Sunday, July 22, 2018

Bill Frickin' Watrous

"Dude studies with Bill Watrous!" marveled Erich, the worldly and ordinarily cynical sixth grader trombone section leader in my elementary school's concert band. "Dude" was a hotshot player from a nearby middle school. For Erich to be so envious of another trombone student - when he, himself, had lived so large and seen so much - was nearly inconceivable to me. I'd never heard of Bill Watrous, but kids at that age imprint instantly. Bill Watrous, whoever he was, was definitely the bomb.

Erich was impeccably tapped in, as always. Watrous, at the time, was the hottest name in trombone. He was the Elon Musk of trombone; the LeBron James of trombone. I detested his playing from the moment I first heard him a couple years later. But at that age I hadn’t developed a cohesive perspective, so I was able to hold contradictory positions. I could hate his playing while idolizing his status. After all, we’re talking about Bill frickin’ Watrous here!!

Here’s how I sized him up at the time: Watrous spewed breezy streams of fast high notes in a glibly detached monotone. The effect was both laid-back and tiresome. If Axe Body Spray could play trombone, this is how it might sound. His tone was so weak (one of several compromises facilitating his bag of technical tricks) that he had to practically swallow the microphone into the bell of his horn to be heard. There was not much in the way of phrasing or expression, more just a dense packing of flurries of notes. That's it: dense note-packing.

I would take the opposite approach, cultivating a rich, fat sound which projected to the rafters. I'd swing hard and listen with utmost attention to my fellow musicians, never merely gliding over them like wallpaper. I wound up incarnating a 75 year old black man in the body of a suburban white kid.

Here's a sample of Watrous' playing:

Here, by contrast, is my hero, Slide Hampton, who also had formidable technique but who struck me as far more swinging and expressive:

Jump ahead nine years. I’m attending University of Rochester while taking classes at the associated Eastman School of Music. I still dislike Watrous’ playing, but certainly acknowledge his technique and ease. And - hah! - I am offered an opportunity to study with him for a week over the summer. I don’t know quite what to expect. Check out the early photo, above, and see if you don’t share my trepidations about his ego.

Sure enough, he showed up in a shiny Adidas track suit - like an NBA star on his off day - and a haircut straight out of Austin Powers, like some groovy modster from the 60s. A real star, baby! Yet he spoke to his students like colleagues, without a trace of condescension. And I was flabbergasted by his reaction to me.

I assumed Watrous would hate my playing as much as I detested his. I was, after all, the anti-Watrous. But, to my shock, he liked me...just as I was. He didn’t tell me to go buy a smaller horn, or to reign in my fat tone, or to work on cramming a jillion notes into every gap. He didn’t suggest that I take everything up two octaves, or reduce my intensity. In fact, he was far more respectful of my choices than even my most like-minded teachers, who were constantly pestering me to tone it all down.

He offered suggestions, but only to help me achieve what I was already aiming for. Watrous respected my vision, and didn't urge me to be more like him. In fact, he suggested that I tell anyone who didn't like my musical choices to go screw off. No one had ever spoken to me like that before, much less Bill frickin’ Watrous.

Watrous shook up not only my assumptions about Watrous, but about music and art, generally. In fact, I’m still processing the lesson. He told me about a trombonist whose playing style was downright lazy. Notes wouldn’t glibly propel from his horn, as with Watrous, nor did they waft out, as with me. Rather, they’d tarry and slobber, like a depleted wind-up toy. But his playing had personality, so Watrous respected and adored it.

So: what the hell had been my big problem re: Watrous' playing? Why had I been so judgemental about him? You can respect - even love - a thing even when it's not your thing. Again, I'm still processing this, many, many years later. It's a lifelong effort.

I was not making out well in music school (for reasons explained here), which stamped out clones more along the Watrous spectrum - certainly a trendier choice than my geriatric African-American inclinations. I was rejected like a slug coin. I wasn’t permitted to major in music and the illustrious top trombone professor refused to teach me, sloughing me off on the backup teacher (who I now recognize, with immense shame, was a far better player and teacher).

I told Watrous this, and he said “I know the guy. You go straight to him and tell him Watrous says to get off his lazy ass and teach you, and that it’s important.” I was grateful and flattered, but too young to understand how seldom people put themselves out there like that. He didn’t need to do this for me. It shot right by like a heady blip, but now, shortly after Watrous' death, I'm belatedly feeling a fuller appreciation.

That fall, I returned to school, delivered the message, and the haughty top-string trombone professor was dumbstruck. He knew me, slightly, as the liberal arts guy who sloppily dabbled a bit in music. I was a dilettante, unworthy of his time or attention, yet here I was, bearing a directive from Jesus Christ himself. The poor fellow just couldn’t reconcile it. It really messed him up.
This was the first of many times where I would uncomfortably witness the real time shock of someone who'd severely underrated me getting The News. At age 55, it still happens. An old pal, who'd missed the Chowhound period and never really accepted that his goofy musician friend had ever done anything significant, recently reported, dumbfounded, that a food-loving colleague had turned giddy upon learning that he knew me. It doesn't happen often; just enough to keep me awkwardly disoriented.
Thankfully, the top teacher didn’t wind up teaching me after all, and I stayed with the good guy....who was neither important nor famous, but who offered a rare direct link to the late great Remington - hallowed be his name - who was a titanic influence on all my previous teachers. While Top Guy was an egotist whose playing lacked soul, my guy was warmly caring and a truly great player. Exactly the teacher for me, despite my foolish angling to get with Top Guy.

I'd gotten lucky. The haughty local capo was interested in turning out clones (and correctly sensed that I’d never submit), even though Bill Watrous, the capo di tutti capi, saw more deeply.
I’ve seen this pattern repeat constantly; the pack is inevitably smaller-minded than the top dog. I hung around a lot in Jamaica Queens in the late 80s with the guys who were developing hiphop by day and playing jazz by night. The scene included a contingent of very “militant” black Muslims who didn’t like white guys much, and they gave me the serious cold shoulder. Their spiritual mentor was an elderly trombonist who I heard a lot about, and who I expected to be as harsh as the surface of Venus, one Hassan Hakim (father of famed drummer Omar Hakim). But when I finally met Hassan, he was the sweetest guy ever and we became instant best friends, going out all the time to sit in with local rhythm sections. Hassan, who was in his 80s at the time, had little technique, but I hung on every swinging, uplifting note like a gift from Heaven. His followers, who hadn't suffered a fraction of the persecution, poverty and Jim Crow that he had, had sadly misinterpreted his perfectly admirable urgings to cultivate backbone, dignity and self-respect.

When you finally meet the top dog, it's always different.
I'd shallowly idolized Watrous' celebrity while stupidly disdaining his playing. I should have admired his abilities and embraced his originality - however different from my own choices - just as he'd embraced mine. As for the celebrity and status, none of that should ever have been a thing. He’d knocked himself out for me, and I was the furthest thing from a celebrity. So, again, what was my problem?

I’d made assumptions about Watrous’ arrogance, but I was the arrogant one, disrespecting an influential master who respected me, some kid, far more than I deserved. And I'd distracted myself by chasing celebrity for celebrity's sake - twice in this tale, alone (with fortunate results in both cases, though it took years to fully purge the impulse). I should have embraced more broadly while navigating my own course more narrowly and thoughtfully. Instead, I was backwards in both aspects, turning into a judgmental, status-conscious little snot who let himself be distracted from the only thing that matters: the music. I‘d thought I was more "musical" than Bill Watrous. Ha!

I was really sorry to see you go, Bill. Thanks for teaching me so much, even if not one iota of it was about trombone. Also: you played your ass off. You were absolutely the best Bill Watrous ever!

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I agree with you about the playing of Watrous and Hampton. Let me approach their playing from a different angle.

When I was in music school, all the sax players idolized and emulated either Parker or Coltrane. You would walk down the hall by the practice rooms, and hear both.

Except for one very good tenor player (who now teaches at a good college jazz program). Ed would transcribe Clifford Brown solos and learn them on sax. He didn't want to sound like everybody else.

What I got from that is that a good improvised melody can be good independent of the instrument. (You could play Clifford's lines on any instrument and it would sound great.) So listen to Watrous' solo and Hampton's solo and imagine playing those lines on a piano, or a trumpet. The virtuosity of Watrous doesn't matter if you play his melodies on piano.

Still, Watrous' solo is really good when you imagine it on piano. Nice licks, maybe the same licks used a bit much, but it's a compelling solo.

But Hampson is better. There's more variety to what he plays, and it's good stuff - the lines make musical sense as a sequence, going over multiple choruses. Imagine being at a session and hearing Hampton's solo up an octave on trumpet. That would be really impressive.

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