Monday, November 25, 2013

Part 1: Deleted Scenes from A Candid Conversation with Bobby Watson

In November of 2013 I sat down with one of the greatest living champions of jazz, Bobby Watson, for an interview for JAM Magazine. I've been a huge fan of Bobby's music since my formative early teenage years. I studied saxophone with Bobby at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance for five years, and over the years he has become an important mentor and friend. As a student of Professor Watson, our lessons often consisted of no playing at all--just conversing and philosophizing. Countless times our meetings would start with a simple question or two, and once you got him going, he would end up saying some of the most profound things you'd ever heard. Some of them resonated right then, and others years later. My idea for this interview was, essentially, to re-create the vibe that led to so many heavy discussions when I was his student. 

Bobby gave me nearly five hours of dynamite material, but unfortunately I had under 2,000 words to work with in the JAM article and a lot of great pearls of wisdom and insight were left on the cutting room floor. I didn't want any of that to go to waste, so over the next few days and weeks I'll be posting a potpourri of "deleted scenes" from the interview. They'll be mostly unedited and maybe in random order. Parts of these ran in the JAM article, as well. 

If you were moved by any of this in any way, or you found it thought-provoking or interesting, I would encourage you to share this on social media and send to your friends. So many of the things that go viral in jazz these days are transparently and purposely controversial, and sometimes just downright negative. I found this conversation to be uplifting, so how's about we make something uplifting go viral for a change?

The first installment deals mostly with Bobby's relocation from New York to Kansas City in 2000 to take over the Jazz Studies department at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance:

"Maybe 3 years or so before I formally applied for the (UMKC) job, I got a letter from Mike Parkinson saying that they were looking for a new director of jazz studies because he was going to be leaving. And I looked at it but I wasn’t really ready for it. In 1999 they unveiled the Bird bust on 18th and Vine and there was a big ceremony there. Max Roach and Milt Jackson and Roy Haynes were there. I had flown back for that and I saw Kerry Strayer. Me and Kerry had known each other for awhile and were really tight. Kerry told me 'You know, they got the search going, and you should try for it.' And I thought that was very big of him because he’s someone, with his expertise, he could have went for it himself. But he realized they were looking for someone with a national or international presence. And as my friend he said 'Man, you should really go for that.' I asked all my friends in New York, 'What do you think?' Being in New York for 25 years at the time, you’re on the front lines of the music and you’re in the trenches…but man, I had a chance to go home. It was almost too good to be true. I always felt that at some point I wanted to come back home, and all of the sudden this opportunity opened up. I went through the process, they invited me out for the interview, and it worked. At the same time, I was tired of the hustle. Of working. I could work every day of the week, but it was just wearing me out. I reached a critical mass in terms of being in New York and being available. I was working with the Mingus Big Band, doing all kinds of stuff that was really high quality. I was working at the Vanguard, the Blue Note, Birdland…but I was kind of in a vice and I couldn’t break out of it. Those gigs helped sustain me, but I couldn’t elevate my profile. I was going to Europe a lot. I was in a holding pattern. I felt like Birdland had a stranglehold on me. They said if I worked there I couldn’t work at the Vanguard for 6th months…if I worked at the Vanguard I couldn’t work at Bradley’s afterwards. As a horn player, at the time I had been with Blue Note and Columbia and I had a name. And when my name went out there they wanted to capitalize on that, so I didn’t have the freedom to freelance in New York like the rhythm section players and other sidemen. That’s how it goes as you put yourself out front as a leader. This thing came up and I was able to get away, and it gave me freedom. It kind of freed me up from that NY vice. Gave me some stability and a steady paycheck and health care. I had no choice at the time man, I had to keep working. Top stuff, man. But you reach this critical mass where you could do this the rest of your life, but…"

"When I taught at Manhattan School of Music, my combo was Stefon Harris, Eric Harland, Jason Moran. I used to play duets in the practice room with Bill Stewart when he was in school."

"I was home, and I was around my folks. The way of life out here in Kansas City is much less expensive and easier. You have the benefits of a steady paycheck and healthcare. And at my age, I was 46 when I came out here. I ran it by a lot of my friends and they said 'If you don’t take it, I will! You’re crazy if you don’t take it!' I felt like I was a traitor if I left New York and left the battle. I felt like I was deserting ship, you know?"

"I was living the life, you know? I had discipline in my life, I was getting up, I was writing, I was practicing, I was creating. I was living the life, man. I was in the prime of my life, and I wasn’t thinking about teaching. That was the last thing on my mind. Going back home and being a professor, are you mad? But all of the sudden it’s just like, something just clicked in my brain. It was something that just happened at a certain time that led me back here. It was a perfect storm."

"I was able to come to a program that had a history, but didn’t have any teeth in it. The program was a vanity. You come to the Conservatory and play in the wind symphony and the orchestra  and you can take a little jazz on the side. So my charge was to put some teeth into this program and make it a bona fide program." 

"We’re trying to brand the program. It’s not about me. If you go to North Texas or Berklee it’s not about who’s teaching there. It’s North Texas, and it’s Berklee. It should be UMKC. That’s the goal, and we’re getting close."

"It’s been better than I expected. It’s exceeded my expectations. At the same time, it’s taught me patience."

"I think the scene in Kansas City has gotten so much better, and a lot of it is because of the alumni that have come out of UMKC since I’ve been here. They’ve all stepped up and have done their thing and have made a presence on the scene." 

"Some of the older guys in town started hiring the students…they ended up embracing the students. They realized our students show up on time, they play their ass off, they read, there’s no prima donna crap or baggage. Here’s this new pool of talent, and they jumped on it. And it changed the whole dynamics of the city. It just sort of changed everything. I think I can take credit for setting a vibe for what it means to be a musician and have certain morals, but I have to give a lot of credit to Dan Thomas. He has this expertise in academia that I don’t have, and he has the right spirit."  

"I’m not going to apologize for who I am, and the dues I’ve paid, and what I’ve done. I’ve owned it, I’ve paid my dues, I’ve sacrificed. My family, my kids growing up…not being home every night to see my kids take their first steps or hear certain words come out of their mouth, man. I missed all that." 

"I was ready to be called 'local'. It doesn’t bother me. The ego part is out of the picture." 

"When I was doing my interview, they asked me, 'What’s your vision?' And I said, 'I just want our students to go out and kick ass.' That’s how I think. And that’s what our guys have done. Our guys are kicking ass, man."

"There are certain relationships I’ve been built in my 13 years here…I can’t even call them students anymore. They’re my friends. They’re my family. The relationships I’ve built with people, it’s beyond words." 

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