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Bobby Watson tuned in to Nelson Mandela's "Dark Days"

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Nelson Mandela, in both his extraordinary life and now profoundly mourned death, presents us with a remarkable example of how one person can truly change the world. Mandela by remaining true to his ideals and moral calling not only helped bring down apartheid but as South African president pursued pragmatic and tolerant policies that have gone far to unify his diverse nation.
The actions of Mandela the public man inspired many musical tributes over the years, something the private man no doubt appreciated given his love of music and dancing. It’s entirely fitting that jazz, a genre so firmly rooted in the African-American experience, has produced its share of Mandela-inspired works.
My favorite far and away is “Dark Days (For Nelson Mandela),” which saxophonist Bobby Watson included on his 1986 album “Love Remains.” Recorded with John Hicks, Curtis Lundy and Marvin “Smitty” Smith, it’s a touching ballad with something of a haunted quality about it, no doubt reflecting the fact that Mandela remained imprisoned at the time.
I dug up the CD upon getting home last night to play “Dark Days.” From there, I segued into “Live & Learn,” the 2002 disc that introduced me to Watson. A little research revealed that Watson has a new album out, “Check Cashing Day” which, not surprisingly, focuses on the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King and the March on Washington.
The album, Watson says in promotional materials, is “a commentary on where we’ve been, where we are and where we need to go as a people, as a country and as a global community. This being the year of my 60th birthday, I sadly understand that Dr. King’s dream has not been fully realized and the struggle continues.”
Watson is a stellar musician and composer but doesn’t seem to get the attention he deserves. He rarely makes it out to Northern California but I did have the opportunity to interview him once a few years ago. Here is the result:

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As both a performer and professor, Bobby Watson knows the valuable contribution university programs are making to jazz.
Academics, however, only go so far.
"I still have to say that there's nothing better than a series of one-nighters," the veteran saxophone player said. "Eight gigs in a row, 10 gigs in a row without a break. I just love that kind of stuff. It tests your chops and tests your endurance. There is no substitute for that."
Watson was introduced to that creative grind 35 years ago when, fresh out of the University of Miami, he signed on with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. The problem today is that the ranks of fledgling jazz artists far outstrips the number of working groups.
"The chance to have a working band is not what it was," Watson said. "Right now, that's not happening. But at least the school thing is happening."
University programs provide young jazz musicians with the skills and theory it takes to understand and develop their own talent.
"It's preparing them for the freedom of expression," Watson said. "Finding out about themselves and what their strengths and weaknesses are and how to exploit both."
In turn, going on the road with an established act is invaluable in defining and forging a musician's skill.
"They still have to have some type of experience paying their dues," Watson said from his Kansas City home. "Find some gigs on the road, work under harsh conditions or less than ideal conditions.
"Unfortunately, you have to play through those to be a professional. The basic demands for advancement are ancient, you know. They will never change."
The best any young jazz performer can hope for is to find in that established artist not just a boss but also a friend and mentor.
That was certainly Watson's experience with drummer Blakey, who died in 1990.
"He was a very positive man, and he really loved to be among young folks," Watson said. "It was a spell he cast on all of us. Anyone he came in contact with, he would lay a spell on you.
"And I got the chance to be his music director and hang up under his armpit for 4 1/2 years and sponge up everything I could."
Blakey's support provided the freedom and inspiration Watson needed to find his own musical voice.
"Art Blakey was always telling me, 'I don't want you to play like Charlie Parker,' " Watson said. " 'I want to hear you play like Bobby Watson.'
"It was getting over those humps of trying to impress people and realizing you have an opportunity to contribute. You get a chance to contribute to the art form."
It was gospel music, not jazz, to which Watson first contributed. Born in Lawrence, Kan., he began playing clarinet before moving on to saxophone.
"I've always had a passion for music, where you just need it," he said. "It's a certain form of expression that you have to have.
"But we were raised in the church, and my first playing experience was at my grandfather's church. I started to bring jazz records in the house when I went to high school."
Writers long have credited the soulfulness of Watson's playing to those gospel roots. That, combined with his Parker-like dexterity and energy, helped the 24-year-old land the Blakey gig. His years with Blakey were particularly noteworthy, as the lineup for a time included a fresh-faced New Orleans trumpeter named Wynton Marsalis.
All along, Watson also pursued a solo career. He has recorded dozens of albums since his 1977 debut, "E.T.A.," and appeared on dozens more with Maynard Ferguson, John Hicks and Joe Williams. He wrote the score for the Robert De Niro movie "A Bronx Tale."
Asked what impact the lack of finishing schools such as his Blakey apprenticeship will have on jazz, Watson said he's optimistic.
"I believe that jazz will never die," Watson said. "There will always be people out there doing it."
The comparative lack of professional opportunities, however, will thin the field.
"It's going to separate the really serious ones from the ones who thought they were going to do it," Watson said."Some will just fall back and can be teachers. Others will, maybe, go on the road for a time. Others might just quit and be weekend musicians."

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