Bobby Watson Pins Down The Blues


Over time, saxophonist Bobby Watson has learned to connect the idea of the blues in his life and in his music.

(Photo: Jimmy & Dena Katz)

“You can’t believe how many musicians are afraid of the blues, man,” Bobby Watson said recently over the phone from his home in Lenexa, Kansas, a suburb southwest of Kansas City. It’s a natural topic, given the blues’ centrality to the sound and feel of jazz, and it’s particularly apt in light of Watson’s latest album, Keepin’ It Real (Smoke Sessions). Recorded with his new band, it maintains the bop-schooled brilliance that the alto saxophonist is known for, but flavors the music with a strong sense of the blues—and even gospel at one point.

It’s not a revolutionary move by any means. As the title suggests, that emphasis is all about getting back to basics. But as Watson has learned in his years as a performer and teacher, those basics aren’t always easy to master.

“I had this one musician, man, who asked me what I wanted to do tonight, and I says, ‘Man, I want to play some blues,’” he recalled. “Now, this was a person who was, technically, way out there, who played and wrote their own tunes. I just told him, ‘I want to play some blues,’ and the cat begged me not to. He got tears in his eyes. ‘Please, please, I suck! I don’t want to play the blues.’ And I’m like, are you kidding?”

Watson laughs as he tells the tale, but he understands the feeling. “The blues is something I think you have to grow into,” he said. Even though he grew up with the music—“It was blues on Saturday and gospel on Sunday,” he said—he understood early on that there was a difference between knowing the music and feeling it.

“I felt intimidated by the blues for many years,” Watson said. “With some people, I could tell they were feeling it from head to toe. I could play it, but I didn’t feel it the way they did. I felt like I was an impostor, you know?”

Given the stellar ascent of Watson’s career, that might seem hard to believe. Two years after graduating from the University of Miami, where classmates included Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorius, the saxophonist joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. He was in the band from 1977 to ’81 (Branford Marsalis eventually took his place in the alto chair), and has released dozens of albums, both as a leader—often with his Horizon quintet—and as part of the 29th Street Saxophone Quartet.

Through all that, Watson was learning—not how to play the blues, but how to connect with the blues inside himself. “I can reach back to my childhood and realize that the blues has always been a part of me,” he said. “We didn’t listen to it around the house, but it was always there. Once I started to connect the dots, I realized where I fit [into] my version of the blues.

“The more seasons you get, you want to put that out there more,” he added. “You are who you are.”

It might be tempting for fans to imagine a connection between this emphasis on the blues and the end of the Horizon lineup, but Watson suggests a more prosaic culprit: success.

“As guys grow and their name starts ringing, they get gigs, man,” the saxophonist said. “And you can’t get ’em when you need ’em. Especially rhythm section players. [Horizon drummer] Victor Lewis used to put his drums in the Vanguard and leave ’em there for three weeks.”

Needless to say, this made booking dates a scheduling nightmare. “The last time we got together it took a year-and-a-half of planning ahead of time—for four gigs!” He laughed, and added, “And even at that, [bassist Essiet Essiet] couldn’t make it.”

Of course, with the new band—which, in addition to longtime collaborator Curtis Lundy on bass and veteran Victor Jones on drums, includes Victor Gould on piano, and either Giveton Gelin or Josh Evans on trumpet—booking a tour poses a different challenge: There’s no place to play.

Like the rest of us, Watson has no idea how the pandemic is going to play out, but he thinks we’ll all get through this. “[Everyone will] make adjustments,” he said. “I mean, mankind survived bubonic plague and malaria and all this other stuff. I figure it’s just a matter of being patient.”

And in the meantime, there’s always the blues.

“I started playing a blues on my gigs several years ago,” he said. “Just a blues. I call it ‘Up To The Minute Blues,’ based on this week’s current events. And I start preaching on the horn.” He sings a blues phrase to the lyrics, “I just saw Donald Trump. Oh, what a dummy he is.”

He laughs. “Obviously, I’m just thinking as I play. ‘He’s a jive motherfucker ... .’” He laughs again. “That’s what will be going through my head when I’m playing those slow blues. I just start telling people about my day.” DB

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