Trombonist Michael Watson takes the 'Spotlight'
This last weekend, I started my summer work at a small festival in Silkeborg Denmark. They call it the Riverboat Festival because it is situated on the picturesque but tiny River Guden and, when it started more than40 years ago, its music venues included small steam-powered boats. It's a charming event with a strong New Orleans flavor. The event's slogan is, “Classic Jazz in Danish Design.”
After my last concert, my Danish band mates took me to the festival's after-hours session at a bar/nightclub space called Rampelys, literally the "Spotlight." There, I caught up with some international colleagues as well as many Danish musicians and New Orleans music lovers known to me from their pilgrimages to our city.
I was not the only New Orleans musician, however. I also drank some overpriced mediocre beer and jammed a bit with James Andrews and Michael Watson, a young trombonist who might be less familiar to you. We were all guests with different Danish groups. Michael appeared as a guest with a young band exploring New Orleans style led by a hotshot trumpet player named Bjorn Ingelstam. Bjorn was in town over French Quarter Festival and was a standout at my annual international jam session.
Originally from Ohio, Michael joined the Marines as a musician, where high audition scores earned his first choice of assignments: New Orleans. He has been here eight years, and having left the military, is now a deservedly busy freelancer in town. I first met Michael when he began working with Irvin Mayfield. Over several years in Mayfield's big-band setting, I have observed remarkable progress, steady and deliberate.
Lanky, stylish yet unassuming and thoughtful, he has a full sound on trombone that reminds me of Al Grey from the Count Basie band, and he sings with a playful, confident voice that has glimpses of Donny Hathaway. Watching him and speaking with him in “The Spotlight,” I realized that Michael is the paradigm of a young musician who is living in New Orleans to be a part of the culture, who did not come to opportunistically capitalize on the city’s reputation or currency abroad.
He acknowledges this currency and is appropriately challenged by it. I completely understood when he described feeling exposed and more obligated to represent us when performing in Europe, because of how hungry the young musicians are to know and learn about the New Orleans "thing.” Teaching, as many of us know, regardless of the discipline, is the fastest way to learn what you don’t know about a subject.
Regarding New Orleans style, I asked Bjorn what it meant to him and why he is so captivated by it. He told me that his father, who is a trombonist in the traditional jazz style, got him started and simply said the grooves make people feel good. Michael elaborated in more detail, explaining that New Orleans musics speak to people universally because, from traditional brass bands to funk, New Orleans rhythms embody the spiritual drive of the ancestral clavé.
This is Michael’s second summer with gigs in Europe, including these appearances in Scandanavia. He feels at home with the musicians whom he finds “warm and accepting, like home.” Bjorn told me that it was festival organizers who asked for Michael's return this summer because of the high quality he brought and how much he impressed the young audiences who seem relieved to learn that New Orleans music, as is often the case in the hands of many well-meaning enthusiasts, doesn’t necessarily resemble European polkas. A humble Michael Watson set down his drink and said, “I do what I can,” and with that we continued the conversation on the bandstand with our instruments.
Here is Michael Watson in Moscow with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra in May 2013, featured on "The Lady Is a Tramp" for a a show called "Bolshoi Jazz":
POSTSCRIPT: I need to close with some housekeeping. Please follow this link to read the response to recent sound ordinance proposals drafted by MaCCNO (The Music & Culture Coalition of New Orleans) in conjunction with Sweet Home New Orleans. It is for everyone and anyone with a vested interest in our city's culture and economy who do not want important decisions about New Orleans made by a few rich property owners in the French Quarter and their political allies.
Evan Christopher is a noted member of the New Orleans music community and advocates for the cultural workforce. Click here for his performance schedule. He writes MAC-Notes for NolaVie. Email him with your comments about cultural issues, particularly in the music world, at [email protected]