Intro: review of video

Julius Watkins with Quincy Jones Big Band

Dear friends—John Clark has asked me to write a short piece about a fantastic solo by jazz horn pioneer Julius Watkins, as a member of the Quincy Jones Big Band, from a Switzerland performance in 1960.

With the holidays and full-time teaching, oops, I haven’t finished it. BUT, here is an “intro teaser” collection of thoughts on this solo—and I will have my “real essay” to you all in early January.

But first, listen to Julius on this video—at 21:35 they play the Ernie Wilkins composition “Everybody’s Blues,” and the Julius solo is at 25:15. He takes ten choruses! Listen to his variation of “mystery long tones on the blues form,” his use of adapted bebop language, his strong motifs, and his high range. Thought one: many of these players were all so young in 1960! Thought two: several of the players were old friends of Quincy from Seattle’s Garfield High school, some of whom later settled back in Seattle. Thought three: it was only about 14, 15, and 16 years later that John Clark, Vincent Chancey, and I met and interacted with Julius, either as a fellow horn player or as a student. Also, there are other videos out of the band playing in Germany and France at the same time, and it’s interesting to compare the performances.   Alright friends, have a great holiday, and a lot more on these thoughts in early January! Best—Tom V

PS: please BUY this video! —

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Thanks again to Ken Pope,

and be sure to stop in there

for all your holiday shopping needs!

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Great Julius Watkins Video!

It’s possible to find quite a few videos of Julius playing, but to me, this one stands out.  He plays a great solo, and I’m pretty sure it’s the longest solo by Julius, that I’ve ever heard (10 choruses of the blues!).  The Julius solo begins at about 25:10.

We’ve asked our contributor, Tom Varner to review this video and that will appear soon.  Meanwhile, we’d love to hear your comments.  Enjoy!

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We Have a Winner!

Mike Simpson has correctly identified the four soloists in the contest!  (and I thought it was going to be really difficult…….)  Mike will enjoy $100 worth of stuff at Ken Pope’s store, and I would like you all to see this short interview with our winner:

XtalkXwalk:How did you go about ruling out/identifying players in the contest?

Mike: On all of the recorded examples, I listened for the identifying characteristics of:

  • horn sound
  • note choices
  • attacks and articulations, and
  • typical accompaniment

    Then I went back to my listening library, and listened to examples of artists for comparison.

    On the first cut, I heard a round, darker tone, with very little edge. The attack on the notes was clean and smooth, and the note choices were pretty close to the melody, with very little excess. Tessitura was not too high or too low, and the player made it sound easy and logical to develop the tune the way he did. That all describes a typical Willie Ruff improvisation to me; beautiful, classical horn sound, no notes that aren’t necessary, extremely logical development. The clincher was the piano accompaniment, which is Mr. Ruff’s typical setting, with Dwike Mitchell as his duet partner.

    On the second tune, the tone was a little brighter, but still in an idiomatic classical sound concept. Still pretty clean attacks, but improvisation choices were more rhythmically driven. This made me consider Adam Unsworth. The clincher was hearing the vibes accompaniment, which Mr. Unsworth uses on his recording, “Next Step”.

    On the third tune, I heard a more individual horn sound, not really your typical classical sound. There was that little bit of burr in the sound, and less concern for attacks. The whole ensemble was a lot more wild sounding, and the horn player played a lot more notes, with great fluidity. The two players that came to mind were Vincent Chancey and Tom Varner. At first, I was leaning toward Vincent, because the range I initially heard was pretty high, and that’s less typical of Tom’s playing. But on a subsequent listening, I picked out a typical Tom run from bass clef range up to the top of the treble clef, in a scaler fashion. That is something that I’ve heard often in Tom’s playing, and don’t recall ever hearing in Mr. Chancey’s solos.

    Finally, on the last recorded example, I heard a more rounded sound, but with a few rougher attacks. The improvisation was more steeped in the blues, and overall was more standard blues/jazz, definitely not avant garde or free jazz. The list of possible suspects that popped into my head were Julius Watkins, John Graas, Gunther Schuller, or David Amram. I eliminated Mr. Watkins based on range and tonal quality, and I eliminated Mr. Graas and Mr. Schuller based on tonal quality and attacks. I listened to a little “Travelling Blues” from David Amram and Friends, and decided Amram was my man.

XtalkXwalk: Would you tell us a little bit about your background and what you do?

Mike: I’m a teacher and freelance horn player in the Seattle area. I’m a band director in the public schools of Washington State, maintain a private horn studio, and gig as much as I can. My working trio is JazzHorn, which features horn, guitar, and bass on the Great American Songbook, along with some stylish originals. I have compositions and arrangements for Jazz horn in various settings, as well as my c.d.’s, “JazzHorn” and “JazzHorn Too!” available on my website,

“I am an experienced Jazz and Classical French Horn player who has performed all over the world. As an arranger and composer, my music has been performed by horn …
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We Have a Winner!

Someone has correctly identified the four soloists and the contest is closed for now. For those of you who didn’t hear about it in time, no worries, there will be another contest soon!  Also, very soon we’ll announce the winner’s name along with a short interview, so stay tuned!

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Hello and Welcome!

to the blog of Vincent & John.  We kicked off the grand opening of our blog with a contest.  The contest asked you to listen to this series of jazz horn solos.

and identify the players.  The first person to identify them all correctly, has won $100 of stuff from Pope Instrument Repair! (Chrome users, you’ll need to download the file. In Firefox & Safari, the audio will open and play.

The contest has ended – please see most recent post!

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with David Amram by Vincent Chancey and John Clark

Parts 1 and 2


Vincent: David Amram was a name I first encountered as a teen growing up in Chicago. Once I became interested in jazz as a horn player, I would buy every jazz album that I saw with a horn player on it. The main one that comes to mind is the French Horns for My Lady album. It is a beautiful album drenched in the incredible sound of a horn section. Even though most of the players were studio players of the day, the solos were taken by Julius Watkins and David Amram. This was my first experience hearing jazz on the horn. From that point on I was hooked. After moving to New York I met both David and Julius. I went to a club where David was playing and went up and talked to him between sets. He invited me to come up and play his horn. I did, and our relationship began.
John: David Amram is, of course, much more than just a ‘jazz horn player.’ He is a composer, conductor, author, rapper, guitarist, pianist, bon vivant and professor emeritus of ‘hangoutology.’ He is all these and more   and I’ve probably left something out.  But let us not forget: he was one of a very small, select group of jazz horn pioneers, including Willie Ruff and Julius Watkins.  David performed and recorded on horn with Dizzie Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, to name only a few.  At the age of 86, when most horn players have made lamps out of their instruments, he continues to schlep his horn all over the world and play it beautifully.


David: Growing up in Pennsylvania, we could hear a lot of jazz on the AM radio – Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ziggy Elman, Harry James, Benny Goodman. So I got kind of interested, and in the 2nd grade, even though it was during the Depression, all the kids were allowed to take up an instrument and I saw one of those beautiful French horns in the case. I said, “Oh boy, that looks terrific!”   But the teacher slapped me on the leg and said, “No! All the French horns are taken. You get a trumpet.” So then I had the trumpet, and I used to listen to Bix Beiderbecke and all the great players of the era because I could relate. I listened to the Brandenburg Concerto, with all that great counterpoint, and I could relate it to Dixieland. When I was 12 or 13, I got braces on my teeth and couldn’t play the trumpet. Because the French horn mouthpiece was smaller, plus the woman I was hoping would be my girlfriend was a very good French horn player…and I thought if I played the French horn, I could sit right next to her. So I was playing the French horn and I really fell in love with that. Then at around age 16, I started fumbling and stumbling around trying to play jazz on the French horn, although I was told it was impossible. I just pursued it very quietly. At Oberlin, in 1948-9, I had a good friend, Ed London, who became a teacher and a conductor. (In fact he was the sub when Julius couldn’t make it with Oscar Pettiford’s band.) Ed was a wonderful French horn player. Back in 1948 he could play all the Monk tunes – really hard stuff – in all 12 keys! Wow! He understood all those harmonies that are still not easy, but at that time were just about indecipherable. Ed had studied that stuff, understood it and could play it, so I realized it was possible to sort of find your own way.


David: There’s an old cliche that you’re genetically incapable of improvising if you’re a good reader and – the reverse – if you can improvise well, then you certainly could never read. It’s just like speaking a language: you grow up learning your native language but then there’s no reason you can’t learn another or several languages. There are many people who understand that jazz is a language, and it not only helps you to play Mozart better, but to understand, hear, enjoy and appreciate it more.
In the 16th-18th centuries, every soloist with an orchestra HAD to improvise, or they didn’t get the gig. When it came time to play the cadenza, they had to make up something that was hipper than what the composer wrote – and if they couldn’t do that, no matter how great they played what was written down, they wouldn’t get hired again. So they had to be creative whether they wanted to or not.

Discussion of interview with John and Vincent

Moderator: David spoke about growing up in Pennsylvania, hearing Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, etc. on the radio.
Vincent: Jazz was the pop music of the day back in the 30s and 40s.
John: Yes, It was also dance music back then. If you wanted to go out dancing, you’d hear jazz…but not now.
Vincent: When Bird and Monk and those guys came along, the music was no longer danceable. According to a lot of people, they killed jazz! So that’s when R&B took over—Louis Jordan, Ray Charles, and so on in the mid 40s-early 50s. A new sort of pop music took over.
Moderator: Did you listen to jazz when you were younger?
Vincent: I only listened to pop music.
John: Same here. We didn’t have FM and I hardly ever heard any jazz on radio. Today you can find jazz to listen to on the internet and satellite and FM radio—but you have to know where it is and how to find it.
Vincent: I listened to Motown…
John: Yeah…Motown, country, pop. It was very much a mix of different stuff. So, Amram’s experience was somewhat similar to ours, except he heard more jazz because it was earlier.
Vincent: Instrumental music has been more or less taken out of the schools now, except for the wealthier communities, so it’s these kids who go into the jazz programs.
Moderator: But Amram said that even though it was during the Depression, they had music in the 2nd grade.
John: Wow. Do you think he really meant the 2nd grade?
Vincent: He probably did because that’s when string players start. But brass players have to wait until they have their adult teeth, so it’s usually 10-11.
John: I started in 5th grade. Did I ever tell you that I wanted to play the trumpet because of hearing the bugle calls when the cavalry came in?
Vincent: That was my first instrument, the bugle. I was in the Boy Scouts, but I never got a chance to play it then; but I later joined the Drum and Bugle Corps.
Vincent: When I was in junior high school and first started playing the horn, I didn’t know the fingerings (and neither did the teacher…). If I’d play a wrong note, he’d beat on my knuckles with a stick and yell, “That’s not the note!” Imagine that today; he’d be arrested!
John: What were your beginning attempts like, playing jazz on the horn?
Vincent: One time I visited my sister and I was in the bedroom playing the horn. When I came out, her husband asked me why I was playing the same song for two hours. I thought I was playing all this stuff, but I was obviously playing the same riff over and over.
John: Or, it sounded like it to him. I know my attempts were really feeble.
Vincent: My sister told me to ‘make it swing’ but I had no idea how to do that. She said to make it sound ‘not so stiff’ but I only knew how to play stiff.
John: It would have saved so much time if we’d had good teachers.
Vincent: I look at the kids now. They’ve got YouTube and great teachers showing them how to play like Clark Terry and all these great players. So by the time they’re 16 years old, they’re playing so much stuff. In this class I’m in at the New School, they all improvise great, but can’t read.
Moderator: That relates to the comment Amram made about improvisers and soloists. Have they had any guidance in finding their own voices?
Vincent: Well, that’s the thing that’s lacking. You hear twenty kids solo, and they all play the same thing. To me, jazz always meant that everybody had his own story to tell. But now everybody’s telling the same story.
Moderator: Amram’s friend, Ed London, told him to bring his own heritage into his music.
Vincent: Yeah, but now all of that is completely gone, not only heritage but individuality.
John: It’s not lost. They can still strive for it, but someone has to pull their coat…like in the Amram interview when he talked about Pres, how Pres was frustrated by everyone trying to sound like him.
Vincent: It’s not lost, but it’s being ignored.
John: Maybe because it’s so hard to teach?
Vincent: When I teach a private student, I stress that they’re going to take all the materials and formulate them into their own style. I’m not gonna tell you WHAT to play but only HOW to play. Most teachers today don’t do that.
John: In a Virginia Horn Workshop Alex Brofsky did an interesting thing. He told a kid to break his horn. I knew what he meant, but it’s really hard to explain. Alex is someone with a truly unique sound and I’d like to interview him here soon.
Vincent: When I was younger, I was a lot more visceral and aggressive in my approach. With more experience, I’ve tried to play more correctly: do this and don’t do that – so you kind of lose that earlier quality in your playing.
John: You still have that energy, but you learn that you don’t want to JUST do that. You want to leave space, listen to the rhythm section, react and complement. Of course we want to play more in tune and accurately, but also create something more beautiful.
Vincent: I mean my approach is that it’s like a conversation between you and the audience. You just don’t barrage people with notes.
John: When I listen to Trane or Cecil Taylor, I don’t mind that they’re not leaving space. So I guess the lesson is, don’t deliver a barrage of stuff unless it means something.
Vincent: I remember NYC in the 70s. I went to a jam session with all these free players and a guy came over and said, “Hey man, that instrument ain’t gonna make it.”
Moderator: Actually, that leads into a question about people who were discouraging, telling you you’d never make it in the jazz scene.
Vincent: I was doing this festival up in Maine and Bob Blumenthal said, “Oh man, I don’t like the instrument.”
John: In music school, I was flat out told that there was no place for my instrument in the jazz department…meaning the jazz world.
Vincent: It’s still like that.
Moderator: What is the reason? Is it just the sound of the horn?
Vincent: It’s just tradition. Everyone is conditioned to think that trumpets, trombones, and saxophones are jazz instruments and the others just aren’t. And there were so few people who were able to produce on the horn, which lended itself to that argument.
Moderator: It’s said that the horn is used in orchestras to fill out the sound.
Vincent: To make everybody else sound good.
John: …or make everything jell.
Moderator: So does that mean it doesn’t lend itself to solo playing?
Vincent: Oftentimes, yes. It’s such a great sound, so mellow and round and beautiful. Jazz is more tenor sax, trumpet, aggression.
John: When I first started playing with jazz groups, I came to realize that whatever other horn was in the band, the French horn would blend beautifully with it.
Vincent: It’s the overtones and the nature of the instrument. One tenor player I used to work with said, “I love to play with you; it makes my sound bigger.” I just pumped him up.
John: That’s our function. However, in the right situation—if you can hear yourself, if the band and audience can hear you—what’s wrong with the fact that it’s not that aggressive, in-your-face sound? But as a young player starting out, it’s good to understand that you’re not going to have that quality (the trumpet/sax cutting sound) but you’re going to have a different quality.
Vincent: I used to do these corporate gigs and people would always tell me that they loved having the horn because it doesn’t interfere with conversation.
Moderator: John, when you used electronics for awhile, was that an attempt to break out of the traditional sound of the horn?
John: No, more to balance with the other instruments because Gil’s (Gil Evans) band was so loud.
Moderator: Do you both agree with Amram that everyone is a born improviser?
John: Sort of, but eventually some players make it clear that they just want to play the notes on the page and not improvise.
Moderator: Amram compares it to language, that there’s no reason you can’t learn a new language. But some classical players say that because of the articulation used in jazz, it makes it impossible to play classical as well as somebody else.
John: I don’t agree. You can do both; Wynton Marsalis is an example. But it takes a lot of effort to do either really well. For instance, when you hear someone speak a foreign language badly, that’s what makes people say ‘you can’t do that.’
Vincent: When I do classical gigs, I know basically what they expect and what they want to hear. So I just cater to that and keep all the other stuff out of it. Even when warming up I’ll just do scales, arpeggios, etc. It’s not that different; good playing is good playing. If you’re a good jazz player, you’re using the same technique you’d use in classical music.
John: Intonation too. There used to be this expression “close enough for jazz.’ Some classical players really have a problem with swing though. But, again, it’s really like the foreign language thing. You need to listen and hear it, then make a little more effort. It’s hard to teach that though.
Vincent: It’s kind of an old generalization (reading vs. improvising), but it’s not necessarily true.
John: Do you think it’s true today, what Amram mentioned about classical soloists improvising cadenzas?
Vincent: 99% of the time they don’t. Classical players used to improvise, but in the last 100 years it’s just not part of their psyche.
John: I wonder if in another hundred years no one will improvise in jazz, and just play solos note for note like they were played by someone else.
Vincent: It could very well become the case.
John: Maybe it’s just the evolution of things. There’s a period when things are fresh, new, alive…and then gradually it becomes codified and mummified.
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