Arms drawn up short like Joe Louis, ready to deal up dynamite from six inches or less with either hand, Jeff Watts stalks the groove, poised to pounce between the cracks of space and time with panther-like displacements: one second clawing, one moment pawing the beat. Rhyme, reason and guile, not defined by one style, inform the swing of Jeff Watts.
Droll, collected and resourceful, Jeff Watts has held the drum chair since Day til in the most publicized, precocious, and promising young jazz band of our day—The Wynton Marsalis Quintet. Along with tenorist Branford Marsalis, pianist Kenny Kirkland, and bassist Charnett Moffett, Jeff Watts rounds out what is shaping up as a most distinctive—even innovative—improvising ensemble, and he is uniquely gifted to deal with the Quintet’s lush creative opportunities. Having come through the classical and concert tradition as a percussionist, timpanist, and mallet player, Jeff Watts brought a different set of ears to his first experiences with rock, funk and jazz, so it’s not surprising that his responses to the music have been so personal. Very much a child of the ’70s, Jeff Watts came to jazz through the matrix of fusion drummers who split the distance between the acoustic and electric traditions: the Billy Cobhams, Harvey Masons, and Mike Clarks of the world.
As with Wynton, listeners have to play “guess the influence” with Jeff’s drumming. It is, as he would readily admit, a work in progress, yet there’s clearly something else in his head. Young musicians today, as Duke Ellington prophesied, are better trained and prepared to take on jazz’s past, present, and future; unfortunately, the “University Of The Road” no longer exists, so where else can musicians go to absorb the great American tradition but on records? And because young musicians choose to honor the past by studying and cherishing the work of their elders— with an ear towards preserving it—does that invalidate their technique or render it simply derivative?
Only if they choose to go no further. But Jeff Watts, like his other contemporaries on the New York scene, is trying to find new uses for this root language. In the Marsalis Quintet, the rhythm section, particularly the drummer (as Max Roach prophesied), is no longer a back-line instrument. Jeff Watts reaches out and engages the horn players, blurring the distinctions between foreground and background so that the rhythms of the horns carry his melodies. Oh, he keeps time, but not on a leash, and when he, Kenny, and Charnett start sparring with the traditional groove, it feints, bobs and weaves in some very unexpected places. If the horn players are not alert, their mouthpieces will fly out, but Wynton and Branford relish the danger, and therein lies the dynamic and the excitement of this band live.
On record, only Think Of One begins to suggest the power of the band I saw at the Village Vanguard, but these ambitious young players are beginning to blossom into individuals. For Jeff Watts, the day when drummers will begin to look to him for leadership, thrills, and ideas is very much in the offing.
CS: How long have you been with Wynton Marsalis?
JW: I’ve been with the band since it was a band. Our first gig was in January of 1982 at the N.A.J.E. convention in Chicago. The first time I ever played with Wynton was while I was attending Berklee. We made the Wynton Marsalis album the summer between my fourth and fifth semesters; the cut “We Three Kings” on the Columbia Christmas Album was recorded the previous winter. I went back to school for the fall of 1981. I left school in the winter of 1982 and started working.
CS: And the rest is history. When did you first realize you were a drummer?
JW: It took me a long time to realize I was a drummer. In the fourth grade, they came around and asked all the kids what instrument they thought they’d like to play. I wanted to play trumpet, but they told me that my teeth were incorrect for playing the trumpet. I wanted to be on an instrument I could play concert music on and, I guess, get down on, so to speak. So I started playing snare drum on a school instrument and taking my little lesson every week.
CS: What were they laying on you?
JW: Basic rudiments and reading, and things that we’d be playing with the little concert band they had in my elementary school in Pittsburgh. Then my parents moved to a suburb and I went to another school in that neighborhood. Around the time that I was in the sixth grade, I got my first kit: 20″ bass drum, a snare, a rack tom, and a little splash cymbal—Sears & Roebuck drums, wood shells and all. I didn’t know what to do with them, and I didn’t have an outlet for using them. I didn’t get to play with people on drumset; I was into the orchestral thing—pretty seriously in fact. I was always interested in drumset, but all through high school I was in the band, the orchestra, the percussion ensemble, and those sorts of things
CS: Let’s talk about that for a minute to see what influence it had on your concept of the kit, because somewhere along the line you came to some very interesting conclusions about breaking up rhythms between your hands and feet. When I saw you at the Village Vanguard, on one chorus you’d put the accent on the snare; on the next chorus you’d pull some grace notes off the hi-hats; then, next time through, you’d be leading from the bass drum, and then you’d return to leaning on the ride cymbal. At times, you sounded more like a front-line instrument than Wynton and Branford.
JW: The way those two can improvise, the facility they have, and the vast knowledge they have about all kinds of music really inspires me; I just try to support them and perform my basic timekeeping functions first. The things that you’re speaking of—the independence, the breaking up of the time, and whatnot—are things that I could always do. Well, maybe I couldn’t always do them, but they were things that I could always hear. I didn’t have to spend a whole lot of hours working on those things. I would come home from school and play along with the radio—with some Mandrill, James Brown, Ohio Players, or whatever was popular at the time—to try to learn the beats. I remember that Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady” messed up drummers for a long time. That was Bernard Purdie, and he started to play barks on the hi-hats—playing the 16th-note offbeats. I think a lot of drummers went out over that for a minute. But I really didn’t have an outlet for my playing. There were all these little groups, but there were also a lot of drummers in my neighborhood, too, who were playing that style, whereas I was more or less looked at as someone who played concert music. I was more of a timpanist than anything else. I had good chops on mallet instruments; my sight-reading wasn’t as good as it could have been, although I got that together, and I played pretty good snare drum. So I was pretty much geared toward being a percussionist in an orchestra—going to a conservatory and building up my repertoire.
But once I got to college, I didn’t feel like doing that, and I thought I wanted to become a studio-type musician. I was well-rounded on all percussion and figured I could work as a drumset player or a timpanist, and overdub a mallet part. I read an article on Harvey Mason and he was capable of all those things, so I worked in those directions also, and that’s pretty much how I got into studying jazz. In high school, I knew that jazz was good, that the music was challenging, and that it had a history, but I didn’t have the records. I didn’t listen to it.
CS: Did your friends?
JW: For the most part, no. During my final year in high school, I finally made it into a high school stage band. But the things that we were playing were so far removed from what I would later understand to be jazz that it was ridiculous. We just played whatever was on the radio or the most simplistic of Basie charts. It made jazz seem kind of uninteresting to me.
CS: Well, jazz is a lot of things. It’s the stage band, but it’s also James Brown and Ray Charles, as well as bebop.
JW: The jazz attitude is a vanishing commodity. It used to overlap into a lot of musics and instruments: It made you strive to do something of quality and challenge yourself on your instrument. It’s like listening to any older pop music; for instance, in Motown, take bassist James Jamerson and the way he would construct a bass line on those tunes. It wasn’t like today where bass lines are just repeated over and over and over. There were a lot of other things then that contributed to making the music danceable and accessible. I guess the unifying factor would be a groove. The groove element is no longer a prerequisite for music to be danceable or popular.
When I was coming up, my brothers would play the older music, so I’d get to hear the good James Brown, Sam & Dave, and those cats. Then I watched disco come, and then a funk resurgence in the late ’70s, right into the mechanized era we’re in right now. I guess now there’s a whole generation that’s grown up never listening to a groove. There are records coming out now that, if you threw them on at a party 15 years ago, people would not have danced to them—period. There were drummers who wouldn’t have been able to get on a funk gig unless they were funky and had a certain amount of facility. They wouldn’t be able to play Billy Cobham style rolls, but they’d be good snare drummers, have a nice touch on the cymbals, and most importantly, they’d have a foot that was really happening and a groove that made people want to dance. That’s not really important now; just repeat things over and over, play ostinatos, and do something slick on the hi-hats or bass drums. I see people dancing to some stuff, and I don’t understand why they’re dancing to it, although I dance to it, too. But it doesn’t mean the same thing. People today probably wouldn’t want to dance to the James Brown beat—too busy. And whether they were coming off of the upbeat or the downbeat, the foundation was the groove. The feeling was there. It’s the same thing with Harvey Mason: He’ll invert the beat, and switch back and forth between the &’s of a beat, yet keep things moving and grooving—steady but loose.
I’m still in search of the groove, actually. I’m always thinking of dancing of something like that. You either have the groove or you don’t. You can work out with a metronome and make things steadier, but that feeling is elusive.
CS: Well, you can play by yourself and come up with some cool beats, but a groove seems, to me, to exist only in relationship to other people. So how do you relate to other people, be graceful under pressure, and come up with the right responses? And how, in your case, did you come to find the groove?
JW: It’s weird how I got into music at all, because the high school I went to emphasized the concert band and the marching band; anything having to do with any kind of performance besides that, like a jazz band, or the kind of training that would prepare you to work as a musician, was pretty much de-emphasized. I couldn’t jam with older cats, or play in a funk band, or play swing. I wasn’t even aware of most of that. I was in all these All-State bands and Percussive Arts Society All-Star ensembles but …
CS: It didn’t mean anything to you.
JW: That’s right. I was just consuming myself with playing. When I graduated, I was the youngest timpanist with the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony. Then, I went to Duquesne University, I guess to become a percussion major, because my first private teacher of note also taught there: Michael Kumer. But once I got there, I was locked into the same thing I’d just gotten out of. All of the seniors, instead of working on serious repertoire, were still doing snare etudes, mallet transcriptions, and antiquated timpani exercises that I had done in high school, because the guy who taught there was older, and that’s what he came up doing. He wasn’t into contemporary repertoire—things that were written specifically for percussion. So these guys would play piano and violin transcriptions, and scales out of the Arban trumpet book. I got pretty bored with that in a hurry, so I pretty much formed my own repertoire, and tried to get with 20th-century harmony and all that—new music. I was the principal percussionist with all the ensembles, and I started playing with the jazz band in my second year.
At that time, my first real introduction to jazz was a pair of records I got for my 18th birthday, which were Where Have I Known You Before by Chick Corea & Return To Forever, and Thrust by Herbie Hancock & The Headhunters. I couldn’t really grasp the Thrust thing at the time; I listened to it and enjoyed some of the cuts, but it wasn’t something I could approach as far as practicing was concerned. So those two albums slowly introduced me to jazz, although, at that time, I suppose I was trying to be a fusion player. I had all the Billy Cobham albums; I was a Chick Corea freak, and I dug Lenny White; I liked Michael Walden, and I had all those Larry Coryell records.
CS: Those were all really bad drummers.
JW: Damn right—that’s why I listened to them. And I got really upset when Lenny White wasn’t in Return To Forever at this concert I went to, but then Gerry Brown proceeded to totally wipe everybody’s head right off. He got a standing ovation in the middle of his solo. So I dug him, and Steve Gadd, and Tony Williams—mainly from hearing his new Lifetime band. I wasn’t really hip to the old Lifetime or anything he’d done with Miles. I knew vaguely that Tony had played some jazz a long time ago. And I loved Harvey Mason because he was funky and slick, and had some interesting beats.
After being in the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony, I guess my goals were altered. As I began orienting myself towards being a studio player, I began to be drawn towards jazz, because I wanted to be as versatile as possible. So two of my friends and I began shedding a lot of jazz. We listened to a lot of Charlie Parker records, and I learned a bunch of Bird heads on vibes. We did some Bud Powell trios and the like, and we went to a lot of sessions and tried to play. These sessions would be late at night, and the buses in Pittsburgh would stop running about midnight. So I’d have to wander the streets or crash at a friend’s house until daybreak, then catch a bus and a few hours sleep, and go to classes in the morning. But then—like now—I was still interested in playing a lot of different kinds of music, and I never visualized that I would end up as a “jazz drummer.”
See, I still hadn’t played in a jazz band. When I was 17, I played in a funk band called Flavor. We made one 45 that was a regional hit—a slow ballad called “The Gift Of Love.” During my second year at Duquesne, I joined the jazz band and was totally ostracized by the director, allegedly for not swinging. But I knew somehow that I would learn how to play. At the end of my second year, I felt like I was being used by the music program; I couldn’t get any scholarship money. I was the principal timpanist in the orchestra, the principal percussionist in both bands, I performed with the brass ensemble, the trombone choir, the chamber orchestra, the jazz band—you name it. Finally I inquired about financial aid, and they said the most they’d ever given a percussionist was $300. I guess they emphasized brass players. So I started dropping all of my ensembles, and I concentrated on my orchestra work. I finished out that year and then began applying to all these conservatories. The New England Conservatory was where I wanted to go, because Vic Firth taught timpani there, and it was in a hip city—one that was reasonably close to New York.
So I sent in my applications and a list of all the people I’d studied with. I wanted to do a simultaneous audition for the jazz and classical departments: play mallets, trap set, and percussion. But they told me that I couldn’t get a personal audition. I would have to send a tape. I didn’t feel comfortable with that, because tapes don’t always give the proper impression. So I decided to go to Berklee instead just to be in the Boston area, to study with Vic Firth, and to transfer to New England Conservatory eventually. When I’d been in Pittsburgh trying to play jazz, I was hooked up with people who . . .
CS: Couldn’t swing . . .
JW: And who could play maybe three tunes, like “Impressions” and “Blue Bossa”—standards with maybe six chords between them, and a couple of blues. But once I got to Berklee, there were some players who could swing and a lot of people to play with. The class I came through with represents a who’s who of what’s happening now: Branford Marsalis, “Smitty” Smith, Kevin Eubanks, Victor Bailey, Wallace Rooney, and a whole lot of other good players. It was interesting.
There were a lot of people who could play, and there were always some sessions going on. I don’t think students came there because Berklee was so hip, but because wherever they were, they simply weren’t playing enough.
CS: Berklee is the type of place where you get out of it as much as you put into it, or else you end up in the music-education game.
JW: My first semester at Berklee was pure torture. They told me to be in Boston on Tuesday to get my room or it would be given away. So I got there on Monday. They told me they’d overbooked and that I should basically just hang around Boston with a van full of musical instruments, waiting for someone to cancel. Another cat and I had driven in from Pittsburgh together, so we drove around, slept in the U-Haul, slept on people’s floors, etc. Then we dropped off most of the equipment at a doctor’s house, except my drums, which were still in the U-Haul. The car was parked up by Boston College, and then one day it was stolen. School started and I had no drums.
These cats would have sessions every night, and it was really hip. People were trying to learn tunes, rhythm changes, blues in every key—every night. And I had no drums. I wrote a letter to Berklee saying that it wasn’t my fault that my drums were stolen, because I was supposed to have a room. So after a month of changes, they arranged to rent me a sad set of Ludwig drums. I’d had those for about a week when I went down one day to an ensemble room and there was a guy playing my drums.
So I called the cops. They came down, busted this cat, and took my drums. They kept my drums for evidence for over a month and a half. I didn’t end up getting my drums until the last few days of the semester. I didn’t press charges because a faculty member asked me not to, since the cat was a foreign student and he would lose his visa. They hassled me to the max because they wanted to bust this cat, and I had to be in court every week. As a result, I was missing a class that’s a prerequisite for attending Berklee, called Listening Analysis. That teacher tried to fail me, even though I got an A on every test, and I gave him notes from the city of Boston. But he said that since I missed four classes I had to take it again, and I said no. So I had to petition the head of the department.
Then my first drum teacher—sort of a post-Tony Williams cat—was giving me a series of linear patterns every week, and no music. He’d give me groupings of four 8th notes in a row: right hand, left hand, right foot, left foot in every configuration, which really isn’t that many. I thought it was dumb, and I told him I didn’t have drums. At the end of the semester, he basically told me that I should get into something else because I wouldn’t make it as a drummer. He would never play with me or give me any insights into the kit or sources of drum history or anything. I was just supposed to look up to him as some sort of godhead, because he had a yellow Gretsch kit. He gave me a C, and recommended that I get another teacher. So next semester, I ended up with Joe Hunt.
CS: Great drummer. He played with Stan Getz and George Russell.
JW: Right, and people had tried to warn me about him, saying he was a moody cat and all. But he was actually more in tune aesthetically with music than most of the people on the faculty. And my lessons with him were cool. I would play for him. Then, he’d say, “Yeah!” and give me some music to work on. He’d play with me and it was cool. There was some give and take, and some practical feedback. It felt good.
Then I checked out Alan Dawson to see what he was about, but it was a major trek to get out to his place and I couldn’t really afford lessons, so I decided not to take any more drum lessons at Berklee. I took vibes lessons for a semester and got a Gary Burton-clone approach. Then I stopped and began studying on my own.
There was this one cat, though, whose name was Lenny Nelson. If you are ever in Boston, go to see him, because he is one of the most phenomenal jazz drummers I’ve ever seen— period. He was on the faculty and he had naturally quick hands and reflexes….
CS: He was a drummer.
JW: A true drummer. And he had the type of mentality where, if he’d think of something, he could play it. He wasn’t hung up by concepts about the limitations of the instrument. If something seemed difficult, he would rationalize it in his mind that it wasn’t abstract and just play it. And he gave a lot of cats a good attitude about the drumset. He’d get 20 drummers in a room, with a few kits. He’d listen to you and then say, “Well, that’s cool, but can you get to this?” Then he’d say, “Let’s hear you two together.”
CS: That’s how cats used to learn: call and response. Louis Armstrong said that Bunk Johnson would play something, then he’d play something, and then they’d go back and forth so they’d learn from each other.
JW: It was refreshing. So I went through the motions at Berklee; I went through the freshman curriculum but I couldn’t get any ensembles I wanted. I wanted to get out of small groups and do some big bands to work on my reading. Eventually, I got in the hippest band—the Berklee Jazz-Rock Ensemble—because “Smitty” Smith was their drummer. He began to commute to Manhattan on weekends to play with Jon Hendricks, and he’d call me to sub for him in that ensemble. I also had a quartet with Donald Harrison that was pretty hip, and we’d play weekends. Then I began fading into a rock thing as the jazz thing began to die out.
CS: How long did you stay?
JW: Four consecutive semesters. Then, that summer, I did Wynton’s album, and then returned reluctantly for a final semester, because my mother wanted me to go. The longer I stayed there, the less jazz gigs I did, and it became harder and harder to survive that way: you know, spending $12 in cab fare for a $10 gig. So I began doing more fusion and funk gigs, which were more feasible, with two different drumsets for jazz and electric.
Part of the reason for being in Boston was so I could be close to these musicians I had never gotten a chance to watch up close. Art Blakey came from Pittsburgh, but I didn’t get to see him until I was at Berklee. During my first year, I saw Elvin, Roy Haynes, Max, Art, and Philly—all the foundation cats—and I loved it. I just fell in love with the music, and that’s when I began to develop a jazz mentality. I didn’t want to go to New England Conservatory anymore; I just wanted to play.
At the end of my fourth semester, Branford had left school. He’d gone to play with Lionel Hampton, but he kept in touch with me and a lot of other musicians in Boston. We’d been part of a radical contingent at school, but I didn’t really know him that well. We played together once on a funk gig, and I did a few tunes with him at his recital, but we never hung. He got me on the phone and told me that Wynton was getting a band together. Branford had once played me a tape of some Brecker Brothers-type funk they’d done in New Orleans, and said, “This is my brother: He’s 17 and he’s going to Juilliard. He’s bad.” And he was. You could tell even then that he had a great talent. So Branford told me that Wynton was going to have this band, and that he was going to get Kenny Kirkland. I thought it was just talk and told him to call me when he was ready.
When they called me that winter to do “We Three Kings,” I knew it was for real, and I began to think about how I should approach this music. They were starting to listen to some music I’d only touched on a little: the music of Miles. I approached it the way Tony Williams plays, from a conceptual point of view. I’m not familiar with many of his figures, or when he plays them, or why. What I get from Tony is the way he approaches music and the way he phrases. He turns the phrase like a beat ahead of where a bebop drummer would hear it. Also, whenever he rounds out a phrase, most bebop drummers would end it on the & of 4 or on the downbeat of 1, but he’ll end his phrases right on 4 or on the & of 3 instead, which sets the music back. That helped me start to get towards the concept I’m working on right now.
I began preparing myself so I’d sound like I could play, and I began listening to all sorts of jazz. I thought, “Who has Wynton played with?” Well, Art Blakey for one, so I began listening to as much of Blakey’s music as possible. I knew I had to swing as hard as I possibly could. Then I listened to Tony Williams to try to figure out what he was doing, and I began playing the hi-hat on all four beats, which I’ve since discarded.
Then I went back to school for one more semester. I tried to keep a low profile and not let on what was coming up. But it got around, and people and teachers began changing the way they treated me. I found out where a lot of people’s heads were at. Then I told my parents that I was leaving school and going to join Wynton Marsalis. They said, “Who?” I assured them that he had a contract with the world’s biggest record company, that it was cool, and that if we messed up I could always go back to school.
We did our first gig in January. I didn’t have any more gigs until March, so I told them I’d be coming home for a few months to practice and then I’d be moving to New York. That was cool for a minute, but when they came home every day, and saw a 21 year old practicing, sleeping during the day, and not working, they wondered if I was for real. Finally we began working, and we were on TV a few times—the Tonight Show twice. That helped my credibility with them. When they saw me on TV with Bill Cosby, that sort of struck home.
It’s a great band—a great bunch of guys; we have fun together. They all have good time and good rhythm, and that gives me the freedom to try different things without worrying that somebody will be thrown off.
CS: Everybody is listening.
JW: Yep, everyone is listening and everyone keeps his own time, so I don’t have to be limited to that function. I can play as musically as I want. Wynton and Branford are great. Kenny Kirkland is one of the best-kept secrets on piano—but not for long—and Charnett Moffett is a beautiful young cat—not even 18 yet, and he’s going to get nothing but better. We hooked up on one cut on Branford’s album. That was a lot of fun—just some reckless energy. It’s good to play like that sometimes. I’ve always been able to play with energy and all over the place, but that’s not the thing I want to be known for. I want to play with more control and finesse.
CS: You don’t give that impression. You use a lot of dynamics and have a beautiful touch.
JW: I’ve worked very hard on that lately: just getting the quality of my sound together. It’s not that I don’t want to play energetically, but whenever people come to see a drummer they almost expect that, and there’s an art to bashing. Some people bash away and it sounds contrived.
There’s a sound that a drum and cymbal get that’s primal, that’s part of the tradition of the instrument, and that can only be achieved by hitting them with a certain force and intensity. Now I know that, if during a set I play two and three sweet ballads, a couple of medium-tempo blues, and maybe a hip Latin thing, and if, during an upswing thing, I cut loose for a minute and bash, the average person will go away remembering that I was bashing. So that’s part of the drums, but I don’t want to be limited by that.
CS: Well, a drummer is supposed to create excitement.
JW: I do enjoy that, definitely: sweating, burning, and swinging hard. That’s what our band is about.
CS: But you, Charnett, and Kenny set up the soloists in a different way. It used to be that, every time a soloist came in, there’d be a different style of rhythm-section play, but your section will create that effect right in the middle of a chorus: lots of ritards, diminuendos, crescendos, and changes in dynamics and emphasis. You’re taking on some of the freedom of the soloists, so it’s not accompaniment anymore. It’s almost as if what Wynton and Branford do gives the rhythm section a context, instead of the other way around.
JW: Actually, what they want us to do is try to mess them up totally all of the time. I’m serious. Maybe not all the time, but they want us to create an improvising environment for them that isn’t the same old thing.
CS: It feels like a band. It’s fresh, and you’re all beginning to get past your influences and get to your own voices— together. Speaking of which, who do you look towards as the building blocks of your own vocabulary?
JW: When I was at Berklee, I made tapes of Sid Catlett, Baby Dodds, Chick Webb, Jo Jones and some New Orleans drummers. I checked out where they were coming from—the different accents—and the evolution of the kit from a timekeeping thing, to a punctuation thing, to a music enhancing role. I haven’t really played any of those styles, but I’d like to see what I can come up with.
I missed some opportunities. I was in Pittsburgh at a time when Kenny Clarke did a residency for a period of six months or maybe a year, and that was just about when I was beginning to get into jazz. People were telling me that I should check him out, and I knew why, too, in terms of his importance to the evolution of the instrument. But I didn’t go to see him, and then he went back to Paris. But then, in the fall of ’83, I was living with this friend whose mother had an affiliation with the University of Pittsburgh. Kenny was coming to New York for one day to do that record with Andrew Cyrille. So he got to Newark Airport where Milt Jackson was supposed to pick him up, but Milt wasn’t there. The only other number he had was where I was staying, so he called and said, “Come and get me because Bags didn’t make it.” So we picked him up, he ate dinner with us, and I called a few drummers from the neighborhood and told them to get over there. We hung out for a few hours. Kenny talked, played, and showed me some hip things about music, sound, and the instrument—conceptually and spiritually. He just had a real spiritual vibe about music. Then Art Blakey was in town, and Kenny brought him down. I got to listen to them rap about music, Pittsburgh, and all. I feel really blessed, especially since he just died, to have been around him and to have watched him and learned a little about his insights into music. When we got home, Milt Jackson still hadn’t called, so I went somewhere for the night, and Kenny slept in my bed that night. I loved it. He was real cool. He was talking about getting all these different sounds from one cymbal, playing across the surface using different degrees of touch and snaps of the wrist to produce different attacks—just dancing around the cymbal. He was ahead of his time.
You know, actually, my discographical knowledge isn’t really what it ought to be. I have a lot more studying to do, but the greatest thing about the trap drums—the instrument created to play American music—is that Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, Roy Haynes, and Art Blakey are all still here, playing greater than ever and with their own bands. It’s one thing to listen to a record, but it’s another to see these men and to see where the inspiration comes from.
CS: Ronald Shannon Jackson told me he felt lucky to have come from Texas where they played bass drum, because he said that, if you listened to the records, you’d have thought none of the beboppers played anything on the kick drum. When he came to New York, he realized they were playing four-on-the-floor most of the time, but softly.
JW: I didn’t realize its importance in a lot of timekeeping, but I’m starting to check that out. I’m just starting to check out the fact that Tony Williams played four-on-the-floor on his bass drum most of the time. And that’s part of the harmonic motion thing I need to work on.
Another drummer who moved me was Buhaina [Art Blakey]: He’s always been down and loving and supporting—a real home boy. I don’t know; all of the drummers have always been cooler to me than the people on the other instruments. They always recognized that you were a drummer, rather than making it so you had to prove something. Drummers have more of a brotherhood than other musicians.
Philly Joe, man, he was like it for me for a long time—still is. He’s slick and wonderful, and he makes the music sound good and feel good. I love his musical attitude; he has so much style and wit. He was one of my earliest influences in the areas of playing time, left-hand figures, and grooving. He has his own kind of intensity.
Roy Haynes is just great, because he reacts to what’s happening around him—which is something I try to do—and he breaks things up in unexpected ways. What he does is what I’d like to do eventually. He always stood out from Max and Art; he had his own sound and gave the music a lift. He had great tuning. Roy is a wonderful snare drummer with that real high tuning—what Miles Davis would call a real snare drum. Miles would always tell Philly Joe and all his drummers to tune up their snare drums higher. “You guys ain’t playing snare drum. Roy Haynes plays snare drum.” He played bebop with Bird; he played with Monk; he played modern styles with Chick Corea and rock with Larry Coryell, and he always sounded like Roy Haynes.
And Max Roach—I can’t even express how much he means to me. He plays drums on such a higher level. His mastery is such that it just makes me want to try to play on a higher level. He has so much intelligence and class, and everything he plays means something musical. All those records with Brownie set such an incredible standard.
Other cats I’d like to credit, I guess, are the underdogs—the drummers who don’t get so much credit, like a Jimmy Cobb. He swings. He has a serious groove, a real clean, beautiful cymbal beat, and he gives the horn players something beautiful to play off of. I’d love to be able to achieve the clarity of his beat or the clarity of a Joe Chambers. Joe has done so much. He’s such a fine all-around musician—he plays great keyboards and all—but no one ever talks about him. Other players I dig are Ben Riley, Clifford Jarvis, Dannie Richmond, and Billy Higgins. Billy is a cat who epitomizes swing and expresses the sheer joy of swing every time he plays. He’s caught up in that feeling, even if he’s only playing half notes on the cymbal behind someone’s solo. And I always dug Dannie; I try to play like him sometimes. He can play light or heavy, sweet or nasty, and he can play the blues. He’s a soulful cat. Then Ed Blackwell simply transcends the traditional vocabulary of the rudimental drummer and plays music. He plays some of the most musical solos I’ve ever heard. And of course, Elvin transcends the instrument on every level. He breaks all the rules, but has so much conviction and drive that it all swings. The way he plays defies what it is that people say makes things swing. If other people tried to do it, it would sound like nothing but triplet patterns. Also, if you analyzed bar by bar what he was playing, it would be different each time through. The mere fact that he can play something so complex and make it sound so hip and swinging is amazing to me.
CS: He doesn’t hear it as complex.
JW: No, it’s just an organic-type thing at the level he plays at, whereas Tony’s thing comes out more metrical, even though it’s also very complex.
CS: A lot of people compare your playing to Tony’s.
JW: I know I don’t sound like him. I guess writers don’t know what to say, so they’ll draw it into an analogy that they’re familiar with, until they can figure out what it is that they are dealing with. Not that I’m so complex or new that people can’t hear it. Things I see written about myself are usually real vague or they say I play like Tony Williams. I hear some things that are a little more obvious than that, but it’s weird. At least, they’re talking about me, although when people write about Wynton, they have him under such a microscope that the band is little more than a footnote. However, that’ll change because Wynton’s got all the tools, and he’s so committed to improvising that his impact on other players is just going to be enormous. All the things he’s working on now are just going to come together soon in one big cloud of smoke and people aren’t going to know what to do. And musicians who have something to say about him ought to come down to our gig and bring their horns; if you think he’s playing like Miles, get up on the bandstand and show him how not to. If you think he’s sad, doesn’t know harmony, or has bad time, come on up and show us the way. Cats will make some quick comments, and then they’re gone. I just wish attitudes weren’t so strong, so musicians could feel like they could share with each other, and we could all learn and benefit.
CS: What are your personal goals as a drummer and musician?
JW: On a broader scope, I’d like to be happy and productive playing and writing music, and contributing something to this tradition. There are things everyone owes to this music, and musicians should strive for excellence in what they’re doing, because some people went through some intense changes for this music. These people are dropping off and passing away every day, and their traditions are being lost to us. Everyone should do as much study and research into this tradition as possible, so as to contribute to its survival. I would like to contribute as a sideman, drummer, and composer. I just want to play, and I want to play all kinds of music. I think it’s important for drummers to learn all the rhythms of the world to phrase music and give it color and style—have an open-minded view.
I’m practicing more lately, because I want to be more intimate with my instrument. I haven’t come close to my potential as a musician—not like a ‘Trane—and I owe it to the tradition. I’m trying to develop my technique so that, if I do, say, a Billy Cobham single-stroke roll around the set, it comes out exactly the way I hear it in my mind, like a Tony Williams or a Wynton Marsalis. If Wynton plays six notes in a row, one will be soft, the other will be staccato, the other will be shaded, etc. He’s working towards that kind of facility, with as much nuance and musical technique as possible.
CS: Well, your technique seems based upon nuances and shading of accents. It’s strong, but very subtle.
JW: It has to do with the displacement of a musical idea. If an idea is musical in one part of a tune, then it can be placed in another part of the continuum and still be musical. I try to learn fragments of music and inject them at different points. There are two ways to approach an abstract conception of things. You can learn all the possibilities of what to play and how to execute it. What I’ve been trying to do is take examples of different musical motifs, which may come out rhythmically, tonally, or thematically, and initiate them in different places—maybe half a beat earlier or in the middle of a phrase. I got this idea from listening to Brazilian music, where they have these fills that sound kind of inverted coming in on the other side of the beat. Whenever they come in, it’s like at the top of the tune. So I’ll hear figures from, say, a Count Basie tune, I’ll invert that and turn it around, that’ll create a theme, the band will play off of that, and it’ll create a fugual effect.
I also try to take things from different parts of the same tune—maybe an idea that was left over from the middle of someone’s solo—and I’ll invert it and come up with something new. Something that reinforced this concept was a live tape of Thelonious Monk and Charlie Rouse playing “Well You Needn’t.” What Monk did as an accompaniment figure was to play the B-section material under Charlie’s solo on the A-section; then, on the bridge, he would re-harmonize the A-section theme under the solo. I looked upon that concept as something that was abstract, yet simple. So with that displacement of ideas, I’ll try to imply different parts of different spaces of the musical continuum, yet allow everyone to have a clear idea of where they are at all times.
CS: You and Al Foster have a habit of switching the hi-hat accents around, so that the first part of the beat will be played on the ride, while the & of the beat will be played on the hi-hat, rather than always playing the 2 and 4.
JW: With that I’m just trying to perform my function as a timekeeper and not be bored. I try to have a dialog with what is happening—an orchestrated commentary on what’s going on—with an eye towards trying to lead it in a particular direction to give the soloist some different options. I’d like to be able to play so that time and space are just one thing. It’s going to take some paperwork, because I want to be able to divide time into all sorts of odd components yet still have the type of conviction where it’s swinging and it could be danced to. We’re really working towards a kind of open-ended conversational structure where the written and improvised structures can blend into each other seamlessly. It’s not as chaotic as some of the so-called free music, although I like a lot of that for the interplay and the sounds they achieve. I thought I’d be doing more of that kind of playing when I got to New York. One of the masters of that kind of playing is my friend Famoudou Don Moye, who has all kinds of energy, and who can swing like nobody’s business as well. Basically, I just want to live and play. The more I live, the more I’ll have to put into my music.
CS: Would you like to talk about your approach to the kit itself, as far as equipment is concerned?
JW: I like all sorts of drums. I’ve played Rogers, Gretsch, and Sonor. I’m using a Gretsch snare drum now that I’ve had for a long time. I pieced together my current kit. A guy sold me 13″ and 16″ tom-toms that I use with a red mahogany bass drum I bought off the floor at Manny’s, where it had been sitting for a long time. It’s a 22″. I like a 22″, because I was used to a 20″ but I was always tuning it down lower.
CS: So you got a 22″ and tuned it up a little higher.
JW: Yeah, so that it’s a better playing surface but you still have the low end. I like the bass drum to sound like a bass drum, as opposed to what’s come to be a jazz bass drum, which is cool: You can use all that high end for certain melodic effects. But the way I play in this group is different—more forceful. If I were playing a bebop gig with someone else, I’d probably take out my little Gretsch kit with the smaller bass drum.
I bought my other two Sonor toms in Boston: a 12″ and a 14″. The Gretsch snare drum is from sometime in the ’60s. It’s a straight Gretsch, unmodified, that I bought at Charles Ponte Music, which matches the Gretsch set I bought in Boston. I got that when I came to town with my Rogers set—my funk set—and I needed to get my “jazz set,” so I went to Wurlitzer and got a standard three-piece Gretsch kit for $200. Then, in New York, I found a snare drum that matched. They all had sad bearing edges, because I think they’d been sitting in someone’s attic with the skins off. So I brought them to the Modern Drum Shop in New York, they put edges on them, and they sounded good. On the Sonor kit I have white Ambassadors all around, and a Black Dot on the bass drum, with a felt strip, and a white head on the front with a felt strip. The bass drum has internal mufflers, which I rarely use unless I’m playing in some hall that’s suited for chamber music. I also hope to experiment with other drums and accessories. I’ve been experimenting with a double pedal. I’m interested in combining some Simmons with my acoustic kit and combining the two kinds of sounds. I also want to get a drum machine and work on coming up with some creative programming, and I’d like to augment my kit with percussive sounds, mallet instruments, and timpani. I’d also like to augment my drumming with different Latin beats that I never learned. And I’d like to get back into my rock playing, which I love to do.
CS: What about your cymbals?
JW: I’m using a 22″Sabian HH medium ride, a 16″ HH thin crash, a 20″ HH crash ride to my left, an 18″ HH medium crash to the far right, and some 14″ HH regular hi-hats. I’m looking to get a 22″ HH China as well. I also have this 24″ HH medium heavy that I used on Think Of One, which is a bad cymbal. It has a great big bell, and it’s powerful, but I couldn’t get a case for it, so I don’t take it out much anymore. I need to get into my kit more; I’m not as much of a drum freak as I used to be. Now I just set them up and play, I guess, although I do like for them to sound full-bodied and ringy. I want to feel that bass drum as well as hear it.
CS: Jazz drummers seem to want that bass frequency out of the way.
JW: I’m not stuck in that bag, but that’s the only type of gig I seem to be able to get for myself. I’d like to play with lots of other people, and do different records in other styles. I played with Stanley Jordan, the guitarist, at the Village Vanguard for a week, which is one of the few gigs I’ve ever had with a non-Marsalis—not that I’m complaining. I wouldn’t trade that for the world. I’m a versatile guy, and I play a certain way with the Marsalis brothers, but that’s not all that I’m about. Right now Smitty [Marvin Smith] is getting all the gigs, and he’s earned it, too. Maybe people think I’m all tied up with the Marsalis brothers, or that all I want to play is straight-ahead jazz, but I’m ready for anything. I’ve studied, I can read, I can listen, and I’m ready for some new challenges. But I suppose it’ll all come in time.
Comping: Jeff Watts Style
Effective comping (accompaniment behind a jazz soloist) is a skill that requires rhythmic inventiveness, good ears, and more than a moderate amount of four-limb independence. It’s also a facet of jazz drumming fluently executed by the youthful Jeff Watts, most evident in his fiery playing with the Wynton Marsalis Quintet. Let’s analyze the various elements by building eight bars from the top (ride cymbal) down.
In an effort to focus in on Jeffs style, it’s important to recognize that the accepted ride cymbal time pattern has many variations, similar in structure, yet different enough to create interest and rhythmic variety. Here’s an eight-bar example utilizing several variations on the time pattern.
Building on this foundation of ride cymbal time, we note that varied rhythmic figures, with a jazz triplet feel, combined with accents that propel the soloist, are used extensively in comping.
If we take the very same eight bars and break the figures up between snare drum (left hand) and bass drum (right foot), our comping gets more interesting and immediately takes on a more colorful, authentic jazz flavor.
Combining It All
The trick rests in being able to put this all together, while maintaining steady time, keeping it swinging, and always listening to the soloist you’re accompanying.
In the final version, we utilize the eight bars of time variations from Example 1, and combine them with the snare and bass drum interplay of Example 3, to get a true picture of comping in the style of Jeff Watts, a young master of the art.