Bobby Watson: On Jazz And BBQ

Bobby Watson pays tribute to his hometown with his seven part suite The Gates BBQ Suite.

Bobby Watson pays tribute to his hometown with his seven part suite The Gates BBQ Suite. courtesy of the artist hide caption

itoggle caption courtesy of the artist

When alto saxophonist Bobby Watson returned to Kansas City, it was a big deal. Despite its jazz legacy, Kansas City felt overlooked compared to other jazz towns, and often lost its best musicians to bigger cities. So for one of its own to return — especially a world-class player like Watson — brought a lot of buzz to the tight-knit scene.

Watson is a Kansas City-area native, but he left in order to make a name for himself in the jazz world. He attended the University of Miami alongside fellow students Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorius. After he graduated in 1975, Watson moved to New York City and played with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers from 1977-1981. He's played with nearly everyone, from Max Roach, George Coleman and Branford and Wynton Marsalis to Dianne Reeves, Betty Carter and even Carlos Santana.

Cover to The Gates BBQ Suite
courtesy of the artist

After more than 25 years touring the world and living in New York, Watson returned to his hometown in 2000 to serve as the William and Mary Grant-Endowed Professor of Jazz and Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Now, the veteran saxophonist and professor has released the album of his long-awaited, seven-part work for large ensemble: The Gates BBQ Suite. (The piece premiered in December 2008 in a live performance with UMKC’s Conservatory Concert Jazz Orchestra.) Watson says the suite — more than five years in the making and completely self-financed — is a "dream piece," a labor of love. But it's also a supremely fun collection of songs in a classic big band tradition.

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"Beef On Bun" from Bobby Watson and The UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance Concert Jazz Orchestra, The Gates BBQ Suite (2010).

The Gates BBQ Suite is thematically oriented around the legendary Kansas City restaurant Gates Bar B. Q. As a native Kansas Citian myself, the record combines two of my favorite things: jazz and barbecue. Watson's songs both honor Gates and wink at those who most closely know the restaurant. I recently spoke to Watson to chat about his new recording, the barbecue connection and his — our — hometown.


Michael Katzif: So, as a native Kansas Citian, I'm required to lead with this crucial first question: Why Gates? Why not Bryant's?

Bobby Watson: (Laughs) I like Bryant's. There's a lot of barbecue places I like in town. Some people said "You should write something for Jack's Stack." [Arthur Bryant's and Jack's Stack are two other iconic barbecue places in K.C. —Ed.]

But I was always familiar with Gates in my life and my experience. Gates is what means something to me. But it just so happens that Mr. Gates [Gates' owner Ollie Gates — Ed.] is a music lover and he would always come and support me at my gigs. He used to have a jazz club called OG's. And his relationship with the music and jazz have a lot to with it.

I remember when I still lived in New York, we would always drive back to Kansas City every summer and we would hit Gates when we'd get back. It was sort of a tradition for us. And most of the musicians when they come into town, first place they want to go is Gates.

MK: I'll always go for the beef on bun when I hit up Gates. What do you normally eat when you go there?

BW: Well, we didn't eat pork for like 20 years, before the kids were born. And so when they got be around ten, they hadn't had pork. But you go into Gates, you're not smelling the beef up in the air, you're not smelling the chicken. You're smelling those daggone ribs. (Laughs) And they [had not] had beef ribs either. [We'd] go in there and go "(sniffs), gimme a beef sandwich."

But finally when the kids were 13, I was like, "I was raised on eating these ribs, let me let these kids have a short end," you know? And so we went to Gates! And so they had a short end and that turned it all around. I took a little pinch and the next thing you know I'm back on it. And that's our story. Every time we drive, we take three days to drive from New York to Kansas City. And when we get in, the first thing we do is grab the beef sandwiches and short ends and head over to grandma's house.

MK: You're originally from Kansas. But before 2000, you lived in New York and toured for over 25 years. What was it that drew you back to Kansas City?

BW: Well it's home and my parents are getting up there in age. But it was also an opportunity to come back home with a very special teaching situation in terms of being able to run a jazz department [at UMKC]. It's an endowed professorship, so I can still travel from time to time and keep my presence out there. So I think it was just a matter of timing. If I had to plan it myself, I would have waited a couple more years before I came home, but the opportunity was there at that time.

I talked to a lot of my friends about it, "What do you think? Should I try it?" [Because when] you've been in New York in the trenches, you don't want to feel like you're abandoning ship, you know? We're all soldiers for the music — very committed soldiers. But they said, "Oh no man, you better take advantage of that, dude. All you gotta do is get on a plane and go anywhere you wanna go."

I like the quality of life here, at this point in my life. The economic situation here, the cost of living, is decent. And it’s worked well for me.

MK: And you've now been back for 10 years. Do you feel like you're a part of the KC community at large?

BW: Oh yeah. I joke everybody, I say, "I am a pillar of the community out here." (laughs). You know, I now get calls to do all kinds of stuff — fundraising, serving on some boards, more community-oriented things, an just lending your name to certain causes. Things like this. It's just different things than I did in New York.

MK: Let's talk about your new work The Gates BBQ Suite. When did you start writing the music?

BW: I premiered it in 2008 and had been working on it for four or five years before that. I finally had a chance to finish it when I took a sabbatical in 2007 — and that's what I did the whole time. Just went deep into it, you know? I had all the sketches and stuff; I just needed to orchestrate it.

MK: Had you written a jazz suite prior to this? What do you like about the long-form structure, and how do you approach the songs?

BW: Yeah, I've done a suite before. I was commissioned by the Scottish Arts Council and I did this suite called Afroisms. And so I knew I wanted to write another one. And I'm working on another one now actually.

I like to do it like Duke Ellington did. Any one of those songs in The Far East Suite and The Queen's Suite could be pulled out and stand on it's own. There were famous songs in there, "Star-Crossed Lovers," and "Isfahan." So that's kinda how I do it. There's not really an overriding [musical] theme that keeps appearing throughout the piece.

MK: But there is a thematic tie to the overall subject in The Gates BBQ Suite. The song titles alone are very specific barbecue references that seemingly everyone in K.C. will understand: "May I Help You?," which is what they yell at you when you walk in the door, or "Beef On Bun," one of the most popular items on the menu. And then there's "President's Tray."  Out here in Washington D.C., I think folks would assume that was named for Obama and not something from the Gates menu.

BW: You know why they called it's the "Presidents Tray?" That's what they usually serve the presidents when they come through.

MK: It's like the biggest meal on the menu right? With all the different types of meats?

BW: (Laughs) Yeah yeah. When Jimmy Carter came through, and I think Reagan and all the ones since, when they come through Kansas City, they go to Bryant’s and Gates. Those are the two places, either/or. I explain that in the liner notes. But I did dedicate it to Barack Obama.

MK: Can you explain what "One Minute Too Late" refers to?

BW: So that one's like you know you get off work and you wanna swing by Gates and get [something to eat]. Gates is open late every night; they close at 12. But Arthur Bryant's closes earlier. After the gig, man, where you gonna go? We got McDonald's, Burger King.

MK: Yeah, not a lot of options.

BW: So you go, "Ahh, the best food at this time of night, I'm gonna go to Gates." Many times you get off a job and you end up talking with the cats after the gig. And next thing you know, you look at the clock, it's almost 12. So you get in your car and dash around and you're one minute too late. And there's the security guard looking at his watch going, "Nope, too late." So that's what that song is about.

MK: What about "Wilke's BBQ?"

BW: The last movement, "Wilke's BBQ," is about my grandparents Jesse and Davie, who had a BBQ establishment out in Merriam, Kan. So I grew up around barbecue in a big way.

So as you see the titles and how the piece moves through the sequence of songs, there is definitely a tie. And it's a barbecue suite, so you got to have some foot pattin' in there too, you know? I'm a big fan of foot pattin'. (Laughs) That's something everyone's born with.

MK: In addition to Ellington, The Gates BBQ Suite also sounds very informed by Kansas City's iconic big bands of the past: Jay McShann, Bennie Moten and Count Basie and all that. It's part of that tradition, but also it's filtered through your own approach to jazz. How aware were you when writing this music that you were adding to this canon?

BW: I was, yeah. But I don't think it was a conscious thing. It's just that you reflect on the mirrors of your life, the experiences that you've had. And you're a product of that. So it's not a conscious thing, it just sorta happens. And knowing what I know about barbecue, and all the good times we had around the pits, and out in the backyard, I didn't want to over-think the piece.

If it was about something like world peace, or human tragedy, then I think the piece would have a different color. But, [like those classic big bands], the piece is uplifting and it's kinda fun. And you know, it's serious music, we took a lot of rehearsals [to get it right], but the total effect is hopefully each piece is a sound picture of what the title's saying: "Heavy On The Sauce" sounds like that, a really saucy tune. Like, "Yeah, spicy baby!"

MK: Why do you think food, and especially barbecue, have this intertwined connection with jazz music?  What is that connection for you?

BW: I think that the roots of any music around the world is about some kind of function — a marriage, a birthday, a death, some type of holiday. And traditionally, in the world there's always music connected with that. And a lot of these functions, whether it's a rent party, or something, there's always food. Food is one of those things that you don't have to be wealthy to be able to share with people.

And then you have jazz, which was, back in [those] days, more connected with dance. It’s a whole [bunch of things] coming together: A good time, a release from everyday, comfort food. Music takes you on a trip. You know, eating a good piece of meat — or vegetables or whatever your thing is — that takes you away. They both kind of serve the same function in terms of taking that dust away of everyday life. Like Art Blakey used to say, "Music washes away the dust of everyday life," and I think food does that too.

MK: Both are a shared, communal experience.

BW: Yes.

MK: What else influenced this work?

BW: Since I've been back home, I’ve just been reflecting on things because there's a lot of deja vu being back here.  A lot of brain cells are waking up from childhood. Being on the same streets like Troost and The Paseo and going across the viaduct again. Also, the sound of trees; you know I hadn't heard the wind blowing through trees in like 25 years. And that wakes you up. That's beautiful. It ranks up there with the sound of the ocean. And then the constant sound in the summer, those bugs.

MK: The cicadas.

BW: There you go! Cicadas. I mean its like, "Reeeeee" (imitates sound), all day. It's really cool. I'll bet there's also some subliminal songs from my past in there too. Whether it's just a groove from an old Motown record. Like my song "One Minute Too Late," that's definitely from my Barry White experience. So all those things went into the suite as well.

MK: So you see this as a life-spanning work that's bringing together your life and jazz music?

BW: Yes, and that's the way I wanna do it. I mean I've always tried to do it that way. Even when I was making records on a regular consistent basis for Blue Note and Columbia. I always tried to go inward and use something from your life experience instead of trying to follow a certain trend or style. I think that the best way to be unique is to draw from your experiences — songs from your past.

MK: You said you were working on a new suite. What is it about?

BW: My next one is gonna be about a summer thunderstorm. I've been recording ambient sounds now. You know the trains you hear at night? I got that, I got the cicadas, I got windchimes, thunder, all this stuff. And I want to be able to orchestrate lightning and thunder, but not in an obvious way. It's gonna take a few years, especially since I'm not under deadline. That's the thing about this piece [The Gates BBQ Suite], I wasn't under any deadline. This was something I was doing for me, for my family and I was going to take my time to do it. It feels real good too. To just do something for yourself. I paid for everything and I don't really care what happens. I mean, I do care. But I just think whatever else happens, this all is just like really groovy. I'm showing my age by saying groovy (laughs).

MK: Whats the reaction been like in Kansas City?

BW: (Laughs) I mean its a really big thing for Kansas City. You know, when I premiered it, the place was jam-packed. Mr. Gates brought his whole family and his friends from high school. It was an event, man, it was sold out. And Mr. Gates was very moved. He actually made a donation for a scholarship in his name, which is part of my plan too, you know? To try to unify the community with the conservatory.

Because for many years the conservatory has not been as connected with the black community. And so this suite is covering many levels. Not just the fact that we're able to talk because its coming out nationally, that's one level. But the other level is motivating people like Mr. Gates and other entrepreneurs and philanthropists to get involved in our program as well. That’s one of the reasons why I used the students [of UMKC] — because I have a great band, its a really good band right now.  But it goes back to what I said before: being a pillar of the community.

I love New York, but when you're in New York — and this is a fact — you're one of the cats. And that's a big honor to be one of the cats, so don't get me wrong, I'm not minimizing that. I'm still one of the cats. But now here, I'm like "Mr. Watson." So I'm like, "How can I use my music and how can I write while being here at a university and also uplift some people with the music?"

Not that I'm not driven anymore, I am. But I've been very blessed to have had my records on Columbia and Blue Note and I'm part of that history. And so now I wanna see how much I've learned from the travel to bring it all home. Because in New York, you're part of a fraternity, which you'll always be. But this Gates thing came from [wanting] to be part of a community.

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