Create your world

Jeff WattsJeff “Tain” Watts, who is in residence with Harvard Jazz Bands, has been playing music since 4th grade. The experience is still filled with surprises.

By Truelian Lee '21

When I asked the Grammy Award-winning jazz drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts about how he became interested in percussion, I was surprised when he admitted that he didn’t start out wanting to be a drummer. Instead, he had wanted to be a trumpet player.

“In the 4th grade, in music class, we had to select what instrument we wanted to play. I really wanted to play trumpet,” he said. “I think that they actually ran out of trumpets, so they lied and told me my teeth were inappropriate for the trumpet, and I took the snare drums instead.”

Watts is on campus for a weeklong residency at Harvard, sponsored by the Office for the Arts Learning from Performers program and Harvard Jazz Bands. He will be holding a free performance clinic with Harvard musicians and a conversation with Bill Zildjian 5 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 8 at Leverett House Library Theater. Watts will also perform in a ticketed concert with the Harvard Jazz Bands 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 11 at Lowell Lecture Hall.

Jeff Watts
Jeff "Tain" Watts
A 2017 Guggenheim Fellow in music composition, Watts majored in classical percussion at Dusquesne University before entering Berklee School of Music.

Watts is grateful to have been exposed to a myriad of music when he was younger. “After high school, I got more into classical music, and I eventually got into jazz to round out my repertoire,” he told me. “It wasn’t very present in the mainstream during the time I grew up, or I wasn’t that aware of it.”

Watts played in the Wynton Marsalis Quartet from 1981 to 1987, winning three Grammy Awards. He also played for the Branford Marsalis Quartet in 1989, garnering two more Grammys.

Composition came late to Watts but it’s a part of his creative life now. He spoke about the process.

“Everything comes from a different place,” he said. “Your process can be different from composition to composition. Some things that I write, they will just come from a joke or a film or a phrase that someone says or anything. Sometimes the song will unfold, and sometimes I’ll have to create a backstory. I have an artistic agenda on the one hand. I’m thinking how can I express myself authentically while challenging myself as an instrumentalist and get people to think about the music. At the same time, I think like a songwriter or a presenter. I have an agenda of the emotional reaction that’s going to come from people when they hear the composition.”

Throughout the years, Watts has grown more confident in his composition abilities.

“I would listen and put pretty sounds together, and I was pretty shy about my rudimentary knowledge about theoretical matters. But over the years, I’ve learned to trust myself,” he said. “Now I think it’s really cool. You can create your own world.”

Clearly, he thrives on that creative power.

“You believe you can have an effect on people through this medium, and it transfers through the air,” he said. “I think that’s the main difference between music and other art fields. You should be able to pick up an inanimate object and create sounds to affect people emotionally. You can pick up a piece of grass or a piece of wood, and it’s almost like conjuring.”

Watts’s advice for student artists? “If you aspire to be an artist, do a little research, keep digging around. You’ll surprise yourself. I surprise myself all the time.”