Since then, Watson, who plays the Oxford jazz series this weekend in Bend, has become a jazz powerhouse, working with some of the best jazz musicians alive and directing numerous ensembles like the Grammy-nominated Tailor Made Big Band. He has played the sax on more than 100 albums released by pretegious labels such as Blue Note, Palmetto and Columbia Records.
Actor Robert DeNiro had him to write and record an original composition for his 1993 directorial debut movie, A Bronx Tale. Watson spoke to us in a phone interview a few weeks ago from his hometown where he is currently Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music.
Of all his success, jazz accolades, directorships and recordings Watson said he still looks back to those early days in New York City as the foundation for the sound he'll bring to three shows at The Oxford this weekend in his Bend debut. Joining Watson onstage is Portland's Mel Brown Sextet.
"My greatest achievement in my life was being accepted, embraced and respected by the jazz community when I first came to New York," said Watson.
Despite the diverse styles of jazz that were prominent at the time, such as jazz funk, latin jazz, avant-jazz and fusion, Watson describes the New York jazz scene as a brother and sisterhood. The image of collegial cooperation runs contrary to popular jazz history that emphasizes the rivalry between players and styles.
"When I got to New York I dropped a lot of labels and categories that I learned in school," explained Watson, who received formal training at the University of Miami, a school known for its jazz program. "Once you become part of the community of musicians - which is what it is, a community, a village - and you know people personally, those divisions sort of fade away."
His community included master musician and keyboardist Herbie Hancock, drummers Max Roach and Louis Hayes, fellow saxaphonist George Coleman and trumpetor Wynton Marsalis.
Watson's musical style leans toward a punchy, hard-bop jazz, yet he spent many pre-dawn hours in the loft of multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers, listening to free jazz after the commercial clubs had closed. He cites Rivers as being one of his greatestest influences, despite their distinctly different styles.
You can hear many stylistic influences, including free jazz, in the sounds of Lemoncello, an original Watson composition recorded in 2004 with the acclaimed Horizon ensemble. The seven-minute piece is the first track on the hit album Horizon Reassembled. The song is dominated by an upbeat, melodic chorus, which is dissected, deconstructed and seemlessly pieced back together with solos by Watson on sax, Terrell Stafford on trumpet and Edward Simon on piano. The group has an invigorating feel and has been dubbed the "happy band."
"I like to try and celebrate this life and I think it comes out in my playing," said Watson. "I like hope, optimism, because I think that's what I heard in Charlie Parker...Through it all, hope has to stay there, it makes life more worth living."
Watson's three performances are the sixth installment of the "Jazz at the Oxford" series, which has featured artists such as vocalist and pianist Diane "Deedles" Schuur and, most recently, Portland-based pianist and composer Darrell Grant.
Although this is Watson's first trip to Bend, this will not be his first time performing with Mel Brown, whose ensemble played the Jazz at the Oxford series in January.
"If you are part of the [jazz] community and you get around, you meet Mel Brown," said Watson. "Because he's one of those guys who has influenced a lot of people in his area. I am really looking forward to playing with him."
Bobby Watson with The Mel Brown Septet
$45 at bendticket.com
8pm, Fri., March 16; 5pm and 8pm, Sat., March 17
The Oxford Hotel, 10 NW Minnesota Ave.