It was late on a Thursday evening in early February, and Bobby Watson was wailing on the little stage at the Ship, the West Bottoms dive devoted to comfort food, cheap drinks and feel-good music. Watson pushed a fountain of sounds out of his alto sax, higher and higher, faster and faster, as vibraphonist Peter Schlamb, bassist James Ward and drummer Ryan Lee churned the rhythms behind him.
With his black pork pie hat, a snowy beard ski-jumping from his chin and a hoodie with the motto “Busy Making My Ancestors Proud,” Watson was the coolest cat in the room, displaying what it means to be a musical master in the moment. He’s a bona fide elder statesman of Kansas City jazz, though he’s not that old (ha — less than a month older than me) and his performing footprint spans the globe.
Oddly, this was Watson’s first appearance at the Ship, which hosts a weekly jazz night, generally on Thursdays, though his students and former students have been lighting up the place for years.
And that’s somewhat the point. For the last 20 years, Watson has done more for the Kansas City jazz scene than just about anyone. After 25 years away from his hometown (Kansas City, Kansas, to be specific), maturing under the wing of bandleader Art Blakey and forging a recording and performing career of his own, he was lured back two decades ago to inject new life into a largely ignored jazz program at the UMKC Conservatory. Mission accomplished. And then some.
Along with creating a sense of purpose, discipline and musical confidence, it was under Watson’s leadership and the help of the adjunct faculty he recruited — some of the best players in town — that a new generation of accomplished musicians has come into the world. They have energized the local scene and begun to make their marks far beyond. They are now bandleaders, teachers and jazz program directors across the country. They orchestrate Hollywood movies and produce tracks for global stars.
A few weeks after his Ship debut, the Conservatory threw Watson a celebratory event to raise scholarship funds in his honor. He is retiring this year, mainly, he says, to get back to the enriching life of a performer. “To be an artist,” he told the audience that night, “you have to be selfish.” In the coming weeks alone, his tour schedule (pending coronavirus chaos and cancellations) includes gigs in Los Angeles, Hawaii, New York, Italy and a concert in Seville, Spain, devoted to his Gates Barbecue Suite, the seven-part composition that he wrote and recorded a decade ago with a Conservatory student orchestra.
Teaching all those kids has been a grueling effort all its own. He has taken the responsibility seriously and invested a lot of headspace and creative energy in helping them succeed in school and in the world. He once led a series of weekly jam sessions at the old Mike’s Tavern near campus to give students a place to put into practice what they were learning. The process of trial and error was essential. “After all the studying and all the practicing you do, the end result is you have to try, and you have to play on stage,” he says. “And when you make mistakes, those are the gateways to discovery in this music. And in life, too. If you learn from your mistakes, you grow.”
Save for touring, Watson says he’s not going anywhere. Every jazz musician knows New York is where it’s at. But for him, “been there, done that.” For Watson and his wife, the singer-pianist-composer Pamela Baskin-Watson, Kansas City — home, that is — makes for a comfortable, centrally located base.
It makes sense, too, given that he has been designated a “global jazz ambassador” for the Conservatory and that he has already begun a series of tributes to the patron saint of alto saxophonists, Charlie “Bird” Parker. This year brings Bird’s 100th birthday (in August), and Watson, the reigning alto master from Parker’s Kansas City, will be fully engaged — here, there, and all around the jazz universe.
Above: In February, Bobby Watson performed at The Ship. (photo by Steve Paul)