We all know that Jeff “Tain” Watts played the character of Rhythm Jones in Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues and that he was the only real musician in the movie’s band, but have you ever taken a listen to the actual music from the soundtrack that Terence Blanchard, Branford Marsalis and his Quartet (of which Watts was a member) were brought on to compose and record?

Jeff "Tain" Watts

As the drummer for Branford’s quartet, Tain was originally brought in to record music with the group for the movie, but an interesting turn of events led him to being cast in the role of Rhythm Jones. Tain tells our very own Paul Pennington how it happened:

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.

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Based on the early-70s and into the mid-80s, Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues was meant to represent a specific time period in jazz music with regards to the club culture, the types of changes and liberties happening within jazz, and the personal struggles of the jazz musicians. Branford Marsalis and his quartet teamed up with Terence Blanchard to give the film a fitting soundtrack, which was arguably more important to this film than others they had worked on because of the simple fact that the music was a central plot point to the movie. Take a listen to what Marsalis, Blanchard, Tain, and the whole crew put together:

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 10/26: Revive Music Presents: Jeff “Tain” Watts 4

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