For Bobby Watson, the saxophone is not only his outlet of expression but also his passport around the world and his ticket to Bend.
“Performance is what I do,” Watson said in a phone interview last week while waiting to catch a flight to Italy. “I'm trying to express what each song I play has to say.”
Now back from his Italian tour, the saxophonist will perform his own compositions, as well as interpretations of standards, this weekend at The Oxford Hotel (see “If you go”).
Over the past four decades, Watson, 57, has played with jazz legends including Art Blakey and Wynton Marsalis, appeared on hundreds of recordings, produced more than 100 original compositions and reached the top of the jazz charts.
Originally from Kansas City, Watson said his foundation in jazz started in church, where he would play in the band and listen to his father improvise over spirituals.
“I would always hear extra notes in my head when I was in concert band and the director would tell me to stop padding the parts,” he said.
When he took a jazz history course in high school, it became clear that he was not alone.
“It illuminated the world of jazz to me,” Watson said. “I could relate to those people that I heard about and realized it was my calling.”
Watson went on to study jazz at the University of Miami where he received formal saxophone training. After graduation, he joined the Jazz Messengers, the legendary group formed in 1955 by pioneering jazz drummer Art Blakey. For years, the band was a breeding ground of key bandleaders and musicians in the industry, including Watson, who served as musical director of the Messengers and completed more than a dozen recordings in his four-year tenure.
“(Art taught me) how to read the audience, how to pace (my) set ... and be consistent,” Watson said. “How to set a level of excellence for yourself and never go below that.”
Following his time in the Messengers, Watson created an acoustic quintet called Horizon with the help of bassist Curtis Lundy and drummer Victor Lewis. The band is considered one of the preeminent small groups of the 1980s and '90's and still performs today. He also led a nine-piece group called the High Court of Swing and a 16-piece ensemble, the Tailor Made Big Band.
Throughout the years, his style has changed, he said. Watson views each performance as an opportunity to connect with his listeners and take them with him on a melodic journey.
“I think I've gotten more relaxed and (I) focus more on sound and melody and less on trying to show everybody that I'm a virtuoso,” he said. “I try to let my technique shine through the expression of the song.”
While Watson — who cited Charlie Parker and John Coltrane as heroes — said he doesn't have a favorite song he likes to perform, he said his fondness for playing the blues has grown in recent years.
“The more you hang around, the more you understand the blues and appreciate it,” he said. “It is something that can't be taught. You have to live it to understand it.”
Watson is not only a performer but also an educator, serving as the director of Jazz Studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance. Prior to the conservatory, he was a member of the adjunct faculty and taught private lessons at Manhattan School of Music and William Paterson University.
“I've been teaching all my life in some form or fashion,” he said. “It's nothing new for me, but I get paid regularly and get benefits now.”
Watson likes to inspire his students with his music but said he also gets inspiration from just being around young people.
“I think people who get into jazz know how to think for themselves,” he said. “It's still the voice of freedom. ... America has to catch back up to it again.”