Bob Watt

Bob’s Contributions

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06/12/12    The Horn Sounds

Harry "Sweets" Edison: Musical Travels & Travails

Archival interview from Bob Watt with the late great trumpeter

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About Bob Watt

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Robert (Bob) Lee Watt was born in Neptune, New Jersey, the 4th child of seven. His father, Edward Watt Jr. played trumpet professionally when he was young in a jazz combo, “The New Jersey Squires of Rhythm.” When Robert was eight years old he got curious about his father’s trumpet that was kept on a shelf. Too short to reach the shelf, Robert conscripted his little brother Tony to help him reach the trumpet. He put his little brother on his shoulders to reach the trumpet. His little brother reached the trumpet, but lost his balance causing both of them to fall to the floor dropping their father’s trumpet. Robert attempted to fix the dents he made in the instrument using a hammer. The badly damaged trumpet was the way Robert’s father discovered his interest in the trumpet and music. After a serious reproach, Robert’s father tried to teach him trumpet. However, it wasn’t until years later that Robert discovered the instrument he really wanted to play.

Once while helping his father clean out a room in the basement Robert discovered some old 78 recordings. The curious he gave the old recordings a spin. It was the “William Tell Overture” when he heard the French horns on that old recording he asked his father what instrument came in after the trumpet. His father informed him that it was the French horn. “A middle instrument that never gets to play the melody like the trumpet…why, do you like that horn?” His father asked. Robert replied, “It gives me chills when I hear it, I love it. That’s what I want to play.” His father informed the young Robert that it really wasn’t the instrument for him. Explaining that it was an instrument for white boys with thin lips. “Your lips are too thick to play that instrument with its small mouthpiece. You’d be better suited for the trumpet like you father.”

When reaching high school Robert seriously pursued the French horn. Approaching the band director of his high school in Asbury Park, he was again told that his lips were too thick to play the French horn mouthpiece. After being persistent the band director gave Robert an old French horn on which he advanced quickly and was soon winning auditions for honor bands and orchestras throughout New Jersey, bringing great honor to his high school and family.

After high school Robert was accepted to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston where he majored in music and studied French horn with Harry Shapiro of the Boston Symphony. Mr. Shapiro took great interest in the young horn player, pushing him very hard. At the end of his Freshman year, Mr. Watt was asked to perform the Strauss Horn Concerto No. 1 with the Boston Pops Orchestra under Arthur Fiedler.

The following summer he received a fellowship to the Berkshire Music Festival at Tanglewood. Returning to the Conservatory for his third year Mr. Watt was informed by the president’s office that the Conservatory had financial problems and that all scholarships would be canceled for his fourth year.

At the end of his junior year at the Conservatory Mr. Watt was informed by his French horn teacher that it was time for him to audition for a position in a major symphony orchestra. There were several vacancies at the time all over the country. On the advice of his teacher, Mr. Watt chose Los Angeles and Chicago.

When Mr. Watt returned from his audition journey, he had made the finals at both auditions. Two months later The Los Angeles Philharmonic offered him the position of Assistant Principal French horn, making him the first African American French horn player hired by a major symphony orchestra in the United States. A position he held until 2007.

Mr. Watt performed several times as soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta and the Oakland Symphony performing the Richard Strauss’ second horn concerto under Michael Morgan.

Mr. Watt has done public speaking, lecturing on music and African history in the Los Angeles area. He was hired as guest professor at Los Angele City College teaching the course, “Music of Black Americans” He is a licensed airplane pilot with an instrument rating, a saber fencer, a staff writer for Brass Bulletin, a brass trade magazine published in Switzerland, which he was hired to write articles on Jazz and classical musicians.

Mr. Watt is currently seeking publication of his recently completed autobiography, which chronicles his meteoric rise from a poor kid in New Jersey, who was in love with the French horn, to his position as Assistant Principal in the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Bob Watt joined the JazzTimes community on Jun 11, 2012