Who was Julius Watkins? I put the question to Tom Varner, composer and one of the few who play jazz on the French horn. "Julius was the pioneer," states Varner. "Before him, if you heard the instrument in jazz, it was in the background, adding color, or as an extra line, adding depth to the other brass. Julius proved that you could play jazz—and solo—on the French horn."
Varner is quick to cite other groundbreaking hornists such as David Amram and John Graas, but adds that Watkins blazed the trail not only as a performer but as a recording artist and teacher of the instrument. "When I studied with him in the 1970s," Varner recalls, "he taught me there were no easy answers. It's so slippery, getting the notes right." Aside from teaching Varner, Watkins taught many others, notably Vincent Chancey, who joined the Sun Ra Arkestra in the mid-1970s.
Watkins (1921–1977) was a virtuoso; "Friday the 13th" on Thelonious Monk & Sonny Rollins (Prestige) showcases an astonishingly fluid solo by Watkins, who went on to lead several captivating sextet sessions for Blue Note and tour with Quincy Jones's famed big band in Europe. Varner fondly recalls his teacher's open approach to music, noting that Watkins was equally at home at symphony concerts, jazz gigs, and avant-garde sessions.
In honor of his teacher, Varner unveils the sixth Julius Watkins Jazz French Horn Festival (Sat Oct 3, Cornish College of the Arts, see www.cornish.edu/music/watkins for a full schedule). A slew of top-notch jazz hornists, including Chancey and John Clark, participate in panels, symposia, and an 8:00 p.m. concert. The rhythm section of pianist Randy Halberstadt, Chuck Deardorf on bass, and drummer Mark Ivester back an array of hornists on tunes like the standard "Body and Soul" and Coltrane's "India."
The night also features a sly nod to Watkins and his work with Miles Davis and Gil Evans. "We're going to do an all-horn version of 'My Ship,'" says Varner, alluding to the Kurt Weill song reimagined by Evans on the Miles Ahead +19 LP. With a hint of mischief, Varner explains, "We'll have a dozen or more horns onstage; instead of Miles and woodwinds, it'll just be horns"—an apt homage to an instrument that does much more than add an unusual texture to jazz.
As a coda to the festival, Varner collaborates with Australian free jazz hornist Stephen Morley and Greg Campbell (Tues Oct 6, Gallery 1412, 8 pm, $5–$15 sliding-scale donation). "This will be a wild and woolly trio," predicts Varner. "Greg is an amazing free-improvising percussionist who also plays French horn," he adds, "so there will be a lot of unusual sounds coming from all of the instruments."