus Roberts have played together much since those years either.

JW: You know what? You’re absolutely right. I don’t know if we played once. I’m trying to think of it right now.

EI: It’s a real shame because you guys are so dynamite on those records together. It’s one of my favorite things. You know, put the band back together, man!

JW: Maybe I wasn’t in the club anymore or something. I don’t know what happened. Maybe I should call him for a gig! It was fun watching him grow. Because when Marcus got in the band, he was talented, he had good ears, but pianistically he had a long way to go. He was kind of coming out of Oscar Peterson but technically there wasn’t much there. But he’s  my benchmark for when somebody comes into an existing band. Although he wasn’t setting the world on fire with solos, he knew every arrangement. He knew every cue and every device that was going to go down. So we could just go to the gig and we could just start playing and he could work on developing his voice. I respect that. It was something that let you know that he was going to be great.

EI: I love Blues Alley, and it it has the most of that special “language,” but actually I have a real soft spot for J Mood. J Mood is a hell of a record. It’s really listenable, almost sweet. There’s a little bit of a pop ethos on that record.

JW: That’s a good thing, as we know. Yeah, definitely, there’s a presentation thing on there. There’s an overall sound that has a vibe. There was something in that room during that session, just like a nice little ghostly thing. And the material…it’s a good record.

EI: So Wynton broke up his band and you went with Branford, of course. That was the logical thing.

JW: Yeah, but I had a year and a half off first. That was the beginning of 1988. I had done six years in the band, which is pretty cool. Then, I was kind of just out there.

I was hanging out at the Blue Note and my friend Angel Rangelov—he’s an arranger from Bulgaria that went to Berklee with me—he was in the club with George Benson and told George, Yeah, you know Jeff is not playing with Wynton anymore, man. So George invited me to his house. I did like about six months in George’s band. Played the pop book and then went to Europe and did hybrid jazz festival/pop shows with him, him with Clark Terry and James Moody and his band and stuff like that. I kind of spent almost a year just kind of like bumming around in the best possible way. I was in George’s band and then McCoy Tyner had started calling me and we would just meet up and play casual gigs at Mikell’s. I started little stuff with Harry Connick, Jr., and then I did his soundtrack to Harry Met Sally. Yeah, it took about a year. I think Sting was doing a bunch of stuff but then…even while I was still with Wynton, whenever they would get a break, Branford’s team would put together a run of gigs and Bob would come out and Kenny would come out and we would play. By late 1989, Branford’s quartet is pretty together.

EI: You just mentioned playing with some older masters. One of your first records is with “Big Nick” Nicholas.

JW: Aw, man. Yeah. I think Phil Bowler pulled me into that. It was a real treasure to play with that sound and somebody from that conception. It just gave me a little co-signature: if I play with this brother and I’m swinging, then no one can tell me anything because he is definitely swinging. He was a beautiful dude, man. Everything about him. Yeah, everything about it reeked of Big Nick-ness. He was just like a big dude with a giant head, big voice, big sound. Just a happy, beautiful man.

EI: The record most of us know better is Trio Jeepy with Milt Hinton.

JW: That’s bananas. I was still in Wynton’s band and I got out of it to make that date. That’s when I really thought I was doing something. I was so fabulous, I sent Ben Riley to be my sub with Wynton! I mean, they had to pay him. But once in a while, like, Ben Riley or Roy Haynes would be my sub. Make it a really hip experience on both ends. 

Yeah, but Branford called me. We’re gonna do this with Milt Hinton. He was dabbling in that direction. Somewhere there are tapes of another session that he tried to do like that, with Smitty Smith and Major Holley and maybe with somebody on piano.

I had not much knowledge of the Judge because I was just ignorant, but about twenty notes later I knew everything I needed to know. Yeah, it was just bananas, man. Milt Hinton is another one. That’s an example of what I was talking about with Big Nick. If I’m swinging with this I’m going to be cool. And he acted like he liked me and said I reminded him of Zutty Singleton. Just really positive. 

There’s two things from that. That’s the first time I had recorded something that I have dubbed “backwards swing,” where you move the downbeat to the upbeat and just cut-and-paste all the material. That’s the first appearance of the backwards swing. And cats still kind of play it now. They’ll play off of the upbeat or off of the middle of the beat, inverting the ride pattern and stuff like that. But that’s the first appearance of it. I was like, if I can get this weird shit off with this brother, then it’ll be for real because he’s so real I could just put on a clown suit. I could just do anything. It doesn’t matter.

Also, I chose not to play on “Three Little Words.” Branford was like, Come on, man! Play some brushes. But once I heard the Judge demonstrate his plucking technique, I did not want it to be obscured by my brushes. I wanted people to hear that all of that was coming from the bass. And I’m proud of that. 

Yeah, the Judge. He would also come sit in with us at the summer festivals. Like we’d be in Nice for four or five days and he would always come and play. It was always a blessing to get any of that good ass beat.

EI: Let me ask you about swing for a second, if you’re talking about Milt Hinton or “Big Nick” Nicholas…

JW: Swinging is swinging. It should be a given. Sometimes it’s going to swing really hard. Sometimes you have to just make sure that you swing on your own. Sometimes it’s going to be really ideal for you to get to the type of beat that you want. I feel like when I was younger, if I played in a situation and it wasn’t completely popping for me, I would get uncomfortable. Just growing up in Pittsburgh is part of it. Pittsburgh is just like one of those places where people work hard and stuff. If you’re swinging, you’re not just playing a beat or a pattern. It’s like you’re playing intending for somebody to dance to it. Those first few years, that was my criteria. Even to this day, if we’re at a nice medium tempo swinging, I look out into the crowd and try to find the oldest, crustiest person I can and try to get them to move something. Tap a foot, nod, something. You got to give me something. I’m working on that.

One time I was playing in Ron’s piccolo band and Ron busted me. We would be playing blues and there was a great bass player on there, playing the upright bass while Ron’s playing the piccolo. It just wasn’t what I was accustomed to, so I would just automatically start playing a shuffle. You know, I needed that gutbucket thing. Over the years I learned more and more: You have to swing for yourself and try to swing the band. But one of the best things you can do is just represent yourself and represent your swing and do it in conjunction with people. 

EI: What did Ron say?

JW: He knew exactly what I was doing and he said: Man, I know you’re waiting for it to swing the way you want it to swing, but please don’t have the default setting of a shuffle

Art Blakey has a certain vocabulary. Philly Joe’s thing was a certain vocabulary… I guess one thing that opened it up for me was trying to get inside of Monk’s music. Monk had his vocabulary, but the drummers don’t need to play certain licks. They just make sure that they’re speaking and everything that they play is very much in the pocket. This got me into the thing of having a swing articulation without necessarily playing verbatim swinging vocabulary.

And then the other thing was, I started checking out Papa Jo Jones and he had a thing that I turned into an exercise. You can hear it on some of the Verve records from the 50s like those two with Duke and Johnny Hodges, Back to Back and Side by Side, and also Pres and Teddy. At first I really got into Papa Jo’s beat…but then I saw how he would kind of adjust the shape of his ride pattern. His downbeat would be in one place, but then the grace note that leads to the downbeat would vary. I got into trying to manipulate that, as long as the downbeat was very strong. I found myself adjusting in certain tonalities, like playing on something that’s dark and minor versus something that’s more consonant. So I have an exercise where you play shuffles or you play the ride pattern and you go from playing almost straight eighth notes to the triplet-y feel to a feeling that’s more like dotted eighth and sixteenth, kind of like a Jimmy Cobb kind of clipped thing. If you get comfortable with moving that around, it makes the ride pattern not just something out of a book but something that’s more African and alive.

EI: Tell me about Art Blakey.

JW: Whenever I lived in Wynton’s apartment on Bleecker Street, Art lived four doors up the hall. So you could just go knock on his door and he’d say, Come on, Jeff! Come on in! You’d go on in and he’d sit and play. He had a baby grand in his living room and he’d play Monk tunes and standards. 

Actually, the first time I met Art Blakey was when I first saw Wynton play, at a club called Lulu in Boston. I was there with some friends of mine from Pittsburgh, other musicians that were at Berklee. Art introduced the band, Billy Pierce. Valery Ponomarev, the Black Russian. And then he said, And on the drums, Mrs. Blakey’s bambino, from dirty, greasy, slimy Pittsburgh…We were like, No, no, stop! What are you saying? And he said, Are y’all from Pittsburgh? And we said, Yeah. He said, Well it’s good you got out of that dirty motherfucker. [laughter] 

He was just always so cool, man. That beat and that shuffle that will never, ever walk the earth again. Just the natural, African conception and polyrhythmic conception. Brave. It’s one thing to swing but he had it on lock. It’s like locked up like Bernard Purdie or something like that. That cymbal beat, it was like a machine gun or something. Like you have no choice. 

I guess after a while I went to so many gigs in town, he would always pull me in, make me play like half a set. He made me do it once in front of Max Roach, which was frightening. I miss him. It was great. He was just so approachable, to be that deep and to have done so much.

EI: Was he among the first to really mix up the hi-hat? I was just listening to “This Is For Albert” after Curtis Fuller died and the hi-hat is very polyrhythmic.

JW: Yeah, I guess between him and Roy Haynes, they both did a lot with the hi-hat. 

Art could just do anything. He probably just heard cats doing it and he would just do stuff to show people he could do it. I remember taking a van ride with him to Atlantic City. We were in the van and we’re riding and he’s like, Yes, Jeff. Polyrhythms, you know, it’s no big deal, polyrhythm. You do six over here and you do five with your foot like this. And he was just doing it! You just do that and then you can play in between, you know, playing three over here. He’s just like a natural virtuoso blues musician or whatever.

EI: I heard from Joanne Brackeen that they played him a Tony Williams record, I think Miles Smiles. Then the next night he casually played a bunch of Tony Williams during the Messengers set.

JW: He’s just one of those dudes. You don’t put anything past Art Blakey. Certain guys are just so tremendous. Somebody like Papa Jo or somebody like Art and Haynes, of course, they could’ve played with anybody. Like Papa Jo, he would’ve found something to play with Coltrane. It would’ve been deep. Can you imagine it?

I think the loose hi-hat thing, that’s kind of a Boston thing. Alan Dawson kind of passed that to Tony Williams and maybe Clifford Jarvis spent a little time in that flavor. But the thing is, your primary ride cymbal pulse has to be really, really nice before you go there. Sometimes it’s triplets and sometimes it’s a whole bunch of stuff that you can’t write. I mean, you could but you wouldn’t want to take the trouble, which is some of my favorite stuff. Lift the music off the paper, put it in the air. Play your eighth notes and your triplets but try to play some stuff that’s like speaking and testifying, or that’s lively, that you can’t necessarily write down readily.

EI: It’s a different thing but maybe related, but I also wanted to ask you about being lost. That seems to be part of your belief system. On Trio Jeepy, there’s one tune with Delbert Felix, and in the liner notes you guys talk about how you’re lost in the form.

JW: I like being lost. When you’re lost, it’s when you’re at your most honest, because you have to really function off of instinct and you’re really purely listening. 

Sometimes I make an analogy to how Branford kind of deals with harmony. It’s like he tries to not be so chord-scale oriented and he likes to just get into the sound of the stuff and feel his way around. One thing we were doing, recording with this cat Paul Grabowsky, the Australian composer. He had this sequence, it’s a whole bunch of really modern chords for Branford to play on. He tried to play on it for a minute and he said, You know what, why don’t you guys take a break. I’m just going to stay here with the piano player. Just come back in like fifteen minutes. The cat just kept playing the chords. I’m sure Branford didn’t analyze them. And he just did a Lester Young or something. He just found melodies all through that shit. Part of him likes to be in that space.

Another analogy is when you stay at somebody’s house that you’ve never been to before and they’re like, Well just sleep on the couch and the bathroom’s over there on the other side. And you wake up in the middle of the night and you have to find the bathroom.  Like, you’re in it! You’re like a raccoon or something like that. You’re just like kind of walking around and all your instincts, your hearing, your other senses, are all alive. It’s great.

EI: I didn’t know you spent so much time with Art Blakey. Did you spend any time with Tony Williams?

JW: Not enough. More with Elvin, but Tony, I will say—and I’m sure I’m not the only one—he vibed me for a long time. It’s like, he would be playing at the Vanguard and I would be like, man, Tony’s killing. He would finish up and he would walk down the aisle. Aw, he’s in a friendly mood. This is a good time. I’m going to talk to Tony. He would be friendly to cats and then he would see me and he would kind of diss me. He would kind of like, Hey, man. Hey, man. What’s happening? And be friendly to other people. And I know that some irritating people would tell him that I was trying to play like him, because that was the reputation of our group. But that’s impossible and I would never practice enough to sound like him. He finally came to a gig. We played in San Francisco a couple years before he died. He actually sat through a set and he was like, Aw, well yeah. And he warmed up to me a bit.. 

But the thing that made us really cool was that they had a drum battle at the Blue Note. Billy Cobham had a trio with Wayne Krantz and Delbert Felix, and they had Tony’s group with Mulgrew and Bill Pierce and Wallace. As much as I love Billy Cobham, it was kind of like an exploratory group….I might hear it different now….they were just feeling stuff out and exploring and grooving a little bit. And then Tony just came out with that band with his music, with those arrangements, with that fury and tightness. So it’s kind of like by the middle of Tony’s set, Billy’s walking around, he’s like, Aw, Tony’s whipping my ass, man. This is terrible. And we’re like, No you’re still the greatest. And blah blah blah. But as the set was ending, Cecil Brooks III came over and he said, Hey, man. You know what he’s going to like? Let’s get him some champagne, man. Let’s do it. And so I gave some money and we got him a bottle of Dom Pérignon and Tony came up and we’re like, Man, we respect you so much and you’re so great. And he was like, Wow! And then he was my boy. Then we could just hang out and be cool. But as long as he kept playing so beautifully, I don’t care.

EI: What about Elvin? You had some time with Elvin?

JW: I met Elvin in Boston. We had lunch one time. That was my first time going to the Sabian cymbal factory. We stopped in Logan Airport and he was coming from the Cape. I guess the Zildjian family had taken him boating and on a fishing trip or something like that. We both had a layover and we had lunch. And he just spent a lot of time looking at me with that friendly, demonic look of his. He told me that I looked like I could understand an abstract conception and look at things in a different way. I asked, Are you talking about music or life? And he said, Aren’t they the same thing? He was like that. 

I’d hang out with him. One time I went to the Blue Note to see him. I have some pictures here somewhere because I gave James Williams my camera. At first I was kind of, like, gushing. And Elvin was like, Naw, man. Take another picture, man. Let’s hang out like some dudes. Like we’re just here and we are together and we are the same. And so I posed with him one more time and tried to look hard.

Another time he came to NBC to rehearse to do Bob Hurst’s trio record with Kenny Kirkland, One for Namesake. He and Keiko, they came to our rehearsal room downstairs, and I was there to make sure that he was comfortable and make sure he had a good kit and some decent cymbals. He came in and rehearsed. We hung out. So then after that he was like, Man let’s hang out. What are you doing? I said, actually, I have a gig. He said, Man, I’ll go to your gig. So we’re like riding around, driving in the Hollywood hills and driving all over West Hollywood. So finally we go to Catalina and so I’m supposed to play with Kevin Eubanks and Adam Rudolph is on the gig, too. So Kevin asked me, he said, Man, I want you to come, but come to the second set. I want to play the first set duo with Adam. And I said okay. So then Elvin’s like, Well, this is your gig? I say, Yeah. So I parked and we walked in. He was like, How come you’re not playing now? I said, Well, he wanted to play with the percussionist first. Elvin laughed, and said, That’s why there ain’t nobody in this motherfucker, there’s no drummer!

Elvin was always encouraging. He was just really positive and never a drag and never pompous. All the cats, though, Roach. Mr. Roach. Mr. Higgins, of course. You know, all the cats. They all gave me the feeling that we could just hang out like people. I really appreciated that. So when people tell me I’m nice to them, I say, I don’t really have a choice — because they were all very, very cool to me. 

EI: Can you compare Tony Williams to Elvin Jones, in terms of their playing?

JW:  There’s definitely some commonalities. Tony comes out of the avant-garde in his own way, and Elvin does, too. You notice that overtone. But there’s different shapes on them. Elvin is probably more circular and splotchy. He arrives at his freedom in that way. 

I looked at Max Roach as like a bunch of kind of geometric figures or something like that. Crystalline ideas that are very definite; but he knows how to manipulate them to get to a loose thing. But if you were to break it down, it would be like little diamonds and squares.

Tony was like an extreme version of that, because his grid rhythmically cuts across so many things; but it would be like really fine, really small geometric figures.

I guess there was period where Elvin was kind of like Philly Joe but then he kind of just turned into this thing. Swinging. It’s really brave, daring to juggle all that stuff while still swinging that hard. 

Tony dealt with the question, at what point do you jettison tradition? In the end he absorbed so much tradition that he came out the other side as himself. But if you look at the components, you can hear that Art Blakey cymbal crash with the bass drum. You can hear that Max Roach tone and dexterity on the tom-toms. The components are there, but he didn’t just cop from one or two cats and regurgitate. He digested the stuff and made it into his own. You know, he reeks of tradition, but he’s also not the tradition at all. I don’t know. Yeah, I’m just glad that there’s both of them.

EI: I wanted to ask you about Keith Jarrett and Paul Motian because you explored that style with Branford a little bit, and on one of your own records you even programmed “Rotation.”

JW: Mm-hmm. Kirkland was always trying to get me into Keith’s vibe. Early on, he gave me a cassette of one of the Standards records. And I didn’t really dig it. I guess my taste had gone in a certain way, and if the improvisations didn’t have the architecture of, like, Coltrane or something like that, it was kind of hard for me to hear. I didn’t really understand Jack DeJohnette back then. I was like, Agh! It’s like it’s almost Tony and it’s kind of almost Elvin, but I’d rather listen to Tony and Elvin. But then I discovered what a genius Jack DeJohnette is later.

Anyway, I wasn’t really feeling Keith at the time. And Kenny was like, Did you listen? And I said, Yeah, it was kind of…I don’t know. And he was like, Well, if you don’t like Keith Jarrett, you just a dumb motherfucker. So I said, Let me listen again. Eventually Kenny brought in “Trieste” for Branford — he wrote a blowing form for it — and exposed me to those albums with Motian, Bop-Be and Shades. That tune, “Shades of Jazz,” oh my god! Yeah. And then “Rotation” also blew my head off. 

Paul Motian, you know, it’s so innocent, man. I dig him playing time,  it’s really honest. It’s just not tainted by anything. It’s kind of like if you gave a baby some drums or something. He just kind of does it. And then there’s his free playing, which I really love, too. 

The cats that can really play free are special. When it’s time for me to play free I always think I have to be really busy or something like that. I’m always moving from thing to thing. Okay, I hit my bell. A bit of sizzle. And then going over here, I play brushes for a while. 

But the guys that really do it, it’s like they just kind of exist in the free zone. When you see Andrew Cyrille, he’s just like, Bang. Okay, he’s just there. It’s free, and he’s just nudging the music along. It’s cool. Once in a while, he creates an event.  

Motian had that, too. Just really some brave playing. And some beautiful music that he wrote as well. Easily some of my most inspiring and favorite nights were with Paul’s trio with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell. Certain people just have their thing. Like our friend Mr. Billy Hart has that ability to conjure, he can create an environment out of nothing. That’s really special. Whatever you can do to develop that part of your musicianship, I’m trying to do that.

Kenny was unwavering in his love for Keith. When people would say, Oh, Keith is rude, Kenny said he never wanted to meet Keith because he loved him so much that he didn’t want to see the dark side of Keith. He just tapped into that beauty. We would be in soundchecks with Wynton, almost from the beginning, and Kenny would play “Starbright.” And we would be like, What is that? He said, Yeah, that’s some Keith. And then years later I would get Facing You and understood. 

EI: Did Kenny ever talk about Richie Beirach?

JW: Of course. Yeah, definitely. He acknowledged Beirach with an approach to harmony. That school of cats, Dave Liebman and Beirach, had something valuable as educators and performers. 

By the time I got to Kenny Kirkland I’m like 20 or 21. He’s like maybe 26 or something like that. But he had already gone through so many styles at a high level. He had played with the free cats, and Chico Freeman and all the avant-garde cats. Played with Dewey Redman and was almost an ECM artist himself on those records with Miroslav Vitous. But he also had been in the studio with David Crosby.

EI: Tain! Thank you so much for your time today. I’ve got a long list of names to ask you about, and maybe some time I’ll get another shot, but for now, let’s close with an under-recognized giant that left us too soon,  Larry Willis.

JW: Aw, man. He was just beautiful. I guess initially he would be Kenny’s sub. Like once in a while Kenny would have to go to Japan and get some of that yen from Terumasa Hino and other people back when the dollar was very strong. Wynton would endorse it, and Larry Willis would come in. He had it all, man. He had it all. The pocket, the beautiful ballad playing. Such tenderness, while you’re also being very intense. 

When he traveled with us he was a very unobtrusive mentor. Just to see how much he loved music. Sometimes Wynton would be a little critical of him and he would kind of take it to heart. But he wouldn’t pull his “elder card” or anything like that. I forget what standard we were playing, but we were somewhere and Larry took a solo on this tune and he quoted “You Make Me So Very Happy” by Blood, Sweat, & Tears. And Wynton got upset. Afterwards Larry was like, Man, I can’t believe he’s freaking on me about quoting that song. It’s all just music in the ether to be used. 

Larry was just always cool and encouraging. He had a couple bootlegs of gigs that he had done with me. I went to his house for dinner and he just started playing them for me and just showing me parts where we really connected, and telling me that he cherished the opportunity to play together. Also, I had my stint with the Fort Apache Band, so we got to vibe on that, too. Larry Willis is another example of the New York musician, ready to do whatever it takes. 

Jeff Watts website.

A surprising and enjoyable four minutes: 2009 video realization of Watts’s composition “Return of the Jitney Man” with Branford Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, and Christian McBride.