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Bobby Watson: The Music is Smokin’

Saxophonist releases jazz album dedicated to Gates, the legendary Kansas City barbecue restaurant

Bobby Watson's The Gates BBQ Suite album cover
Bobby Watson

Saxophonist Bobby Watson loves barbecue. Even when he was living in New York City and touring with Art Blakey or his own groups all over the world, the Kansas City native would always stop by Gates BBQ in his hometown for some close-to-home cooking. “When we used to drive home from New York every summer so my kids could know their grandparents, the first thing we’d do is stop at Gates and get some real Kansas City BBQ. We’d stop and get some beef sandwiches and short head and we’d go around the corner to mom and dad’s house. The kids are the same way now. They’re grown and living in New York., but when they come to visit us and we pick them up at the airport, we have to swing by Gates and get something before they come home.”

Recently Watson decided to put his high regard for Gates into music. He composed and recorded material for an album – The Gates BBQ Suite – released in late 2010 on Watson’s own Lafiya Records. The album features Watson, along with the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance Concert Jazz Orchestra. And even though the album had limited promotion and distribution, it rose to Number Four on the JazzWeek radio airplay chart and Watson says he’s nearly sold out the first pressing on nearly 2,000 CDs.

Watson says that he wanted to do something special to honor the jazz-loving proprietor of the famous BBQ landmark. “Mr. [Ollie] Gates has a real presence here,” says Watson. “He shows up at the Blue Room [jazz/blues venue in KC] all the time. He would show up at my gigs and I actually got to know him. He’s a very big pillar of the community in terms of his money and what he’s done for the community.” About ten years ago, Watson came back to his hometown to take a job as Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. “One of my roles, as head of the jazz department in the music program, is trying to bring the community together and UMKC is kind of detached from some of the black community,” explains Watson. “So the question was: How can I do something to bridge things? I had done a suite before. It was called ‘Afroism – the Spoken Word’ and I haven’t recorded it yet. So I was thinking about a homecoming suite, because I’m glad to be back. But then I thought, ‘No, it should be about Gates…let’s do a BBQ suite.’ It would be a tribute to Gates and the place and the food and the people. If I was in New York, I wouldn’t have thought of this. It was being back in Kansas City and trying to think how can I use what I do and what I know.”

Ideas can come quickly, but executing them is often another matter. So it was with The Gates BBQ Suite. “It took me over four years to do it, because I thought a lot about it. To get the right songs in the right way. I had to think about the titles, the hook, what I wanted to do with it. I took a sabbatical and that’s why I finished it.”

At some point early in the process, Watson told Gates that he was working on a suite about the restaurant, which ended up as a sort of good news, bad news situation. “When I mentioned it to him, he just lit up,” Watson explains. “He said, ‘What, you’re going to [write something for me?'” However, the slight downside was that Watson then had an expectant customer on his hands. “He would see me over the years and he would go, ‘Where’s my piece?’ And I would say, ‘I’m working on it!’ He was all fired up, so that was really cool.”

But how do you make music about food and a restaurant? How do you translate the BBQ experience in all its colorful glory into song? “I wanted it to be fun. I’m not going to write a bunch of intricate, heavy, deep, complicated passages here. When people get together to eat BBQ on the porch, they’ve got music in the background, they got the boom box on, they’re playing the old tunes. So this whole suite had to have an oldies feel. As a composer, you have to think about all of these things and bring all those elements together. You can’t just make a song and just slap a name on it. That’s why it took me so long to write it. I’m a big fan of movie and TV writing. Back in the day, they had to capture a mood. I wanted to capture the spirit of BBQ.”

Along the way, Watson worked out most of the material with his students from the program at UMKC. Although he considered going to New York City to record the album with known professional jazz musicians, in the end he decided to stick with the students. “There were a few of the movements that had been played by the band for maybe two years. As I tried out the different music, I’d try it out on them and I’d work with them on the nuances. So I didn’t want to go to New York and do two days of rehearsals with the cats and then go into the studio. Even though I know it would be great, at the same time I knew I would lose some of the nuances. Using the students, I knew some of the solos wouldn’t be as spectacular, although I think there’s some good ones on there. But the students had owned it. I saved a little money together and put it out myself. It was good for the university, good for the program, good for me, and good for the students. They had a hell of a ride watching it go up and down the charts and seeing the reviews come out. It was just an all around good thing to do, just for being in Kansas City.”

He premiered the suite in Kansas City with his students in the band and with his friends and family in the audience. And of course Gates himself came to hear the suite he’d been waiting on for several years. “When I did the world premiere, he [Gates] brought his whole family and all his high school friends were there. He was so moved, he gave a scholarship to the jazz program at UMKC. He sponsors one of our students with the Gates BBQ scholarship now, which is one of the things I was hoping to do. But you can’t just walk up to someone like Mr. Gates – he gets hit up all the time – and say, ‘Hey Mr. Gates, I know you like jazz, how about supporting one of our students?’ I wasn’t comfortable with that approach.”

Although you might think that the restaurant itself would provide Watson with a built-in distribution channel, the saxophonist says that Gates didn’t feel comfortable selling the CDs there. “Mr. Gates runs a tight ship and he was worried about people stealing them,” explains Watson. “We thought about coupons but we didn’t want to get bogged down in doing that. But just seeing these CDs out there is really a cool thing – for him and for me.”

Even with the album and the premiere and the scholarship, Watson says he is not done with the suite, which he rightfully thinks has legs beyond his hometown. “My big dream is doing it at Lincoln Center with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra or bring some of my guys to Lincoln Center. Wynton has a real respect for Kansas City and I think this would be great for Jazz at Lincoln Center. And I’m fixing up the parts so I can do it with other colleges. I could see playing it around with different college bands. And there’s a Kansas City Orchestra here and they want to do it in 2012.”

Like a true hometown aficionado, Watson doesn’t hesitate when asked about the virtues of BBQ, Kansas City style. “I’ve tried Los Angeles BBQ, I’ve tried Chicago BBQ, I’ve tried it all. They’re all different and to me, they all suck. Kansas City got the BBQ. Michael Carvin, he’s from Texas and he’s always talking about Texas BBQ. I told him, ‘Yeah, I’ve been there and I’ve tasted it.’ And he said, ‘Man, you don’t know!’ So I brought him out one summer – I bring him out to work with the drummers at UMKC. I took him by Gates and after that he said, ‘You know, Bobby, I have to admit, man… ‘ Now every time he comes out here, the first place you have to take him is to Gates.”

Watson even imagines a non-musical gig for himself down the line. “One of my favorite shows is BBQ Pitmaster. I love that show. They have American Royal BBQ here – it’s the biggest one in the world. It’s like the Super Bowl. They pay the most money and the most people come. It’s huge. So I want to be a judge on that show. I gotta do it before it’s too late.”

In the end, Watson is clear about the true spirit of the project. “I’m doing this for the fun of it and also just to get the music out there,” he says proudly. “It’s been nice.”

Originally Published