October 14, 2013
Lest We Forget:
Julius Watkins (1921-1977)
By Ken Waxman
A stylist whose innovative work in the ‘50s and ‘60s putting the French horn into a jazz context is analogous to what Coleman Hawkins did for the tenor saxophone and Louis Armstrong for the trumpet 30 years earlier, Julius Watkins almost singlehandedly created a viable role for the curved horn during the bop and post-bop eras.
Born in Detroit on October 10, 1921, Watkins began playing the French horn at nine in his school band and continued his studies at that city’s famous Cass Technical High School. Although he also played trumpet during a three year stint in Ernie Fields’ territory band in the mid-‘40s, by the end of the decade he had already recorded on his chosen instrument on sides with drummer Kenny Clarke and vocalist Babs Gonzales and toured as a hornist with pianist Milt Buckner’s band. After studying at the Manhattan School of Music in 1952, he spent the next quarter century in NYC. Within a few years he had recorded a couple of 10-inch LPs for Blue Note, featuring heavyweight such as tenor saxophonists Frank Foster or Hank Mobley, drummers Kenny Clarke or Art Blakey and bassist Oscar Pettiford.
From that point on Watkins was the “go-to” French horn player on the East Coast, whether it was for Broadway pit orchestra work, with the classical New World Symphony, or most prominently as soloist or ensemble member on an impressive number of outstanding small combo and big band dates. These include such classics as Thelonious Monk & Sonny Rollins and Monk (Prestige); Miles Davis’ Porgy & Bess and Miles Ahead (Columbia); Gil Evans’ New Bottle Old Wine (Pacific Jazz) John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass (Impulse), Charles Mingus’ Let My Children Hear Music (Columbia), Quincy Jones’ Birth of a Band (Mercury) and even Pharoah Sanders’ Karma (Impulse). Watkins’ skill on the instrument, which encompassed the bright facility of a trumpet and the dark sonority of a trombone, is why he was in such demand.
From 1956 to 1959 Watkins also co-led Les Jazz Modes quintet with tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse. An anomaly among hard-bop combos, Les Jazz Modes’ sound was evocative and intricate with straight-ahead playing from Rouse, Watkins and the rhythm section, often mixed with wordless soprano vocals from Eileen Gilbert. Besides expected material, the band also recorded a jazz version of the Broadway show, The Most Happy Fella. Interestingly enough when the quintet broke up, Rouse subsequently become a fixture in the bands of Watkins’ old friend and employer Monk.
Besides his skills as a studio player in many other sessions involving everyone from Oliver Nelson and Phil Woods to the Jazz Composers Orchestra, Watkins was also a renowned teacher. Two of his students have become a couple of the most accomplished of contemporary French horn players: Vincent Chancy, who has worked in the Sun Ra Arkestra and Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy; and Tom Varner, who, after playing with everyone from Steve Lacy to John Zorn, now teaches at Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts. Although Watkins died in Short Hills, N.J. on April 4, 1977 is influence lives on. From 1994 to 1998, an annual Julius Watkins Jazz Horn Festival took place in New York, and in March 2012 a seventh edition was organized at Richmond’s Virginia Commonwealth University where a collection of academics, plus classical and jazz French hornists, including Varner, Chancy, Adam Unsworth, Alex Brofsky and John Clark gathered to perform and discuss Watkins’ lasting legacy.