Take A Trip To Jazz, TX With Doc Watkins

Dec 26, 2016

Four months ago, pianist and bandleader Brent "Doc" Watkins opened a new club at the Pearl Brewery dedicated to America's music: jazz. But the Texas twist is right there in the name: Jazz, TX. It's the Pearl's first venue dedicated to music, although the menu is tasty enough to lure culinary connoisseurs as well. I sat down earlier this fall for an interview with Doc about the club, the music, and his life in both. 

Programming note: TPR will be broadcasting a New Year's Eve special recorded live at Jazz, TX this Saturday at 7 p.m. on KSTX 89.1 FM. Tune in and give us some feedback at letters@tpr.org.

Nathan Cone: Lots of folks have probably asked already about why you wanted to open up a jazz club, but what I want to know is when you went to your wife, and you told her you wanted to open up this place, what did she say?

Doc Watson: Hahaha! Well, my wife is very supportive, and I have run down some paths over the years that were dead ends, and she supported me nevertheless. This thing took several years to get off the ground, and so it was a gradual process really for both of us. And also just in terms of our schedule, and with family and everything, it was a huge shift for us, and something that she gradually came to get excited about, and so did I, because in the beginning it was terrifying, you know? Like man, we’re gonna go all in on this thing and give it our best.

So the obvious model here in town is Jim Cullum with The Landing. Did you talk to him at all about how to run a club?

Yeah, Jim’s a good friend of mine. I actually met Jim at The Landing while playing on the patio years ago. And then we shared a gig over at Bohanan’s for many years as well. I know Jim well, and I’ve asked for his advice. His model over there at The Landing was a little different from what we’re doing here, but there are still so many things that apply. He’s got so much knowledge and wisdom and experience and insight into the business, that he’s been very helpful. I know that I can call him if I need to ask a question.

What is it that you hope – when people come in here, what do you want them to experience? What do you want them to get out of it?

"Doc" Watkins
Credit Nathan Cone / TPR

My goal has always been that the music, the food, the drinks, the architecture, the lighting, the environment, that all those things are kind of separate legs of the same stool, you know? I think oftentimes with music venues, the music is 95% of the focus of the place, and then maybe they have some food, or a food truck outside, and even the bar is oftentimes sort of an afterthought.

But from the very beginning with my architect and also with my team, with my staff, we said ‘why wouldn’t we want to have a kitchen that was so good that even if there wasn’t music here, people would still come for the restaurant portion of it?’ So what I want people to experience here is the whole experience of coming down, getting dressed up, whether you come by yourself or bring a date, or a birthday party with a group of friends, that you just have a great time. I hope that the music blows everybody away. And it has been. Everybody’s been so enthusiastic about the music, but they’ve been equally enthusiastic about the drinks and about the service, and about the furniture (it’s comfortable furniture)! That was something from the beginning that was a huge priority for us, was to create a larger experience, where the music was a big part of it, and oftentimes the focal point of it, but not the only thing.

I imagine though that when you get up on the stand and are playing, that’s really all you’re thinking about.

Yeah, I mean most of the time that’s what I’m thinking about is the music!

So speaking of the tunes, we got some great music here, on the show [Ed. New Year’s Eve at 7 p.m. on KSTX 89.1 FM!]. Let me start off and ask you right off the bat about these really swinging arrangements of Western Swing tunes. Your arrangements really emphasize the ‘swing’ aspect!

Yeah, well George Gershwin said 100 years ago that a true artist must reflect his time and his place. And ever since I’ve read that quote, it’s stuck with me. I have a jazz band, but I live in San Antonio, Texas, and I love Willie Nelson, and I love Bob Wills, and Merle Haggard and all these old Texas swing legends and everything, and so it’s a natural kind of outflowing of that for us to take our instrumentation and our band and incorporate the tunes of the region in which we live.

This club was not designed to feel like we’re in the 1920s in New York, or to feel like we’re in L.A. in the ‘80s or whatever. It’s designed to feel like we’re in San Antonio in 2016. And so we feel that one of the ways to accomplish that is to do tunes that are part of the cultural fabric of our area. And so all those old Western Swing tunes, you know, go back even before my grandparents were born, many of them. So we try and keep them fresh, and take a different approach to them with our band, but it’s rare that we’ll play a set without incorporating that stuff.

What’s your favorite of them?

I love “Home In San Antone.” You know, I came across that tune years ago through a Ray Price recording. I was playing with a bass player who was playing with Ray Price at the time, and he hipped me to that tune. Then I heard that everybody from Asleep at the Wheel, and Bob Wills, and Willie Nelson had recorded it, so we recorded it. We did our own arrangement, I wrote an arrangement for the band on that. We recorded it, and we open up just about every show with that tune.

What are your hopes for this place 6 months, 12 months, from now? It’s hard to keep places going, but it seems like you got a really wonderful experience here that I think people would like to come back and see again and again.

We’re sold out every weekend as it is, and oftentimes we’re sold out on weekdays as well. My goal right now is to get into this thing and make it as good as we possibly can. I envision this place being packed every single night that we’re open. You know, 6 months down the road, hopefully we can sustain that. I think the kitchen and the bar are a big part of that. Hopefully people will come back again and again, partly for the music, but also because they want to go out to dinner, too. We’re working really hard with our staff. It’s such a group effort. We want to have this place packed all the time. We want to be that spot where you know you have to call ahead, or where you know there’s going to be a little bit of a wait. That’s my goal right now. I have lofty ambitions, but we’re going to give it our best, and make this the spot in town to be.

Chilaquiles
Credit Hilmy

Were your parents musicians?

My father is a musician, so I was influenced very much by him. I started at a very early age, and just was really drawn to [music]. I’ve asked my parents before, and they never had to tell me to practice. It was just something that I really loved to do. Still I practice all the time, I try to learn new stuff, learn new licks, learn new tunes and everything. For me, childhood and music were just hand in hand from the beginning.

Did you grow up loving jazz, or were you a musical omnivore, and jazz is just what you eventually gravitated towards?

I was definitely a musical omnivore, that’s a good way of putting it. All my training was in classical piano. For 25 years, all my schooling and everything was in classical music, and learning that literature. But my dad was more of a jazz pianist and musician. So I remember the first real professional type of gig I was in, I think I was 9 years old, and he had a steady gig for five years at the top of the Hilton hotel and casino in Reno. And I went to go see him, and I think I played “Für Elise” or something like that. So I was steeped in the classical literature, but I was also steeped in what my dad was doing, and what I was listening to, and I was trying to get as many records, tapes, and CDs as I could. I never felt content to stay with just one style of music. I grew up listening to rock and roll, a lot of jazz, blues. I love BB King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, as well as Tchaikovsky and Mozart and Chopin, and it’s all just kind of different branches of the same tree I think.

When did you kind of move toward jazz as a profession?

It was a very conscious effort that happened really in a split second. I had graduated from UT; I did my doctorate there in piano performance, and after about a year, I was teaching a lot, but I wasn’t performing a lot. I was missing that. And at that point we were in San Antonio, and I thought the way to play more and perform is to go out and hustle some gigs. So I went out and hustled a bunch of gigs, and found that—

There’s not a lot of classical hustling gigs!

Right! It’s a different industry being a classical pianist, because you make most of your living teaching other people to be classical pianists, who will then go on to teach. And it’s rare that you really find someone who’s making a living [playing classical piano]. That became frustrating very quickly for me. I wanted to play for an audience every night. That’s when I went to this Italian joint over on San Pedro called Stefania’s. They had a grand piano in the window, and I just walked in one after noon and asked to play for tips. Started drawing in crowds at that restaurant, then I started working at Jim Cullum’s place regularly, then I started working at a lot of restaurants here in San Antonio as well as gigs up in Austin, and private gigs in Houston and down in Corpus and everything. So it was one of those things where I said I’m just going to start playing gigs and looking for work, and it just start of snowballed, and before I knew it, I had more gigs than I could handle! It’s been that way ever since.

Doc Watkins and his Orchestra
Credit Hilmy

What is it that you like most about performing?

It’s the communication, the relationships with the audience. I’m a very social person. I’m an emotional person. I like to talk, I like to socialize, I like to go to parties and be with people, so to me, learning a piece of music is all about—I want to learn this piece of music not just so I can play it, but so I can play it for others. So nothing gives me greater joy than giving a performance and watching people be happy as a result. That human connection is something. When I’m not performing a lot, I really start to miss it! It’s something I need to do regularly, to have an audience to play for. It never wears me out, either. It gives me energy. It’s kind of and odd thing, because you’d think that after playing for eight hours in front of people, you’d be tired, but for me, it’s the opposite!

JAZZ, TX is open Tuesday-Saturday, and is located at the Pearl Brewery in the basement of the newly rebuilt bottling house. Check out their calendar here

"Live At Jazz, TX with TPR" will air on New Year's Eve at 7 p.m. on KSTX 89.1 FM.