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Kansas City Creative Couples: Watson & Baskin-Watson

The work of iconic Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera is on display this summer at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. They’re part of an exhibit called Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Masterpieces of Modern Mexico.

Kahlo and Rivera are known not only for their paintings, but for their tempestuous marriage, which sometimes influenced their art.

Inspired by Kahlo and Rivera, we are profiling some of Kansas City’s creative couples on air and online. From ballerinas to sculptors to musicians, we want to find out how two artists make a life together, and how their relationship influences their work.

Bobby Watson and Pamela Baskin-Watson

Pamela Baskin-Watson grew up in Kansas City, Kansas in a musical family. Her mother was a choral director, and her father, a singer; she and her siblings pursued music, and for Pam, it was the piano.

Bobby Watson grew up in Bonner Springs and Kansas City, Kan., and started taking piano and clarinet in grade school, and, the instrument he’s known best for, the saxophone, in high school. His father, Robert Watson, Sr., also played saxophone, and they played duets in church.

Pam and Bobby met in 1971 in a practice studio, when they were both students at Kansas City Kansas Community College.

On first impressions:

Bobby: I just remembered how wonderfully she played the piano. She was really into jazz. She turned me on to a lot of music in the beginning of our relationship that she had been listening to. She always had a gift for melody and she liked things that were very melodic.

Pam: I thought he was cute, you know, but I didn’t know anything about him. He hadn’t made a name for himself or anything. He was just another student at Juco (Kansas City Kansas Community College) at that particular time.

Their first date, recalls Pam, was going to a club to listen to guitarist Pat Metheny, who grew up in Lee’s Summit, Mo.

On clubs in New York as an introduction to the music scene:

Like Metheny, Pam and Bobby went on to attend the University of Miami. After graduation, they moved to New York City. 

Bobby: Our first collaboration was going to the clubs, sitting outside the clubs. We had a space outside of each club in New York, down in the Village, and around the city. We’d be sitting there together where we could hear the music, if we didn’t have the money to get in. We had a space, a spot behind each club, and sometimes [we’d] actually hear and see the music from outside. That’s where a lot of the guys, like Billy Hart, Curtis Fuller, they got to know us that way. There would be those two young folks outside sitting, and then, they’d bring us in, and the people in the club got to know us. 

Pam: Music and jazz was very prevalent in my household, so getting an opportunity to hear some of these people that I’d been reading on the back of record covers for so many years - that was a big thrill. I didn’t know exactly what avenue my music was going to go at the particular time, but he knew, that was the reason why he came. Being able to check those people out. And ultimately meet them, and then he started sitting in...and [it] started rolling like that.

From 1977 to 1981, Bobby played with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, becoming musical director. He introduced the band to a song Pam wrote, dedicated to vocalist Betty Carter, called Ms. B.C. It became entrenched in the book of the band – and they often opened with the song. Art Blakey, and others, later recorded it, and so did Bobby.

On collaboration, and listening to another opinion:

The couple has continued to collaborate through the years. Bobby has released more than two dozen albums – and Pam sang on his first two solo recordings; he’s also recorded some of her other songs, like The Love We Had Yesterday.

A new project in the works marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech. The couple had different ideas about it. Bobby says it’s not uncommon for one to influence the other to consider another option or direction.

Bobby: As we were moving through the project, Pam said, "Well, you know, Martin loved Mahalia Jackson. And he loved to hear her sing." And, in fact, that whole "I have a dream" portion of the speech, he went into that because Mahalia Jackson was near him and she was urging him on, "Tell them about the dream, Martin, tell them about the dream," because she had heard him working on this and using it in other sermons.

Pam: I knew that Martin Luther King, Jr. loved spoken word and he loved vocalists. So I thought it would be a big oversight to not have some aspect that was sung on this particular project. That one worked in my favor, I’ll put it that way. THAT one worked in my favor (laughs).

Bobby: And my favor, too (they both laugh). Seriously, musically and otherwise.

On advice for other artist couples:

A return to Kansas City in 2000, as Bobby took on a professorship in jazz, and director of jazz studies, at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance, opened a new chapter for the couple. Bobby still travels, playing at international jazz festivals. Pam is an accompanist, and sings in the vocal ensemble Book of Gaia.

Pam and Bobby have also raised two children, a daughter, Lafiya and a son, Aaron. Both chose creative paths: Lafiya is a graphic designer and photographer, Aaron is a chef.

In September 2013, the couple celebrates their 37th wedding anniversary. One of their favorite songs - and one they wrote together - is called Love Remains.

Pam: I always tell people that the very thing that I love him the most for – is the very thing that has caused me the most discomfort during our relationship. Because he knew what he wanted to do – and he did it. Just because you want to create a life with someone doesn’t mean you have to give up your dream. There does have to be compromise on the other side. The other side of it is they have to be appreciative of, not saying that he wasn’t, the other side has to be appreciative of the times that they are not there and make the time that they are there count.

Bobby: I have to agree. And something that I’ve been working on to this day is that when you do have the time together, be there together with the time you have. And put away the horn, and put away the career. The reason that you’re out there touring and playing is so that you can have a life, and enjoy some things that you work for...like Pam said, if you know who you are marrying, don’t try to change them. Try to support each other.

The Kansas City Creative Couples Series will air every week on KC Currents through August 18.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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