Compared to Watts

When Tony Bennett  passed away on July 21 at the tender age of 96, praise for the singer rang out far and wide. By contrast, when André Watts died on July 12 at only 77, the great classical pianist got far less recognition than he deserved.

Watts was born in Nuremberg, Germany, to a black American army officer and a mother of Hungarian extraction who played the piano. She began teaching the child at age six, but he practiced in his own way.

“There was not a lot of discipline involved, so it was just fun,” Watts told Terry Gross of National Public Radio in 1985. “It makes all those piano teachers shudder when I say that I put the pedal down for a page at a time just to listen to all that sound building up, and rattled around a mile a minute playing everything but the right notes. I did that for about a year.” That sort of “unconventional” practice paid off.

At the age of 16, Watts performed with the New York Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein, who later tapped Watts to fill in for the Canadian Glenn Gould. That caught attention and Watts went on to perform with orchestras in the United States and Europe. Though he made his mark as an international star, some thought Watts was out of place in classical music.

“The world is not really accustomed to having brown-skinned people playing Mozart and Beethoven and Haydn and stuff like that,” Brown told Terry Gross. The same was true of piano virtuoso Don Shirley, subject of The Green Book film in 2018. Shirley scored a hit with “Water Boy” in 1961, two years before André Watts’ breakout performance with the Philharmonic.

“I’d love to be a successor to Art Tatum,” Watts told NPR, “Unfortunately, that’s not one of my talents.” The performer is too humble. Fans can have little doubt that Watts, who had fun playing all the “wrong notes” could rip up any set of chord changes, to any rhythm and beat. Truth is, it’s all the same music.

Mozart, Liszt, Haydn et al, wrote down what they heard in their head, and that’s the way their music was performed. Jazz players such as Herbie Hancock, Jane Getz and Keith Jarrett can read and play anything with the greatest of ease. They also compose a new melody while they are playing but the harmonies are the same.

John Coltrane spent long hours studying Nicolas Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, and it shows in his playing, just as André Watts’ “unconventional” practice shows up in his. In similar style, Keith Jarrett, Winton and Branford Marsalis and virtuoso clarinetist/saxophonist Eddie Daniels may be heard on classical and jazz stations alike.

On his “To Bird with Love” album, Daniels plays Charlie Parker’s solo on as “She Rote,” just as the composer performed it. The ensemble Super Sax did the same. Here is how Charlie Parker would have sounded playing alto, tenor and baritone saxes, in harmony, on “Parker’s Mood.” Just so you know, that’s the great Conte Candoli on the trumpet solo.

The famous “Charlie Parker with Strings” sessions, with Mitch Miller on oboe, featured some of Parker’s best playing. Check out “If I Should Lose You,” “Summertime,” and “Just Friends,” a favorite of George Benson who “studied Charlie Parker’s music for years.”

Parker was an admirer of Edgard Varèse and asked him for lessons in composition. “I want to have structure,” Parker told the classical composer, “I want to write orchestral scores.” Varèse was willing but he left for Paris to work on “Déserts,” and by the time he returned, Parker was dead at the age of 34.

Bronislau Kaper’s orchestral compositions “Green Dolphin Street” and “Invitation,” written for movies, have become jazz standards. So has David Raskin’s “Laura,” and counteless other film and show tunes. It’s all the same music and the parallels continue in other ways.

On the 100th anniversary of Charlie Parker’s birth in 2020, few publications noted the occasion. The same was true of the great John Coltrane, on the 50th anniversary of his departure in 1967 at the age of 40. During their lifetime, and in death, America’s great musical artists never got the respect they deserved. André Watts defied the stereotype, which works both ways.

The world is not really accustomed to a German woman playing like Americans Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Joey DeFrancesco and such. Check out German organist Barbara Dennerlein on “Stormy Weather Blues,” with great Americans Sonny Fortune on saxophone and Emily Remler on guitar.

Remler passed away in 1990 and Sonny Fortune in 2018. Rest in peace, and long live great music.

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About Lloyd Billingsley

Lloyd Billingsley is the author of Hollywood Party and other books including Bill of Writes and Barack ‘em Up: A Literary Investigation. His journalism has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator (London) and many other publications. Billingsley serves as a policy fellow with the Independent Institute.

Notable Replies

  1. What a beautiful homage to music and musicians. Thank you! The beast with 88 keys is tamed by a variety of people. I’ve always loved Alfred Brendel’s playing. I have a Glenn Gould recording in which he can be heard humming in the background. It gives Bach a very personal and human touch. I love that recording.

    Giving kids a musical education may not lead to a successful career as a professional, much like kids in sports, but it certainly does enrich one’s life and it’s sad that parents are spending money on gadgets for the little darlings, but don’t see instruments like pianos for their homes as an investment in the kid’s future. I hope that changes.

    Harpists like Catrin Finch and Deborah Henson-Conant are pioneering with their instruments as well. We all benefit when musicians take a journey and explore new territory.

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