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Jeff Watts: The Whole Story

Jeff Watts

It’s 1984, somewhere in Florida, on the road from West Palm Beach to Miami. A caravan rolls down Interstate 95: three rented cars and a van, taking Wynton Marsalis and his band to their next gig. All have succumbed by now to that brain-dead torpor that comes from being cooped up a little too long. A while back they even pulled off the Florida Turnpike to cruise past the wild animals in Lion Country Safari, just to see something other than fast-food joints and empty space outside their window.

But now, back on the freeway, the stupor settles in again, to a depth that musicians know well, when conversation, having been optional for quite a few miles now, sinks under the weight of irony and absurdity. Maybe this is why Kenny Kirkland notices that sign by the side of the road: “Chieftain Gas,” it proclaims, with an image of a Native American in a headdress providing the visual complement.

“Chieftain?” the pianist muses. “Chief … tain.” He nudges his friend Jeff Watts. “From now on, you’re going to be Jeff Tain.”

“I don’t think so,” the drummer objects. But it’s already too late.

With that, a nickname is born … and a half-dozen song or album titles — “Blutain,” “Blutain’s Big Adventure,” “Attainment,” Detained — come eventually to life.

You can divide the world of Jeff Watts into pre- and post-Tain segments. His family, his teachers, and some of his fellow students at Duquesne University and the Berklee College Of Music know him best by his birth name. Others suspected that to really make it in jazz, you needed more than musicianship, chops, and luck.

You needed a handle.

All the greats had one, from the first generation (Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton, Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke) through the boppers (Charlie “Bird” Parker, John “Dizzy” Gillespie, Earl “Bud” Powell). The trick, though, was that these alter egos had to come to you. It would be presumptuous, if not an invitation to ridicule, to pick one for yourself. (George “T-Bone” Costanza tried that on a Seinfeld episode, and look what happened to him.)

And so, as brilliant but still embryonic talents packed into the Berklee dorms, a few years before the Marsalis phenomenon broke, members of Jeff Watts’ class assigned each other temporary soubriquets — not even nicknames, really, but clues as to where they were coming from as they began looking into who they were as artists. Branford Marsalis, for example, was known as Baby Wayne Shorter (though, unlike his namesake, Marsalis played only alto sax in those days). Marvin “Smitty” Smith, the other hot drummer in that student body, was Baby Max Roach. And Watts was Baby Elvin.

Eventually everyone would outgrow these training-wheel identities. But the interesting thing is that, aside from Smitty, most of them would blossom without the benefit or encumbrance of some winsome or wicked nickname. Branford is, at least to the outside world, Branford. Ditto for his classmates: Kevin Eubanks, Steve Vai, Cindy Blackman, Aimee Mann, etc.

Political correctness may be partially to blame: If Thomas Waller was to make his impact today, as a brilliant but portly virtuoso on keyboard, who would dare tag him “Fats” without being driven out of Dodge (in a hybrid SUV, of course)? And just try to bring up this Tain business with tenor saxman Greg Osby, who shared a dormitory room with Watts for a while at Berklee.

“I don’t identify with that,” he says, bristling a little. “I don’t relate to ’Tain.’ That was bestowed upon him during the heyday of Marsalis mania, which was very good for the music but very divisive too. That’s why I call him Jeff; he’s just Jeff to me.”

“Marsalis mania” is, of course, one way of describing the “young lions” movement that Wynton launched as he rocketed to fame back in the early ’80s. Blessed with blazing chops and a burnished tone that drew equally from Armstrong and his academy background at Julliard, the young trumpeter became an icon overnight. Certainly his talent had a lot to do with it, but so did his canny presentation, which mandated that the members of his band, and those who would emulate their success, present themselves with the dignity of funeral directors, in impeccable and expensive attire, their pants creased to a razor’s edge, shoes polished, hair trimmed.

It was almost like being in the military, except for the hip spin that put that polish into perspective. It also invited skepticism from some of the musicians who had prospered earlier on a different kind of youthful energy, back when Miles Davis flung wide the doors of free blowing and anything-goes fashion statements. Plenty of musicians and critics found all of this alarming; some, like Stanley Crouch, took it as almost a personal insult that Miles had replaced his slick suits with pimp duds, let his hair tangle to his shoulders, stuck a wireless mike in his horn, and led his band into a wilderness of dance beats and vaguely charted improvisation.

Wynton was, in this context, the Chosen One, anointed to lead the way out from the desert. His roadmaps were crisp arrangements that charted his path back toward bebop and even beyond, to the nascent New Orleans jazz that the boppers themselves considered ancient history. And he did it first by fronting the same rhythm section that Miles had led in his last acoustic phase, with Herbie Hancock on keys, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams behind the drums.

These were the guys he assembled for four of the tracks on his eponymous debut in 1981. It was impossible not to read a hidden message here, something along the lines of, “Okay, here’s what might have happened if a certain trumpet player we all know hadn’t abdicated his chair and maybe gone in directions that weren’t the best for us to follow.”

But there was another message in the four tracks that made up the rest of Wynton Marsalis, on which he introduced a new group of players, all of them young and already blowing at a pretty scary level: his brother Branford on sax, pianist Kenny Kirkland, Charles Fambrough and Clarence Seay alternating on bass, and a young guy who heralded his arrival in the opening seconds of the first track, written by the nineteen-year-old trumpeter, “Father Time.” After a quick crescendo came a few bars of thundering and thrashing, a diminuendo to a whispering swing beat for three bars, and then another explosion of double-time cymbal and side-stick pattern on the snare.

From these opening moments Jeff Watts — his name not yet punctuated with the moniker that is now his to bear into history — shows how, in years to come, his marriage of jazz and fusion drumming would define a new rhythmic language, played at a level of imagination and raw swing that only a handful of his predecessors had ever achieved.

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