Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Watts, Jeff "Tain"

Hailing from the rich musical city of Pittsburgh, drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts has established himself as one of the most celebrated practitioners of the modern jazz era. He is known for his expertise as a heavy and intense swing player, reflective of older jazz drummers like Elvin Jones.

Watts’ energetic style tends to include blistering ride patterns juxtaposed with excellent rhythmic clarity that involves snapping snare drum accents and explosive tom fills. He was an integral part of both Wynton and Branford Marsalis’ early bands and has also worked with Kenny Garrett, McCoy Tyner, and Michael Brecker in addition to leading his own groups, which have explored hip-hop, funk, and reggae.

Born on January 20th, 1960 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Watts was one of the few people in his family to study formal music. He started off playing the drums at the age of nine with classical timpani. He received his first drum set at the age of fourteen and performed with the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra as a teenager in addition to soaking up jazz and the sounds of Earth, Wind, & Fire. Following high school, Watts enrolled at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh but soon transferred to the Berklee College of Music where some his classmates included saxophonist Branford Marsalis, guitarist Kevin Eubanks, and trumpeter Wallace Roney.

. The beginning of the 1980s marked an important moment in jazz history. The art form was undergoing a strong revitalization period both artistically and commercially. With this association with the Marsalis crew, Watts officially joined the ranks of the up and coming. During the summer of 1981 as he began to wind up his studies at Berklee, Watts recorded with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. In 1982, Watts moved to New York City and formally joined the rising star’s band. It was during this stint with Marsalis that Jeff Watts became known as “Tain.” While on the road in Florida, pianist Kenny Kirkland drove past a Chieftain gas station and subsequently gave the name to Watts after substituting Chieftain with Jeff Tain.

Watts appeared on his 1982 self-titled album Wynton Marsalis. Watts displayed an advanced technique and understanding early on as heard on this recording. His drumbeats set the tone for much of the trumpeter’s debut album. On “Sister Cheryl” he plays a shuffle, jazz beat with a hint of Latin undertones as he accents the and of beat one into beat two with tom drum hits. While on the Mingus-flavored “Twilight,” his pocket time anchors the band. The 1980s were good years for Watts who appeared on all of Wynton’s albums through 1988.

On 1985’s Black Codes, considered one of the strongest jazz releases of the decade, Watts is in perfect form as he executes thunderously on the entire album. On the title track, Watts commands the band as they play the head, matching the rhythmic hits of pianist Kenny Kirkland with ferocious hits on the hi-hat. Watts also adds undeniably to Wynton’s solo, as he strikes the drums with intense passion all while swinging and keeping the beat perfectly intact.

Other songs of note include “Delfeayo’s Dilemma" and “Chambers of Tain,a fast, dynamically heavy song where Watts provides a neck-breaking swing pattern underneath the rapid modal lines of Wynton, Branford, and Kenny Kirkland, who steals the show with his McCoy Tyner influenced solo.

In addition to recording with Wynton, Watts was also an integral part of Branford’s first recordings, which included Scenes in the City, released in 1984 and Royal Garden Blues, released in 1985. Watts continued to perform and record with Wynton while pianist Kenny Kirkland and Branford Marsalis had left by 1985 to join Sting’s band. Watts appeared on Wynton’s 1986 album Marsalis Standard Time, Vol.1, which featured the George Gershwin song “A Foggy Day," "J Mood"and on the live recording Live at Blues Alley.

On Live at Blues Alley, the band included pianist Marcus Roberts and bassist Robert Hurst, both of whom interact very efficiently with Watts. On the interlude track “Knozz-Moe-King," which is performed three times on the album, Watts’ medium-tempo ride beat drives each version as different members of the band solo during each interlude. Watts shows his versatility on the mid-tempo ballad “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans,” executing soft brush strokes before switching to a mellow hi-hat motif, coupled with the occasional rim shot.

Watts performed with many other well-known and respected musicians during the 1980s including McCoy Tyner, Stanley Jordan, and Donald Brown. Watts stayed with Wynton Marsalis’ group until 1988. In 1990, Watts made a screen appearance as the character Rhythm Jones in director Spike Lee’s movie Mo’ Better Blues and also performed on the soundtrack, which featured the music of the Branford Marsalis Quartet with Terence Blanchard on trumpet. Watts continued to be a member of Branford’s band making noteworthy performances on his 1993 live recording Bloomington, recorded in September 1991 on the campus of Indiana University. Notable tracks from this trio album include “The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born."

Watts along with Kenny Kirkland joined Branford Marsalis in 1992 when the saxophonist took over the job as musical director for the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Watts stayed in Los Angeles until late 1993 when Marsalis resigned from his duties with the NBC show. He recorded with Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez for his 1996 album Panamonk, appearing on the sandwich track “Evidence and Four In One. Watts’s output during the 1990s is very strong. He appeared on more than 50 albums as a sideman between 1991 and 1999 on projects by Ellis Marsalis, Courtney Pine, Betty Carter, Larry Willis and Sonny Fortune. Watts appeared on several Grammy nominated albums, which included Perez’s Panamonk, Kenny Garrett’s 1997 release Songbook, Michael Brecker’s 1999 release Time is of the Essence, and Branford Marsalis’s 1999 release Requiem. Sadly, during the recording of his debut album Citizen Tain in June of 1998, longtime pianist and associate Kenny Kirkland was experiencing health problems. He was found dead in his Queens, NY home on November 13th, 1998, one week after attending Branford Marsalis’ wedding in New Rochelle, New York.

Watts continued to perform with Branford through the late 1990s along with pianist Joey Calderazzo and bassist Eric Revis, who all appear on the saxophonist’s 2001 recording Contemporary Jazz. Watts plays a series of mind-spinning time and tempo changes on the song “ Elysium. In the 2000s, Watts continued to perform with Branford and began releasing more albums as a leader. In 2002, the drummer released Bar Talk followed by Detained, a release that chronicled his band at the Blue Note Jazz Club in February 2004. Featured on the album are saxophonist Marcus Strickland, alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett, and bassist Eric Revis. The album shows “Tain” in typical form with extended drum solos, fortissimo drum fills, and pocket swing grooves.

Watts has also released two additional albums under his name with his Ebonix group, which have included 2007’s Folk’s Songs and 2009’s Watts. His most recent release explores other musical styles including funk and African flavored compositions, further displaying his versatility not only as a drummer but also as a composer as heard on the song “Return of the Jitney Man.

It remains to be seen what the next twenty years has in store for Jeff “Tain” Watts but if anything is for certain he will continue to lead by example, further cementing his legacy as one of the most respected and heralded drummers in modern music. Today, Watts maintains a somewhat active touring schedule. He currently resides in Brooklyn and he is a diehard Pittsburgh Steelers football fan.

Select Discography

With Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis (Columbia, 1982)

Hot House Flowers (Columbia, 1985)

Black Codes (From the Underground), (Columbia, 1985)

J Mood (Columbia, 1986)

Marsalis Standard Time Vol.1 (Columbia, 1987)

Live at Blues Alley (Columbia, 1988)

With Branford Marsalis

Scenes in the City (Columbia, 1984)

Royal Garden Blues (Columbia, 1985)

Contributor: Jared Pauley