Saxophonist Ernie Watts built a career as a bandleader and sideman with one foot in many musical camps, but jazz remains his most abiding love. “When you study jazz and you learn how to improvise and you learn the harmonic structures and you learn the chords and the scales, all of that knowledge crosses over into pop and rock and blues,” he says.
Over his 50-plus-year career, the 74-year-old two-time Grammy winner has done more than a little crossing over. He’s recorded and/or toured with a galaxy of jazz, pop, rock, and R&B superstars, including the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Cannonball Adderley, the Jacksons, the Commodores, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Steely Dan, Barry White, Frank Zappa, Elton John, Pat Metheny, and James Brown. He played on film and TV projects with Quincy Jones and Dave Grusin. He was a member of the Tonight Show Band during Johnny Carson’s tenure, and spent 25 years with bassist Charlie Haden’s Quartet West. He played in GRP Records’ All-Star Big Band and has enjoyed a decades-long association with guitarist Lee Ritenour. It’s a résumé of astonishing breadth, and Watts says he owes it all to his thorough grounding in jazz.
We’re speaking days after the coronavirus pandemic necessitated a near-national shutdown, forcing artists off the road. Watts, on tour at the time with blues harmonica player Corky Siegel, was among them; the remaining dates were scuttled. Plans to tour with his longtime friend, singer Diane Schuur, to promote her latest album, Running on Faith (Jazzheads), a set of covers Watts produced and plays on, were postponed. Speaking by phone from his home in Sylmar, California, Watts told me he was planning to use his time to practice, work on some writing and “do some of the things around the house that had been piling up because I’m never home.” He was generous with his time and open as he reflected on an extraordinary—and extraordinarily busy—musical life.
Growing up in Wilmington, Delaware, Watts got his first saxophone at 13 after accompanying a classmate who wanted to learn the saxophone to their school’s music department. The school assigned him a baritone sax. “I was tall for my age and the teacher figured I could carry it in marching band,” he laughs. The school later gave him an alto, and he started studying classical saxophone because the school didn’t have a jazz department.
A neighbor lent him jazz records. “I started listening to jazz and learning how to improvise by ear from records at the same time that I was studying classical music and learning how to read music and all of the technical aspects of the saxophone,” he recalls.
Realizing her son was serious about music, Watts’ mother joined the Columbia Record Club, and the first jazz record Watts received was Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. The album introduced him to John Coltrane’s playing, and its impact was seismic. “When I heard [Kind of Blue], I just immediately latched onto John Coltrane,” Watts says. “It was just something electrifying in his sound. I tell people it was like I stuck my finger in a light socket.”
Watts bought a Coltrane album every week with his lunch money and his allowance. His mother got him a record player and, he says, “I’d put three or four Coltrane records on the little spindle on the record player every night before I went to sleep.”
When Watts graduated from high school, a friend’s family gave him a tenor saxophone. He gained experience gigging locally before heading to Boston to study at Berklee College of Music. He was there about a year and a half when Buddy Rich’s manager called the school, seeking a saxophonist for the drummer’s big band. Trombonist Phil Wilson, one of Watts’ teachers, recommended him. “So I left school and I went on the road with Buddy from there,” he says. “I was with Buddy for a year and a half or two, so”—he laughs—“I guess I got the gig!”
He calls Rich’s band “the tightest band I ever played with. [At Berklee] I had been studying, practicing, learning how to read, playing in tune. I had been doing all of that stuff for years, so it was sort of the next step.” Rich and the band were part of a 1967 TV program called Away We Go, a 13-week summer replacement series for The Jackie Gleason Show. In addition to the Buddy Rich Band, the show’s regulars included Buddy Greco and a young George Carlin.
That experience opened doors for Watts, who moved to Los Angeles in 1968. He began getting calls for all kinds of projects, including playing in the horn sections on recordings by most of Motown’s biggest stars. He joined the Tonight Show Band in 1971 and remained a member for 20 years, balancing work with the band and his increasingly busy sideman career—which, he contends, blossomed because he understood the right thing to play in a particular musical setting. “You don’t go to a Marvin Gaye record date and play a John Coltrane solo,” he explains. “Or a Charlie Parker solo with the Jacksons. You recognize what their idiom is, you recognize what their style is, and then you relate to it in a genuine fashion.”
Watts met Quincy Jones when he played soprano sax on the Jones-composed theme to the ’70s sitcom Sanford and Son; he then began working regularly both with Jones and with his protégés Patti Austin, James Ingram, and the Brothers Johnson. In the fall of 1981 Mick Jagger called Jones, asking him to recommend a saxophonist to play with the Rolling Stones on their U.S. tour, already in progress. Jones gave the nod to Watts, who went to see Jagger during a few days’ break in the tour. Jagger gave him a stack of records. “He said, ‘Check these out, see what you think, and we have our first concert in San Diego on Sunday,’” Watts recalls. “‘And come and play, and that’ll be your audition.’”
The saxophonist took the records home “and I listened to everything and I knew what was going on with the music,” he says. “And so I did my audition in front of 80,000 people in San Diego, and I got the gig!”
Even while playing with non-jazz artists, Watts continued to play jazz with his quartet. “There was a place called Donte’s here, and I used to work there every Tuesday night if I didn’t have a session,” he says. “Every Tuesday night I’d play my stuff and Coltrane music and other music that I really wanted to play. So I always kept in touch with that.” These days, Watts records for his own label, Flying Dolphin, which he established with his wife Patricia because, as he puts it, “I wanted to play the music that I wanted to play with the people that I love to play with.”
He says one guiding musical principle has never changed from those early days as a teenager learning saxophone in Wilmington. “I’m exactly the same as I was when I was 16,” he says. “I feel the same love of music. I feel the same wonder of sound and the energy of music, and I still feel very, very inspired by the music of the players that I grew up listening to, especially John Coltrane, and I feel like I’m still a 16-year-old kid learning about music.”
JazzTimes asked Ernie Watts to suggest recordings for listeners who want to learn more about him as an artist. His selections included recordings he played on as well as recordings that influenced him or were otherwise important to him. These comments have been edited lightly.
George Cables: Cables’ Vision (Contemporary, 1980)
That was with Freddie Hubbard and George Cables, and it was just a great album that I enjoyed very much playing on. It was while Freddie was still at his highest peak of playing. It’s a wonderful, wonderful example of his playing, and it was a pleasure for me to be ther
Michel Colombier: Old Fool Back on Earth (Columbia, 1983)
There was a composition on [Old Fool Back on Earth] called “Nightbird” that was [a] saxophone concerto that he wrote for me.
Charlie Haden Quartet West: Haunted Heart (Verve, 1992)
We [Quartet West] did five or six albums, and the Haunted Heart was one of my favorite ones. Some very interesting things done there.
Ernie Watts Quartet: Oasis (Flying Dolphin, 2011)
There’s a composition on there called “Oasis,” the title tune. It’s kind of a free piece that opens up that I really enjoyed playing on. And it’s got some very good versions of a lot of different tunes. There’s a Dizzy Gillespie tune on there called “Shaw ‘Nuff,” and we play John Coltrane’s “Crescent” on that.
Ernie Watts Quartet: Home Light (Flying Dolphin, 2018)
“Frequie Flyiers” [was] a free piece that I wrote in memory of Ornette Coleman. I really enjoyed Ornette’s music and I spent time with him, because Charlie [Haden] was with Ornette’s band for years. He was a great artist.
Miles Davis: Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959)
That’s my first view into John Coltrane. And I think “So What” would be what [to] listen to on that, because the [second] tune is a John Coltrane tune called “Impressions” from the Impressions album [Impulse!, 1963]. What’s interesting about “So What” and “Impressions” is, it’s the same tune harmonically. It’s going from D minor to E-flat minor. And so I always thought of that as John’s way of growing. He played that tune a hundred times as “So What” with Miles Davis and then he, in his group, wrote “Impressions,” which was faster but still the same thing harmonically. The techniques he had learned playing “So What” he expanded on with “Impressions.” So there’s a mixture there.
James Moody: Great Day (Argo, 1963)
There’s another album that I really love and I haven’t been able to find it on CD or anything else: my friend James Moody, who was like my uncle. He was a great, great musician. He played with Dizzy and everybody for years. And he did an album called Great Day on Argo Records that was written and composed by Tom McIntosh. I don’t know if a lot of people know about Tom McIntosh, but he was a great, great arranger and composer.