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?
In the third installment, Professor Watson talks about what he misses about New York, his views on education and challenges as a professor at UMKC, and some of the political impetus behind his new CD, "Check Cashing Day."
I’ve sacrificed the opportunity to take any gig that comes my way. I’ve put a strain on my relationships with my agents around the world, because up until the time I came to Kansas City they had free reign to book me any time they wanted. But now they’ll have an opportunity for me and I’ll have to say I can’t do it during that time period. So that’s been a bit of a problem.
I don’t miss being in New York. I miss my New York friends. I miss the kind of conversations that I can have with my New York friends. There are certain kind of conversations I can’t have with cats form Kansas City because it might come across as arrogant. I miss being able to relate to being on the road and fighting the battle for the music. A lot of people don’t understand that and the sacrifices. I miss the food, too…I mean…Korean BBQ...
The hardest thing to do, I’ve found from being at UMKC, is to be an honest and true teacher. I wake up at night thinking about my students and what I’m going to do to help them. Because every year is different. And students are all at different levels. So how am I going to write a syllabus? Because every year’s different. Improv is my favorite class, and my scariest class.
Our education system came out of the assembly line. But we’re talking about human beings, who have different rates of growth, different ways of learning. And you’ve got all these people who come through the assembly line, and get their diploma and go “OK, I’m good.” But then you’ve got others who might be geniuses, but they get put in special education. I believe that education is not a stamp. You’ve got to adjust every year, which puts pressure on the teacher. I might give you an A, but you gotta ask yourself: did you deserve it? I’m not about holding you back. If you got it and didn’t deserve it, you gotta live with it. What’s the value of an A? It’s about the effort that you put in.
Everybody blossoms at their certain time. You have to address the individual and assess the devotion, and the character and the dedication they have. As well as the desire and the ability.
I hear people, and I just want them to hear themselves. Because you can’t escape yourself. We have our own song, but we have to learn to love it. That’s the hardest thing, is to stop looking outward, and look inward.
I’m an expert clinician. I can go to any school and do two or three days and rock their world, man. When I took this job, the hardest thing was to develop students over four years, when they see you every week.
My problem is, I’m still learning. I don’t have it together. I haven’t had time to sit back and codify what I know. But if you ask the right questions of me, I can give you some great answers. But you gotta ask some questions. I’m not a command performance. I’m not gonna spoonfeed you. I don’t have the Bobby Watson method published by Alfred Music or something. Ask me something, and I will show you. I know a lot of stuff, man. I don’t have a life. I didn’t go to the prom. I missed a lot of social events because I was a nerd playing the saxophone, but now I can help with you that.
People develop at different times. It’s not an assembly line. People grow at their own rate and in their own time. And sometimes you might tell somebody something that doesn’t click for another couple of years.
It’s like this. You’re going to have to wash your dishes sooner or later. The dishes can pile up in the sink, but sooner or later you’re going to have to was the dishes. You can do it now, or you can do it later. But sooner or later you’re going to run out of spoons, and you’re going to have to wash the dishes. You don’t want to do your laundry? Cool. But sooner or later you’re going to run out of underwear.
When it comes to the question of race, you ain’t never gonna fix what you cannot face. And none of us have any connection to slavery. None of us are responsible for that. And that’s the tricky part. I wasn’t a slave. I went to an interracial high school, I went to college and got a bachelor’s degree.
It’s tricky. I just want to open up a little window, and then move on. I just want to get back to the bandstand and playing with my boys. It’s just the tip of the iceberg. I didn’t really want to go there, but at the same time, it was a catharsis for me.
Everybody tries to play it off. Nobody’s getting lynched or anything anymore, but can we just deal with this stuff and get it over with? You gotta respect culture. If you go to Italy, Italians got their culture. There’s an East Indian culture. Everybody’s got their own culture. Respect it, because this is America. We’re the only multi-cultural society on the planet. We’re supposed to be a melting pot.
I grew up, and it was black and white. I got to New York, and I learned the subcultures. I learned what it was like to be Jewish when I was in New York. Polish, Irish, Jewish…all this time I thought all you guys were just white!
We don’t have time to argue, man. You gotta back off, and pick your battles. Sometimes, you gotta go, do I care about this guy? No. Do I love him? No. You gotta go down your checklist, and if he doesn’t make the checklist, am I gonna say something to him? No.