On His New Record, Kansas City's Bobby Watson Plays Tribute To Black Innovators

Jul 12, 2017

For jazz saxophonist Bobby Watson, writing songs is easier than it used to be. 

"Because I know who I am, and I accept who I am," Watson told Up to Date host Steve Kraske. "So when I'm writing a song, I'm not really trying to get outside of who I am."

Watson's latest album, Made in America, calls attention to African-American innovators in science, sports, and the arts, including jazz guitarist Grant Green; dancer, singer and actor Sammy Davis, Jr.; and actress Butterfly McQueen.

Among its 11 tracks are seven original works by Watson. One of them is "The Aviator, 'For Wendell Pruitt." A military pilot and Tuskegee Airman, Pruitt died in 1945 at the age of 24 during a training exercise.

"I tried to focus on the glory of his life, the joy of flying," said Watson. 

And there's "The Real Lone Ranger" for Bass Reeves, the first black deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi River.  

"He was a master of disguise. His calling card was a silver bullet that he would leave. And he rode a light gray horse," said Watson. Reeves was also the model, he said, for the Lone Ranger character popularized on television. 

From 1977 to 1981, Watson served as musical director for Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, composing and playing alto saxophone on more than a dozen recordings.

After his years performing and teaching in New York, in 2000 he returned home to Kansas City, where he's the director of jazz studies at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance

"I've just been a student of history for quite a while," said Watson. For Made in America, he wanted to "try to fill in the blanks" and "get as much of the whole story" as he could.

"There's a history to everything. These people were real." 

Listen to the entire Up to Date conversation with Bobby Watson here (starts at the 24:28 minute mark). 

Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter @lauraspencer.