24 Minutes with Ernie Watts
Ernie Watts. (Janette Beckman Photo)
A prolific saxophonist, Ernie Watts has performed with everyone from Buddy Rich to the Rolling Stones; and Thelonius Monk to Franz Zappa.
Prior to performing alongside violinist L. Subramaniam July 8 at The Orpheum to kick off the Indian Summer Festival, Joe Leary spent 24 Minutes with the two-time Grammy Award winner.
You played with legendary drummer Buddy Rich. He seemed like a pretty complicated man. What does playing alongside someone of his calibre do to your craft?
Buddy's band was my first full-time professional touring band. I was 20 when I joined. I have very fond memories of Buddy. He was one of the truly great drummers of all timem and I learned so much about night-to-night playing consistency and the music business. Buddy did have some anger issues, but he never got angry without cause. I am so glad I had the opportunity to spend time in that band. Years later when I was in the Tonight Show band with Johnny Carson and Buddy would come on the show, it was always great to see him and he always gave me a big hug.
Tell me what it's like to play in the Tonight Show Band with Doc Severinsen.
I was a full-time member of the Tonight Show band with Johnny Carson from 1971 to 1991, their Los Angeles period. I met Doc Severinsen in New York when I was with Buddy's band and when the Tonight Show moved to Los Angeles permanently I was asked to join. I was 25. It was an incredible learning experience. Every day I felt like I was going to school because of the great musicians in the band, especially Snooky Young and Conte Candoli on trumpet; Tommy Newsome, Bill Perkins, and Pete Christlieb on saxophone; Ross Tomkins on piano; the wonderful Ed Shaughnessy on drums and of course, Doc Severinsen, who not only was a great trumpet player and bandleader, but who taught me about daily discipline on my instrument. He is one of the most focused players that I have ever met and was always there before everyone else – practicing. He is still playing great at nearly 90. I last worked with him in November of 2016.
When you look back, be it playing with Buddy Rich, The Tonight Show Band, Marvin Gaye etc., do you think at the time it’s as big a deal as it would later become?
No. I think when you are involved in the process it's an ongoing experience and you learn about the significance of it in retrospect. While you're doing it, you're simply being there, working.
When did music enter your life?
I started playing saxophone when I was 13 in Grade 7. I was being taught classical music in school but my neighbour started lending me jazz records to hear at home. My first jazz record of my own was the Miles Davis album Kind Of Blue. That was when I first heard John Coltrane. It had a very strong, emotional affect on my entire self. From that point on that music was what I wanted to do with my life.
You are of an era where the recordings, the radio airplay and record company support very much mattered. What’s your take on where the industry is in 2017?
This has become the entrepreneurial period in the music business. Digital technology has made it possible for musicians to take more creative control of their art and produce their own projects. Something that was prohibitively expensive before. In recognizing that, my wife Patricia and I created our own record company called Flying Dolphin Records in 2004. Since then, we have recorded eight releases on our label which is a platform for my music. We travel extensively, selling our CDs at performances and through online and physical store distribution as well. We have found this to be a positive direction for us as I decide what the music will be and with whom I will play. I write original music, add music from my friends and other pieces that especially speak to me. I think this change in the music business is the most positive thing I have seen in how albums are produced because large production companies had almost all the say in what was released previously and creativity suffered when money was the only criterion. Now there is more of a balance, which I believe is good.