Accidental musician’ Ernie Watts blows his horn at KCC

It started out all a fluke.

He never really was going to take up music lessons.

He was accompanying a friend to sign up for classes, and thought, why not take it up, too? His friend wanted the saxophone, he wanted the trombone.

Luckily for us and hundreds of jazz fans around the world, his school music teacher was out of trombones, and so Ernie Watts, then 13, took home a saxophone instead.

Had it not been for the teacher’s shortage of instruments, we might not ever have known the two-time-Grammy-award-winner that is Watts.

He and long-time friends pianist David Witham, bassist Bruce Lett and drummer Bob Leatherbarrow return to Kaua‘i, and will perform their original jazz music Sunday at the Kaua‘i Community College Performing Arts Center at 7 p.m.

The Wilmington, Del., native took to the instrument quickly.

Only a year after he first got the sax, he got a scholarship to the Wilmington Music School, and then went on to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

So started his quick ascent to a professional career.

“I never thought about that, but I evolved quickly,” Watts said. “I started practicing immediately, so I applied myself.” He was 20 years old when he left Berklee to tour with Buddy Rich’s Big Band.

“I think (my parents) were scared to death,” he said. “It’s always a circus. I was in school to become a professional musician, and the opportunity came earlier,” he recalled.

“But I think every parent is scared for their child, because you never hear of a musician having a happy life. They’re tuned into all the information. It’s always a horror story.” He got a big break in the 1970s, much to the relief of his parents.

“I think my mother knew I was going to be OK when she saw me on the ‘Tonight Show’ every night,” he said.

“She would see me sitting in the chair, in the band, every night. I think, at that point, she thought, ‘I think my boy is going to be OK.’” In the 1980s, Watts won two Grammys, the first in 1982 for best pop instrumental performance on the “Chariots of Fire Theme (Dance Version),” and the second three years later for best R&B instrumental performance for his alC1bum “Musician.” Throughout his career of nearly four decades, Watts has played with Quincy Jones and the Rolling Stones, and has recorded with legends Aretha Franklin, T-Bone Walker and Frank Zappa.

Also a skilled educator, Watts participates in music-education workshops, where he encourages participants to pursue careers in music Each year, he does a handful of workshops and, next week, local band students will get to take advantage of that. Please see the story on the Kauai Concert Association’s education service on the Education page, C3.

“If they want to play, they should pursue it,” he said. “It’s OK to be a musician. The main thing is to love the music and have the discipline,” he counseled.

“If you love something and you practice, and you want to play, then you should pursue it, and it will generally work out.” He and members of his band will be on hand at the KCC PAC to talk to kids about having the discipline to practice, how to handle improvisationals, and how to apply their music skills.

But he said he won’t be abandoning the quartet or performing for the education circuit. He said he has plenty of friends that do that already.

He is sticking to playing and being on stage.

“I’m a player,” he said. “I like to do my performances. This is what I do. I feel good and I have a special band.” The quartet of this accidental musician Watts, Witham, Lett and Leatherbarrow, have been together for more than 14 years, and have made for a great combination.

This is probably most reflected on their upbeat song “Circle of Friends,” from their latest CD, “Spirit Song.” A friend got him into doing music, and his friends and love of playing keep him in it.

“It could have been anything. It could have been the trombone, but it ended up being the sax,” he said.

Tickets for the show are available at the Borders Books, Music, Movies & Cafe in Lihu‘e; Kahn Galleries in Hanalei and Koloa; Bounty Music in Kapa‘a; and the KCC PAC box office. Tickets are $25 for adults and $10 for students.

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