Music flows from the second floor stairwell of the James C. Olsen Performing Arts Center, leading to a narrow hallway where practice rooms are filled with students. At the very end, is a small office cluttered with posters from performances around the globe. There, sits world famous musician Bobby Watson.
He opens up his desk drawer full of paper scraps with short music lines written on each one – some dating back sketches date to 1985.
“If I hear something, I write it down,” Watson said, “and I always keep a journal.”
His writing process requires patience and dedication. The music comes to him at all times of day, sometimes, in the middle of the night. Then it all comes together.
“It might take two or three years to come to fruition,” he said.
Collaboration is a big aspect of jazz composing, according to Watson. He may have something written, but he said it’s up to the musicians to interpret the notes.
“It’s all about interpretation,” Watson said, “I’m really not a composer, I’m a scribe. Stuff comes to me and I write it down; but the pianist brings it alive; the drummer brings it alive and everyone contributes.”
For this reason, Watson said he wants musicians who don’t just play the notes, but interpret the music with a “healthy disrespect.”
As a professor, composer and musician, Watson leads a life full of the vibrant and enriching power of jazz music.
Along with composing, Watson has taught at the UMKC Conservatory for the past 17 years. He came to UMKC after being awarded the first William D. and Mary Grant/Missouri Professor of Jazz Studies.
Growing up, Watson said music was always in the house.
His first experience performing music was playing piano and clarinet at his church. After graduating from the University of Miami, Watson went on to spend 25 years in New York where he met Art Blakey and played with the Jazz Messengers.
Watson now dedicates much of his time and effort to imparting his love for jazz on the next generation. As an educator, Watson encourages his students to find their individuality.
“I try to encourage them to love their sound,” he said, “and use their sound to express themselves.”
He says that in the world of social media, it’s important for him to teach his students how to market themselves, as well as to use music for personal expression.
Watson acknowledged that not every student will go on to a career in music, but he hopes jazz can enrich their lives no matter what field they end up in.
“Having jazz in your life gives you that spirit of imagination,” Watson said. “We try to accent their imagination.”
Watson wants to continue to travel, perform, teach and compose. He would like to see more of his music used by film director, and is working on a book about the relational and social aspect of jazz.
Ultimately, he wants to spread the love of music as much as he can. He sees a bright future for jazz in Kansas City, saying our history in the arts will continue to fuel the creativity.
“Jazz is like a river,” Watson said, “it will keep flowing here forever.”
(Photo source: bobbywatson.com)