KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Jazz musicians from Kansas City have a long tradition of success.
First came Basie, then “Bird,” and finally Kansas City, Kansas, native Bobby Watson made his debut in the jazz scene. After high school, Watson first attended college at Kansas City, Kansas, Community College, before attending the University of Miami, and finally, joining one of the greatest jazz bands to ever exist.
“It was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Watson said about his time as a member of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. “(It was) a great honor and a privilege.”
The origins of the band started back in the 1940s, but the first true recording with the name Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers wasn’t until 1954 or 1955. Blakey spent years taking some of the best talent in the world and using those people in his band. From Hank Mobley to Wynton Marcelles, almost every big name, from every era of jazz, has played with Blakey.
Watson joined the band in 1976 after moving to New York and continued the tradition of the best players in the world joining the messengers.
“They brought Art down to the club one day. It was his birthday actually,” Watson said. “Before I knew it, Art was on stage. He had switched places with Butch (Miles) and he was up there blowing. You know. BLOW! BLOW! BLOW!”
Blow is a common phrase used by jazz musicians to encourage playing harder, with more emotion and that can also mean faster. Jazz is interesting like that, because musicians use a lot of their own terms that don’t really apply to other music. What Watson was hinting at was, when your band leader tells you to play something different, you go with it because it’s their band.
“He would definitely set the pace, but at the same time, he was always listening,” Watson says of Blakey’s style. “He loved to accompany and help you build your solo. He taught us how to build (on a solo).”
Watson eventually moved back to the Kansas City metro and began teaching at The University of Missouri-Kansas City.
In 2017, Watson released an album under his name called “Made in America.” The album features songs inspired by and named after black Americans that did amazing things while living in the U.S.
“I grew up watching the Lone Ranger on TV… this was based on Bass Reeves.” Watson said of his song The Real Lone Ranger. “He was a master of disguise, had a Native American partner… and when people would escape custody, he’d go into the territories and get them.”
Reeves was the first black Deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi. He claimed to have captured more than 3,000 felons. Reeves grew up in slavery, before eventually escaping and starting his career as a Marshal.
The sweet, soulful sounds of Watson continue to fill the air in venues around the world. Click here to find out where you can see Watson live.