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Watson: Jazz scene is smaller but still driving

| Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012, 8:58 p.m.

Saxophonist Bobby Watson says modern aspects of technology and life have created roadblocks for jazz fans or professionals, but he thinks there are ways to find a detour.

There are fewer job, fewer chances to deal with great leaders, and fewer ways to learn about music when it comes as a digital product without any information, he says.

“It is a challenge,” he admits, “but the best thing is once you get moving, you are like a little wind-up car that just keeps going and going.”

Watson, the director of jazz studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City conservatory, is trying to turn the crank on students and listeners as one of the stars at the University of Pittsburgh Jazz Seminar & Concert in Oakland.

The saxophonist, once a part of the Jazz Messengers with Pittsburgh native Art Blakey, is one of the crew of players brought to offer workshops Friday and Saturday. They all will perform at a concert Saturday evening at the nearby Carnegie Music Hall.

Besides Watson, the guests will be trumpeters Randy Brecker and Lew Soloff; saxophonists Javon Jackson and Nathan Davis, director of jazz studies at Pitt who founded the seminar in 1969; pianist George Cables; bassist Abraham Laboriel, guitarist Yotam Silberstein; and drummer Winard Harper.

The academic-performing mix of the event would seem to fit Watson well. After graduating the University of Miami, the Kansas native moved to New York City and immediately landed a position with the Messengers. After six years with that band, he carved a niche in jazz performing with stars from drummer Max Roach to trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.

He also became a dependable backup figure for singers such as Joe Williams and Dianne Reeves.

He is in his 13th year at the Kansas City campus and says he comes into sessions such as these with a number of topics in mind. But, he adds, he tries to be loose enough to deal with “different lives, different needs.”

One of the main things he says he tells students, though, is about the simple importance of listening, both to what is happening around them as they play and to a great number of other musicians.

The listening can be problematic in the digital age, he says. Music often is downloaded without the benefit of notes, leaving the listener unaware of who is playing outside of the headliner. Maybe even more important is the nearly endless selections, giving a fan hundreds — or thousands — of tunes to hear rather than concentrating on a few.

But the information is out there, he says, and accessible in a similar digital way, on the computer.

“The best thing is, if you are self-motivated enough to look for it, you will be off and running,” he says.

He says life as a performer has changed greatly from his early days in music when bands like Blakey's served as graduate schools at which younger musicians could learn.

There are few leaders like that today, he says, so he advises young players to study and practice hard and to be open to all sorts of opportunities — whatever they might be. Technology has given musicians the ability to better control their recorded career, he says, and it will probably change as much in coming years as it has in the past few, he says.

“There will be plenty of opportunities out there,” he says. “We just don't know what they will be yet.”

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7852.

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