Jazz Icon Ernie Watts
The two-time GRAMMY-winner first picked up a saxophone almost 60 years ago, at 13. He heard John Coltrane at 14, on the album ‘Kind of Blue,’ and says, “It was as though someone put my hand into a light socket.” At 16, he was a featured soloist with the Delaware Symphony, but learning jazz by ear as a neighbor lent him jazz records. At Boston’s Berklee College of Music on a Downbeat Magazine Saxophone Scholarship, he joined Buddy Rich’s Big Band when the lead alto quit in Boston. He was to be a “bright student fill-in” to get them to NYC, but instead toured the world with them for two years, and recorded two albums with the band. “I guess I got the job!” he laughs now.
In 1968 Watts moved to Los Angeles, where he knew many players from doing summer TV shows there with Rich’s band. He began working in the big bands of Gerald Wilson, Louie Bellson, and Oliver Nelson, doing a 3-month State Dept tour of West Africa with Nelson’s band in 1969. Soon Watts was guesting in and recording with Cannonball Adderley’s Quintet, and started to receive calls to work in the studios. He became “first call” for all the reed instruments, and did films, TV, and recordngs with pop icons such as Marvin Gaye, Steely Dan, Carole King, Frank Zappa, all the Motown artists, and many others, plus had 20 years in Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show band, but still regularly played jazz in area clubs and led his own group. Charlie Haden, the iconic jazz bassist, heard Watts at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion in Los Angeles, and asked him to play. Watts joined him in Pat Metheny’s Special Quartet touring Asia, then as a charter member of Quartet West, Haden’s jazz quartet from 1985 til his death in 2014. Playing with Haden inspired Watts to move from commercial music in the studios to his central love, live jazz, on the road. By 1992, he had shifted his work entirely to jazz.
In 2004 Watts and his wife Patricia started Flying Dolphin Records, so Watts would have creative control of his music. “Wheel Of Time” (2016) is the label’s ninth release, recorded with his EU Quartet, which has been together for over 15 years. He dedicated the title tune, one of his four originals on this project, to his bandleader and friend for nearly 30 years, Haden. In 2014, Watts received the Frankfurt Music Prize in Germany, for excellence in performance, composition, and lifetime achievement in music; of the 32 musicians honored before him, only 5 others are jazz players. The American Ambassador to Germany attended the ceremony. 2015 saw him chosen as Guest of Honor at the Telluride Jazz Festival, playing on the Ernie Watts Stage with his own Quartet.
Recently he has also been featured in multi-genre bands that meld his jazz saxophone in with other music traditions, such as his work with Dr. L. Subramaniam, the celebrated South Indian Classical violinist, and his traditional Indian group; Corky Siegel’s ChamberBlues, which has renowned Siegel on blues harmonica, a tabla player, a string quartet, and now the Watts horn, and with Marcus Schinkel in Germany, whose group fuses jazz with classical composers such as Beethoven.
Watts tours in Europe, Asia, and North America, often with his own Quartets (and sometimes Quintets) with whom he plays his original music plus jazz classics, and teaches master classes at colleges and universities during his tours. One of the latest projects, in 2015, was the Sligo Jazz Project and Festival in Ireland, a week-long workshop with students with two festival concerts as well. He also performs with symphonies, most recently in 2016 in Long Beach California with an 84 piece orchestra, featuring a piece written for Watts, “Nightbird,” by film composer Michel Colombier, which was first played the night he met Charlie Haden.
Believing that music has the power to connect all people, Watts says,
“Music is God singing through us.”
ERNIE WATTS PLAYS KEILWERTH SAXOPHONES EXCLUSIVELY,
PETER PONZOL SYNTHETIC REEDS ON TENOR, AND
D'ADDARIO JAZZ SELECT REEDS ON ALTO AND SOPRANO.