Get your ‘cool’ infusion
Maui Jazz & Blues Festival 2017 returns to the island
One of the legends performing on Sept. 8 at the seventh annual Maui Jazz & Blues Festival, saxophonist Bobby Watson celebrates some of the less well-known but vital contributions of African-Americans on his latest album, “Made in America.”
These black pioneers in a variety of fields, from politics to music, science to sports include the more famous, like actor/singer Sammy Davis, Jr., and more obscure historic figures such as actress “Butterfly” McQueen and Army Air Corps pilot Wendell Pruitt.
“Watson delivers a history lesson, a love letter and a casual masterpiece for generations to enjoy,” praised a Downbeat review. “On ‘Made in America,’ he chooses to tell the stories of underappreciated black pioneers from all walks of life. ‘The Aviator,’ serves as an ode to a Tuskegee Airman who was killed during a training exercise in 1945. ‘The Butterfly “For Butterfly McQueen,” ‘ serves as a jazz-noir beauty in honor of the great actress best known for her role as Prissy in ‘Gone With The Wind.’ “
Other pioneers highlighted on the album include Bass Reeves, a former slave who became the first black deputy U.S. Marshal in the West, on the track “The Real Lone Ranger,” and black athlete Major Taylor on “The Cyclist.”
“I’m a student of history, especially black history,” Watson explains. “You have major players like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and George Washington Carver. I found second-line players that were just as important. It all started with Major Taylor, and one thing led to another.”
Born in 1878, Taylor became a champion cyclist while enduring extreme racism. Barred from races in the South, even when he was allowed to ride, white competitors either refused to ride with him or worked to box him in, while spectators threw ice and nails at him.
“It’s a journey and it’s still going on,” Watson continues. “I might do a volume two. It’s so fascinating and enlightening, hopefully for young people both black and white. I have a whole list of other people. Katherine Johnson was on my list (portrayed in the movie ‘Hidden Figures’), but I couldn’t come up with a musical identity for her.”
In these racially fractured days Watson’s album project seems very timely.
“Fortunately or unfortunately, the record has a shelf life,” he says. “I want people to do research.”
A professor of jazz studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and a former musical director of Art Blakey’s legendary Jazz Messengers, the revered saxophonist has worked with many lights of jazz, including drummers Max Roach and Louis Hayes, fellow saxophonists George Coleman and Branford Marsalis, and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.
Growing up in a musical family in Kansas City, Mo., Watson’s father played saxophone in church.
“He tuned pianos and repaired instruments and he would play a saxophone when he got off work sometimes to relax,” he recalls. “He was very particular about tone.”
But no jazz was played in his home.
“I brought the first jazz record into our house,” he explains. “Our high school history teacher was a jazz drummer. That’s when I got really hip to Charlie Parker.”
Attending the University of Miami, his classmates included the late bassist Jaco Pastorius, Bruce Hornsby and guitarist Pat Metheny.
“Pat is a dear friend of mine,” he says. “I would hang at Pat’s house and he would teach me some jazz songs. Pat went to Miami and he said, ‘Bobby you’ve got to come down to Miami.’ I was a composition major and I experimented with big bands and writing.”
After graduating, he was snapped up by legendary drummer Art Blakey in 1977 to play with the Jazz Messengers, which was known as the ultimate “postgraduate school” for ambitious young players.
“He was so positive,” Watson recalls of Blakey. “I wrote a song for him, ‘Faith in Action,’ because that was what Art was. He loved young people and fed on our energy. The bandstand was our sanctuary and altar. When we got up there we were totally dedicated to giving our all because ‘tomorrow’s not promised,’ as he would say a lot. He taught me the sacredness of the bandstand.”
It was Blakey who encouraged him to find his own voice on sax and not just imitate Charlie Parker.
“He’d say, ‘I played with Charlie Parker, I want to hear Bobby.’ “
Watson has been praised as the Charlie Parker of the 21st century.
“That’s very flattering,” he says. “I have my own style. I’m certainly not an innovator like he was, but I’ve always tried to be myself and be original. Art Blakey got me to love my sound.”
Reviewing his career PopMatters reported: “Bobby Watson has a distinctive tone on the saxophone, a cherry tone, ripe and sweet and capable of turning deliciously dark or sour. That sound, combined with a knack for ingenious compositions and a sense of innate swing, made him one of a tiny handful of essential alto players in the 1980s and 1990s. His years with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers reignited the greatness of that band, and the recordings that followed by Watson as a leader were essential listening.”
In later years he played with the Grammy-nominated Tailor Made big band and helped found the acclaimed, all-horn 29th Street Saxophone Quartet. His credits include composing original music for the soundtrack of Robert DeNiro’s directorial debut, “A Bronx Tale.”
In 2013 he released the “Check Cashing Day” album with The I Had a Dream Project, including activist poet Glenn North. Mixing jazz, gospel, hip-hop and soul, it was released in honor of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington. One of the tracks, “Dark Days,” includes the line, “what a joy to witness Obama strutting across the White House lawn.”
Last year Watson was excited to meet President Obama at a special concert at the White House, celebrating the fifth annual International Jazz Day. Other legends performing there included Chick Corea, Aretha Franklin, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin and Pat Metheny.
“It was so great to meet the first black president of the United States, him and Michelle,” Watson enthuses. “What a class act. I don’t know if there’s any jazz going to be in the White House any time soon. I played for George W. Bush as well. Every president up until the present one had a deep appreciation for America’s original art form.”
Heading to our island next week to play at the jazz and blues festival, Watson says he is looking forward to connecting with some of the other musicians.
“I remember Fareed (Haque) when he was at Blue Note (Records). We were at Blue Note at the same time. It will be good to see him.”
Watson will perform at the seventh annual Maui Jazz & Blues Festival on Sept. 8 at the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea. The lineup also includes jazz guitar virtuoso Haque, Grammy winning Cajun accordionist Jo-El Sonnier, blues musician Jimmy D. Lane, saxophonist Javon Jackson, saxophonist Rock Hendricks, guitarist Benny Uyetake and the Jazz Alley TV Trio.
Beginning at 6 p.m. the event will include five stations of gourmet cuisine. Cost is $150 per person for music and food with limited seating available, or $2,000 for a VIP table of 10.
A Hana Hou Jazzfest encore dinner will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. on Sept. 9 at DUO Steak & Seafood Restaurant at the Four Seasons featuring festival artists. Call 874-2201 for reservations. Live jazz and blues will also be featured at Ferraro’s Bar e Ristorante and the Lobby Bar until 11 p.m.
A Jazzfest kickoff sneak peek with some of the musicians will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. Sept. 7 at Duke’s Beach House in Kaanapali, and a sunset Jazzfest dinner will be held from 6 p.m. at the Hula Grill with the artists.
As part of the festival, live jazz will be presented from 5 to 7 p.m. Monday through Wednesday at Japengo Restaurant at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa in Kaanapali.
More information and tickets are available at www.mauijazz- andbluesfestival.com. For special festival room reservations, call (888) 609-3237.
Multi-Grammy nominated pianist Peter Kater will present a free concert at 7 p.m. Friday at the Makawao Union Church in conjunction with the release of his latest album “Dancing Water.”
Praised by Contemporary Fusion Magazine as, “one of the most beautiful piano works in the last five years,” the recording features improvised solo pieces. It’s No. 1 on Amazon’s New Age chart.
“These all-improvised musical excerpts are from some intimate sessions recorded starting when I moved back to Maui in May of 2016,” Kater explains.
Kater has released more than 60 critically acclaimed CDs and has scored the music for many TV and film productions. He recently performed in concert on Maui with acclaimed Native American flutist R. Carlos Nakai.