Ernie Watts: credit list runs to recordings for Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond and the Rolling Stones. Photograph: Patricia Watts
If you’ve listened to music in the past 50 years, then you’ve probably heard Ernie Watts play his saxophone many times. Being a first-call horn player on the LA studio scene from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s puts you on a lot of historic recordings, and it’s no exaggeration to say that some of Watts’s solos have become part of the fabric of western music.
His credit list runs to more than 1,500 recordings, for everyone from Marvin Gaye and the Jackson Five to Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond. The soaring saxophone solo that ends Christopher Cross’s 1981 mega hit Arthur’s Theme – that’s him. Then there’s Quincy Jones, the Rolling Stones, Frank Zappa, Steely Dan, the Four Tops and the Commodores – they’ve all picked up the phone and called Ernie Watts.
For the last three decades he has been concentrating on his own music, becoming one of the most respected jazz saxophonists of his generation.
When he answers the phone from his home in LA, all warmth and politeness, he is preparing for a European tour with his own quartet. So I feel a little guilty asking him to talk about Marvin Gaye. But even if he wanted to, Watts can’t escape his illustrious past – something as simple as a trip to buy groceries is haunted by ghosts.
“Yeah, we often hear tunes I’ve played on while we’re in the store,” he says, laughing.
“But it’s like another life, you know. It’s like, oh yeah, and then I’ll remember the session and I’ll remember that day and what was going on. Most of them anyway.
“Sometimes I don’t remember the record, but I still know it’s me. And I say, holy cow, that’s me playing, but I don’t remember who this is.”
The playing began in 1958 in Wilmington, Delaware, when the 13-year-old Watts brought a saxophone home from high school. He had actually wanted a trombone, but they didn’t have any left, so they handed him a sax instead. Soon he was spending all his free time practising in his bedroom.
“I guess after a while, my parents realised I wasn’t going to quit, so my mother bought me a record player, and she joined the Columbia record club. The very first record she got was Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. That’s when I heard John Coltrane, and it changed my life.
“I would take my lunch money every week and I would buy a John Coltrane record. The record player had one of those stackers on it, and at night before I went to bed, I would put three or four records on the stacker, and I would turn it on very low, and listen to Coltrane while I fell asleep.”
A Downbeat scholarship in 1965 took him to the Berklee School of Music in Boston, but just two years into his course, the phone rang for the first time and Watts hit the road as part of the Buddy Rich Big Band. He never went back to Berklee.
Much as he might want to, it’s impossible for Watts to tell his own story without dropping some of the biggest names in music history. There’s the playing with Frank Sinatra at the Sands in Las Vegas in the late 1960s. There are recording sessions with the Jacksons, “when Michael was a kid”. There are the 20 years with Johnny Carson and the Tonight Show band. There’s playing on soundtracks for films such as Grease and Fame, and all the Motown records with the Temptations, Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin.
“He was a beautiful singer and a beautiful man. He knew what he wanted but he also knew how to share. He had his own studio on Sunset Boulevard, and we would go there and work on his tunes together. He had a concept, you know? He had a sound. Most great artists have a sound in their mind that they want to bring through.”
But in his own mind, Watts remained a jazz musician, always practising, always writing his own music. Then in the mid-1980s, he met bass player Charlie Haden and found himself drawn back towards a pure jazz career. A tour with Haden and guitarist Pat Metheny was the catalyst that finally made him quit the session work.
“Being with people like that on a full-time basis, it creates a different kind of energy. It’s a more intense energy that goes into creating the music, and I wanted to get to that level. Life has chapters in it, and you know when you get to the end of a chapter, and you have to turn the page.
“The whole time I was doing commercial music it was interesting to me and I learnt a lot. All those artists are very sincere about their music, no matter what it is, but I got to the point where I wanted to get back to my original plan”
As Watts approaches 69, the original plan is going very nicely. There have been two Grammys, critically acclaimed recordings with Charlie Haden’s Quartet West, and a starring role alongside jazz vocalist Kurt Elling.
Then there is his own record label, Flying Dolphin, on which he releases his own recordings. At this stage, he reckons he has had “about three lifetimes” in music. So what has it all taught him?
“Do what you love,” he says decisively. “Even if you have to drive a bus to make money, take part of your day, every day, and do something that you really love. It keeps you strong. I think we all evolve that way, and as you grow and as you learn, you find out that there’s a simple core in the centre of everything, and you want to get back to that.”
The Ernie Watts Quartet play the Sugar Club, Dublin, tonight. sugarclub.com