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After Raising A Generation Of New Kansas City Jazz Musicians, Bobby Watson Is Hitting The Road

Luke X. Martin
KCUR 89.3
Jazz saxophonist Bobby Watson is a planning a European tour and a new recording when he retires in 2020.

Saxophonist Bobby Watson has loved teaching at the University of Missouri-Kansas City conservatory, but he is ready to concentrate on the touring and recording that have made him an international jazz legend.

“It’s been a great 20-year chapter,” Watson says of his two decades as the first endowed jazz studies professor at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance. “I think life is divided like chapters, so I’m ready to fly again.”

He’ll retire from academia at the end of the 2019-2020 school year, although he plans to remain involved with the conservatory in some capacity.

He’s preparing for a new recording in New York early next year and plans a tour through Europe next summer.

This decision comes with mixed feelings, Watson said, in a wide-ranging interview on KCUR’s Up to Date.

“I love the conservatory and the work they do there and the faculty,” he said. “I think we have a world-class faculty there and our students are also world-class. And that part is bittersweet for me.”

At age 66, Watson said it’s the right time for him to devote to performing, composing and recording.

Teaching a generation

Watson has trained more than 100 musicians since he arrived at UMKC in 2000 and has helped define the Kansas City jazz scene throughout that time.

He said it’s been tremendously rewarding to teach a generation of students who have taken their talents all over the country. A great joy has been having a “captive band” of conservatory musicians, with whom he could try out his compositions.

“It was a great palette to try things and work on material,” he said.

One of those compositions was the “Gates BBQ Suite” dedicated to Kansas City barbecue magnate Ollie Gates, who has been one of Watson’s biggest supporters.

Watson praised the conservatory’s Concert Jazz Orchestra for turning in a terrific performance that made the national jazz airplay charts.

“He (Gates) loved it,” Watson said. “He was thrilled and that made me very happy. That was one of my bucket list things I wanted to do.”

Watson is enormously proud of his students but acknowledged that his teaching duties have been demanding.

“Going into school and giving your all and really being genuinely concerned about these young people’s lives requires a lot of energy, and they take a lot out of you, in a good way,” he said. “I tell my students, ‘I probably think about you more than you think about yourselves.’”

He said the conservatory faculty members dedicate themselves to giving their students individual attention, not just providing a “talking head, cookie-cutter approach” to teaching.

Musical roots

Watson grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, and started taking piano lessons at age 10. He was born into a musical family and fondly recalls hearing his father play saxophone and his mother play piano in church. His first public performance was playing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” on clarinet in church.

He attended junior high and high school in Minneapolis, where he learned saxophone. Watson attended the University of Miami at the same time as Pat Metheny and Bruce Hornsby. He graduated in 1975 and moved to New York to begin his professional career. It was there that he learned from and performed with jazz greats Art Blakey, George Coleman, Louis Hayes, Max Roach and others.

In 2000, he was approached to return to his Midwestern roots and was named the first William and Mary Grant/Missouri Distinguished Professor in Jazz Studies at UMKC. He also maintained a worldwide performing schedule.

Watson said he and his wife, Pamela Baskin-Watson, who is also an accomplished musician, are looking forward to moving into a new home in Lenexa. Pam is a pianist, composer and vocalist. Watson says she has a musical piece premiering in New York next month.

Watson believes the conservatory and jazz studies program will continue to thrive, with the hiring of trombonist Mitch Butler, and other excellent faculty members.

“It’s in great hands. It’s new blood, new enthusiasm,” he said. “It’s about the institution and the fine faculty that the institution maintains.”

Bobby Watson is a jazz studies professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance and an internationally renowned performer and composer. He spoke with KCUR 89.3 on a recent edition of Up To Date.

Lynn Horsley is a freelance journalist and was a veteran reporter for The Kansas City Star. Follow her on Twitter @LynnHorsley