A veteran of both the music and film worlds, Jeff “Tain” Watts is one of the most renowned drummers playing today based on both the scope and quality of his work. Appearing on literally every Grammy-winning record won by both Branford and Wynton Marsalis set him aside as one of the best, but for Watts that was only the beginning. We got Jeff to take some time away from his busy schedule preparing for the Generations of the BEAT Festival to discuss his role in Spike Lee’s ‘Mo’ Better Blues,’ his role as both a sideman and bandleader, as well as getting down with some of his Pittsburgh pride. Read the interview and check him out on Saturday at the festival!
In your own words, who is Jeff Watts?
Jeff Watts is just a dude from Pittsburgh that’s very happy that he can work and feed his family by playing the drums and writing music.
For those that don’t know, how did you get the nickname “Tain?”
“Tain” was given to me by the great pianist Kenny Kirkland. I was out with Wynton Marsalis around 1983 — we were on a tour in Florida. This was in the first half of his career, so he was starting to get some notoriety, but a certain amount of it was just grassroots. So, we’re driving from West Palm Beach to Miami and myself and Kenny Kirkland were sharing a car. We ended up going to a gas station. It was called “Chieftain.” Now, anybody that knew Kenny Kirkland knows that he was fascinated with creating his own language and nicknames for people. It was all very funny. For some, reason, in his mind, he decided, “Your name is going to be Jeff Tain.” Like most people, when someone tries to give you a nickname, you kind of resist it for a while. So, he and the band started calling me that and it kind of settled in. And then people started writing songs that had “Tain” in them and it was too late[laughs].
In that story, you mention several artists that you’ve worked with, which speaks to your lengthy résumé. Your body of work has found you in the roles of both sideman and bandleader. Do you approach each differently?
A percentage of it. The main difference is in the preparation. I’m actually trying to be more proactive on the bandleader thing. I try to have it so that I do the preparation and then, by the time we play, I am just somebody else in the group that’s just organically trying to figure out a way to make the song come off and please the composer. I don’t like to tell people what to play because I feel like when you do that you limit what you can receive. Someone might have an angle or perspective on a composition that didn’t occur to me or I didn’t foresee. I look at compositions like little children —I just want the tune to be able to grow. But I enjoy both sides. Branford did some gigs with me and something that I thought about with him was that being a good sideman enables you to be a better bandleader.
We don’t often hear the role of bandleader being played by drummers. What is the significance of the drummer in jazz music and who are those drummers that you would point others to as an introduction to the form?
Obviously someone like Roy Haynes just because he’s alive and you can see him and the history of the music. I got to see a lot of people, because I’m older. So, I got to see someone like Tony Williams, who was clearly an innovator and also a pretty great composer. The way he handled the band and presented his music made it a very exciting event. That was cool. People like Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette are musicians that have strong bodies of music, but are also innovative players. But then you have somebody like the great Art Blakey who didn’t write anything, but the way he would play the arrangements and music of other people would kind of redefine the song and give them a very distinct style and groove. While he didn’t write anything, he would easily rank as a great drummer and bandleader. Max Roach was great on many, many fronts—as a creator of the music and as a composer. He kind of opened the door for drummers to challenge themselves, just as far as how they presented their music. Around the 80s, he had the double quartet, where he would have a jazz quartet and then also a string quartet. He would write a lot of music for that. He did a lot of music for orchestra and a lot of music that involved voice. I saw a presentation of his at Alice Tully Hall, where it was him playing jazz drums as well as classical percussion along with the famous dancer, Bill T. Jones. There was also an orator—Maya Angelou or somebody like that. He was just open to showcasing the drums in many different contexts. It’s kind of tricky, because almost out of necessity drums have to be up inside of the band for the music to feel a certain way.
So much of what makes music happens is from the drums just being up inside of the band and shaking up the context. Like a lot of times, I’ll do gigs and I’ll announce, “Yeah, I wrote all this music. I’ll be on the microphone all night.” And some people still have it in their mind that the horn player or the guitar player or whatever is actually the leader of the band just out of association and proximity. I didn’t think about it much early on, but once I was playing at the Village Vanguard and I just kind of set up like I was playing a gig. And Lorraine Gordon, the proprietor of the Vanguard, gave me some old school show biz advice. She was like, Hey man, you’re the bandleader. What’s all this stuff? These guys are blocking you. The people are here to see YOU.” I’m not that much into promoting myself. I’m just really satisfied to play and get musical goals accomplished. But it’s something I’ve had to think about.
You were in the Spike Lee film Mo Better Blues, playing the role of drummer “Rhythm Jones.” How did that opportunity come about?
While Spike was planning to make the film, he hired Branford to do music, so we started working on the music. Everything’s cool. Now, Branford used to have Knicks tickets. He and I went to a game one night and Spike came over at halftime to visit with Branford. So, we’re sitting there and Spike comes over and he said that he wanted to hire me to be a consultant on the film. I was supposed to train this actor named Darryl Bell. He played the sidekick to Dwayne Wayne on A Different World. So, I’m supposed to teach him to look like he’s playing the drums and so I thought that’s what I’d be doing. I told Spike, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” But I didn’t hear anything for a couple months [laughs].
It turned out that in the interim, Spike had auditions for drummers. He determined that the drums are such a visual instrument that it’s really hard to fake it and that he wanted a real drummer to play the role. First, he had auditions in New York. All kinds of guys like Carl Allen and Will Calhoun from Living Color, Smitty Smith, and a lot of New York drummers went to these auditions, but they couldn’t deliver the dialogue convincingly or something like that. But I never heard about these auditions. After Spike exhausted New York he went to Chicago to try and cast a female lead. But while he was there, he also auditioned some drummers. I think my friend Steve Cobb that worked with Ramsey Lewis for years and a bunch of other guys in Chicago tried out, but I still hadn’t heard anything about this [laughs]!
Coincidentally, I just happened to be playing in Chicago with Branford. We were playing at a club and Spike stopped by one night. So, we’re on a break, I was upstairs at the bar and Spike went downstairs with Branford and Kenny Kirkland and he was like, “Man, I just can’t find a drummer that can do these lines.” And so, Branford was like, “Why don’t you ask Jeff?” And it’s really crazy that he didn’t ask me, because I had already recorded all of the music [laughs]. So, he came up to me and was like, “Here, take these lines. I’ll be in New York next week. Come to RCA Studio and wait for me.” On the way to the audition, I jumped on the A Train and memorized my lines. I read for him and he gave me the part.
You were the only professional musician cast in a major role. What was that experience like—stepping into the world of acting?
It was just a great experience for me. I really cherish getting to interface with another type of artist and seeing the similarities and motivations. A lot of actors that I’ve subsequently been around always try to find a certain amount of inspiration from musicians. When I talk to a Laurence Fishburne, another friend of mine, he talks about “shedding” whenever he’s preparing for a part. It’s like when a musician tries to periodically add things to their palettes. They like to make a lot of parallels with that. But all the guys were just really cool. Basically for a month and a half, every weekday, Wesley Snipe would come pick me up in his car and we would go do scenes. It was really surreal [laughs]. But at the time, Wesley Snipes wasn’t too well known —this was before New Jack City.
I remember the first reading at Spike’s office. I get in the room and it’s me and Denzel and Wesley Snipes, the cast, everybody. And everyone’s really casual. We’re just sitting around a table reading this stuff. And I’m like, “I can’t believe this is really happening to me.” The film has been playing a lot on HBO the last couple of weeks and I actually have billing over Samuel L. Jackson [laughs]. Right after doing the film, I started doing “The Tonight Show” with Branford and periodically there would be somebody from the cast that was on the show. So, someone like Denzel Washington would get on the NBC lot and say “Where’s Jeff?” There was that sort of camaraderie.
To answer the second part of your question, it’s funny because half of the people that were on set didn’t realize that I was actually a musician. One day I was in the production office and Robin Harris was there and we’re trying to take care of logistics and things like that and one of the production people is like, “So, we’ve got a car coming to get you at this time…” and Robin Harris was like “Where you going?” And I’m like, “I’m going to a gig.” And he was like, “You’re really a drummer?” [laughs]. Another funny thing is that a part of our assignment was to hang out as a band. We would go to clubs and the guys would have their instruments with them. At the time, Denzel was reasonably famous, but not globally famous like he is now. So, he could hang out in some jeans, and a baseball cap and some sunglasses and people wouldn’t know who he was. I remember one time we were hanging at Sweet Basil and the guys had their horns and I was just introducing them to people. Musicians would come up to me like, “Hey Jeff, what’s going on?” And I’d be like “Hey, man this is my boy Wes. He’s from the Bronx. He’s a horn player, doing his thing. This is D. He’s a bad trumpet player from Mount Vernon….” [laughs]. And Wesley actually got a gig! This cat was like, “Yeah, man I got a gig on Friday. If you’re hanging with Jeff, I know you can play!” And so, Wesley was out there giving out his number.
Just one more story about that, we finished shooting the movie and they always have a party for the crew while everyone’s together. And so, Denzel says, “Come with me. Come with me.” So, I got in the car with him and what he wanted to do was buy a whole bunch of champagne for everyone. While we’re in the driving to the store, I asked him, “So, what do you have coming up?” And he said, “I wrapped a movie right before this one and it’s about some Civil War, slavery stuff.” And I was like, “Well, how does it go?” And he said, “You know the movie is ok, but I did good work. I’ll probably get an Oscar” [laughs]. The other side of that is when he came on “The Tonight Show,” it was right around the time Malcolm X was nominated. I asked him about that and he said, “Yeah, I’m not going to get. Al Pacino’s going to win.” And, of course Al Pacino won for Scent of a Woman [laughs].
Moving in a different direction, I have to admit that I am Pittsburgh native myself. It seems as if modern audiences aren’t familiar with the Pittsburgh jazz tradition. What sort of impact has that legacy had on your career?
I came into the music at a different time. There wasn’t all of this institutionalized jazz education. I was kind of like a classical performer that messed around with the drums and wanted to learn more. At the time, I hadn’t really been exposed to very much traditional jazz. At the time in Pittsburgh, I wasn’t even aware that jazz was something from black people to be honest. The jazz I got exposed to would be Buddy Rich playing on “The Tonight Show.” I kind of associated jazz with a kind of a white, big band aesthetic—Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, all that stuff. I thought that’s what jazz was. So when I finally went to college, a friend of mine started to expose me to the music. And I found out that there were black people very proficient on their instrument and had done all these great things for this music. That helped me connect with it.
Pittsburgh, arguably, held as many people historically deep in the music as any city in America. Even New Orleans. Knowing all of this, it felt like this was just something I was supposed to do. It was my birthright. I remember the first time I met Art Blakey, while I was going to school in Boston at Berklee College. And he came to town with the Jazz Messengers and I went to a club to see him with a couple of my homeboys. Now, I guess when you talk to a lot of old school people about Pittsburgh, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity in the town itself. And so he would announce the band and when he would get to himself, he would put Pittsburgh down. He’d be like, “From dirty, dirty, greasy, slimy Pittsburgh, yours truly, Art Blakey.” So me and my boys started yelling, “Get outta here! No! No!” [laughs]. Then we saw him on his break and he was like, “So, you guys are from Pittsburgh?” And I said, “Yeah, we’re from Pittsburgh, man. Why you talking about Pittsburgh?” He was like, “Well, it’s good you got out of that dirty mothafucka!” [laughs]. But that’s just one Pittsburgher that I got to deal with out in the music world. Ray Brown was always very gracious and cool. And I actually worked with George Benson for a while. I toured with him for about a year. It turns out that George Benson actually spent a lot of time in the Hill District [a section of Pittsburgh] and so, he used to see me, riding bikes, wrecking all my toys a week after Christmas and what not. It’s just really cool that such great artists emerged from Pittsburgh because previously all I knew is that we had some slamming football teams [laughs].
I like to ask every musician I talk with this one particular question: If you could listen to only one album for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Whoooooo! Just one?
Because you’re from Pittsburgh, I’ll give you a break. I’ll let you pick two or three.
Hmmm. alright… [pauses]. See you know I play a lot of jazz, but I like a lot of other types of music. If I had three, you’d like to try and get a lot of stuff in one place. For some reason, the two records that come to mind, just because there’s so much universal information, is one Aretha Live at the Fillmore West, because of her performance, because Bernard Purdie is on there with that groove, because the band, with King Curtis is just really tight and beautiful. And Aretha Franklin is just really, really special to me as a performer. Now, one, just because of what it represented in my life, it’s something that I can always revisit, is Band of Gypsys with Jimi Hendrix. My brother had that record and we used to play it all the time. Even as a child, I’d memorize what Buddy Miles was singing and I’d memorized the guitar solos and everything like that. For that third record, it should be something jazzy. Maybe Transition by John Coltrane. I think if I had those three I’d be cool.
Closing out our talk, where do you see yourself going from here what’s next for Jeff Watts?
Well, in addition to just trying to raise my young family, musically I want to grow, I want to get better, I’m not going to go out of my way to be blatantly relevant. I just want to get personal with my voice and my compositions. I just try and improve on my instrument and improve as a writer. I want to be able to affect people and create some kind of positive change through music or through teaching. I also want to get a lot more ambitious. I have my own label (Dark Key Music), so I’ll be putting out a lot of different music: More world music, some things that are going to be symphonic in nature, some things that have more influence from popular music. I just want to really represent and tighten up my body of work and really leave something out here to represent my time on earth and my family.
Words by Paul Pennington (@paulpennington)