Music News & Reviews

Ernie Watts brings Grammy-winning jazz home to Cambria

Central Coast residents will have a chance to hear some new music from Grammy Award winner and Cambria resident Ernie Watts for the first time Jan. 23, when he performs with his quartet at the new Unity Concert Hall in San Luis Obispo.

The Tribune caught up with Watts via email this past weekend as he was traveling in the Midwest, having just arrived by car in Chicago after a trip from Minneapolis.

The two-time Grammy-winning saxophonist is coming off the recording of a new album, to be released in April, and is eager to give concertgoers a sneak preview of that music.

“I am most looking forward to the opportunity to play some of my brand-new music from a CD we just recorded in December, called ‘Wheel of Time,’ ” said Watts, who cites John Coltrane and Miles Davis as his biggest influences.

“And also it will be wonderful to play with my quartet in SLO since it is our ‘home neighborhood,’ and we rarely play there,” he added. “Maybe some of our neighbors in Cambria can come and finally hear our music live.”

By the time the new album is out, Watts will be back on the road, playing in Germany, Spain and France.

Watts, who has been playing professionally since age 16, first picked up a saxophone 55 years ago — because the school he was attending didn’t have any trombones left. That had been his first choice.

“I was with a friend on a lunch break in junior high school, at the beginning of the school year when the school music department had instruments to loan,” he recalled. “My friend wanted to get an instrument, so I just followed him. After he got a tenor saxophone, the teacher asked me what I would like. I had no idea, but randomly said, ‘A trombone.’ (This was an instrument I may have remembered from seeing ‘The Glen Miller Story’ on TV.)

“The school was all out of trombones however, so the teacher decided for me. He saw that I was tall for my age, so he handed me a baritone saxophone, thinking I could successfully carry it in marching band. I took it home and immediately liked the sound and the feel of the saxophone, and began practicing regularly on my own. Eventually they gave me an alto saxophone when the school received one, and I continued learning on that. Music just connected with me immediately.”

That first connection, however, wasn’t jazz.

“I first learned to play saxophone with classical music,” Watts said, “but then a neighbor lent me records and I began to learn jazz by ear at the same time. I did not learn traditional ‘licks,’ or well-known phrases, in this way, so my style was developed in a different way than many jazz players of the time. My emphasis was, and still is, on melody, and this is reflected in my improvisation.”

Watts has played with a variety of well-known and respected musicians, not all of them jazz artists. He has appeared on more than 500 recordings by musicians ranging from saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley to eclectic singer-songwriter-musician Frank Zappa. He toured as a “student temporary” member of Buddy Rich’s Big Band from 1966 to 1968 and recorded two albums with the band — “Big Swing Face” and “The New One.”

Watts also recorded with Thelonious Monk (“Monk’s Blues”). His work appears on almost all the early West Coast Motown sessions and is featured on recordings by the likes of Marvin Gaye, Earth Wind and Fire, Steely Dan and Aretha Franklin. He toured with the Rolling Stones in 1981 and spent two decades with Doc Severinsen as a member of Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” band, until Carson’s retirement in 1991.

Also among the musicians he’s played with is Charlie Shoemake, the force behind the Famous Jazz Artists concert series at Cambria Center for the Arts Theatre.

“I have played a few times with Charlie Shoemake, the wonderful vibist and pianist who, with his wife, vocalist Sandi Shoemake, have lived in Cambria for many years,” he said.

We love the wild turkeys stopping by, and our great neighbors and the sound of the ocean down the street. Cambria used to be our getaway spot, but finally it just got too hard to leave.

Ernie Watts, Grammy Award-winning saxophonist

Watts and his wife have lived in Cambria since 2005.

“Patricia and I love being in a small town, on a peaceful street backing the woods,” the Norfolk, Va., native said. “We love the wild turkeys stopping by, and our great neighbors and the sound of the ocean down the street. Cambria used to be our getaway spot, but finally it just got too hard to leave.”

Watts won his first Grammy in 1983 — best pop instrumental for his version of “Chariots of Fire” — then duplicated the feat two years later, winning best rhythm and blues instrumental honors for his recording of “Musician.” More recently, in 2010, he worked with vocalist Kurt Elling on “Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman,” that year’s Grammy winner for best jazz album, recorded live at New York City’s Lincoln Center.

The Ernie Watts Quartet features Mark Seales on piano, Bruce Lett on bass and Bob Leatherbarrow on drums. The quartet’s most recent release, “A Simple Truth,” is Watts’ seventh on Flying Dolphin Records.

Ernie Watts Quartet

7:30 p.m. Jan. 23, doors open 7 p.m.

Unity Concert Hall, 1130 Orcutt Road, San Luis Obispo

$30, $25 for SLO County Jazz Federation members

543-4250 or