Wally Gator Watson You Will Be Missed

January 16, 2011

Some years ago my students and I traveled to Moscow, Idaho to attend the University of Idaho’s Lionel Hampton International Jazz Festival. We had worked hard to fund-raise over $15,000 in order to make the long trip from our island in Alaska, and were so excited to be there. We didn’t see many jazz headliners in our little town at the time, so we didn’t miss a single minute of a single concert and attended as many clinics and student performances as we possibly could. But for all that we saw and heard, one musician made such an impression on the kids that they couldn’t stop talking about him that musician was Wally Gator Watson.

This is my fifth interview for JAZZed, and one of dozens all told. I have had the chance to interview some of the finest musicians in jazz, and count each opportunity as a special chance to learn from the masters. Some of them are thoughtful, others passionate, and in their own way they are all inspiring. I had the chance to interview Wally back in 2009 as he was preparing to travel to the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival here in Moscow, and certainly he was all of those things. But what I remember most about our conversation was his genuine humility. His voice trembled just a bit when we first started speaking, as though he were nervous. I remember being touched by that, and surprised. As Wally continued to talk about his life and the young people that meant so much to him, surprise was replaced by real admiration a feeling that remains with me and so many others to this day. Wally passed away unexpectedly on Saturday, September 4th, 2010; and while there are so many things that can (and no doubt will) be said about his many gifts and contributions to this great music, I suppose it all really comes down to this:

Wally, you will be missed.

Brad Howey: Welcome, Wally we’re so grateful for this time to be able to visit with you.

Wally Gator: Thank you, I’m happy to be here.

BH: Like so many of our readers, you began playing music when you very young and it has been a part of your life ever since. I wonder if you wouldn’t mind telling us the story of how you got your start.

WG: Well, my father was a drummer. He worked with Dinah Washington, and Jimmie Lunceford a bunch of folks; and he used to drive me around to rehearsals, though at the time I really didn’t want to be a musician. My brother and I were into airplanes, and so that’s what I wanted to do. But my father made me play drums until I was about eight, when he and my mother split up and I went with her and was able to pursue my dream of becoming a pilot. As it turned out, up the street from where we lived there was a band that needed a drummer. And though I hadn’t played in years, my mother contacted my father and got me a snare drum and a big 22′ ride cymbal and that launched me back into music. One thing led to another, and since I had had some formal training I was the best in the neighborhood. We were asked to play a retirement party and got paid $5 each (which equaled my entire weekly allowance at the time), and I thought: “This is great I can do this!” Eventually we started playing gigs around New York. I made a record with The Five Stair Steps called ‘Moon Child’, moved on to join Wilson Picket, and the rest is history.

BH: Who were your idols through those years the people you looked up to or admired?

WG: Most of the drummers I heard growing up were local drummers that most people have never heard of. But once I got up into the upper levels of the business there were great drummers everywhere. I do remember this drum shop in New York where we used to go and look at the new gear, and this short older gentleman was there and walked up to me and said, “Hi there I’m Philly Jo Jones.” But at that time I didn’t know who he was! ‘Truth is, I met a lot of great people in those days, but I never bothered to seek their wisdom which probably would have put me on a different level. I was a drummer then because I could play drums; I wasn’t pursuing the idea of becoming some great drummer. I just took what came along. I do remember going into a club where Steve Gadd’s band was playing, and by the middle of the first song I started thinking it was time to look for a new job ’cause these guys were killin’ me! I had thought I was pretty good, but I’m like, “Whoa.” Later on I remember a gig where Steve walked in and pulled out a piece of rumbled-up notebook paper that he had written all of these notes on, and he began to play. For the first time I really began to analyze how he approached a song that he’s never played before, and builds it up. He came over after that gig and recognized me, and we’ve been friends ever since. He is such a down-to-earth, humble guy, and has been an incredible influence on me.

BH: And yet you have built a successful career over all of these years. What do you believe was the quality that kept them coming back to you that you see as the real strength of your playing?

WG: Well, through those early years I had no real respect for what I could do. I didn’t over-analyze things; I just put it out there. And I have maintained that approach to this day. I play from my heart, and use my ears and eyes to keep me where I need to be. And, I recognize that I play a supportive role. If I never get a drum solo, it never bothers me (which is part of why I worked so well with Lionel Hampton, ’cause Lionel seldom gave out solos, and that was fine with me) though when I do solo, people love it. Ultimately I’d say I just play from the heart.

BH: You have performed with some of the finest musicians in the world and played some really incredible gigs, Wally. Which were your favorites, and why?

WG: That list is pretty long, and it’s really a matter of who respects me. I respect every artist I work with for who they are, and what achievements they’ve made until they take that respect away. There are some artists who will talk down to you, and want to make you think you’re less than them. I don’t have time for that. I’ll fire an artist in a heartbeat, and have actually told artists, “You’re fires I’m outta’ here.” It’s all a matter of respect. I used to tour with an artist named Carrie Flynn, and the first time I worked with her we went to North Carolina. We walked into the hotel and the hotel clerk said, “Miss Smith, we’re glad to have you,” and he handed her three keys one for her and two for the rest of us. Now, there were four members of the band and each of us was supposed to have our own room. Carrie asked, “Where are the rest of the keys? My contract says that my band gets what I get, so I’m going to need four more suites.” He refused, so she told him to get the car back as we needed to head back to the airport. The next thing we knew, we had four suites! A similar thing happened on tour with Benny King in Japan. A lot of artists won’t do that, but they did. It’s not a matter of ego to me it’s a matter of respect.

Now, The Five Stair Steps came before the Jackson Five, and were a famous group at that time. As a kid it was very exciting for me to work with them. And I enjoyed the opportunity to work with Wilson Picket and the exposure that came from that gig. But Lionel Hampton was the biggest legend I’ve ever worked for. Lionel really took me under his wing and became the grandfather I never had. We became great friends.”

BH: Tell me, Wally what’s something about Lionel that folks may not know that they should know; something you really appreciated?

WG: Well first of all, Lionel was a very religious man. He often read the bible several times a day on the bus, and did not go anywhere without it. And second, Lionel really loved kids. I think the reason he put so much into the festival in Moscow is because of what they do for kids there. I don’t know many festivals that have that kind programming for the kids. And you know, Lionel was really a sweetheart of a guy a really phenomenal guy.”

BH: I wonder if you could say a few words about the kids, Wally you have such an ability to connect with them and to inspire them.

WG: Well, when I look at kids, I see myself ’cause I really enjoyed being a kid; and I guess in a way I’m still just a big kid. I love the innocence in children, and look at the older kids as having the opportunity to go through life and make something positive happen. So many kids today don’t think they count; they don’t believe that what they do makes a difference in the world. But it won’t make a difference if they don’t MAKE it make a difference. So if there’s something I can say to even one young person that will help them to make that difference, then I feel like I have really accomplished something. I also feel like a small part of my spirit lives on in any child I talk to, just as a small part of Lionel’s spirit is living on in me. It’s a legacy.

BH: Wonderful, Wally. We’re so grateful for your time. Any last words you’d like to leave us with?

WG: I guess the last thing I’d like to say is that kids have to remember that they count that they have the power to change the world; that no matter how bad you think your situation is, there are those around that have it worse than you and that in a moment, it can all change. You’re gonna have your fun in life, but fun can wait. Work hard and then you can play hard. Buckle down and get your education. There are things you can do in music if that’s what you want to do, but whatever you do, you’ve got to find that passion talent, desire, and passion. Put them in line and you’ll have success.

Brad Howey is a doctoral student at the University of Idaho, an award-winning author, and an active performer. His most recent publications can be found in DownBeat and JAZZed magazine. While teaching high school music in Alaska, Brad founded and directed the Sitka Jazz Festival bringing artists such as John Clayton, Steve Turre’, Paquito D’Rivera, The Air Force Band of the Pacific, and others to Sitka to teach, inspire, and perform.

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