Jeff “Tain” Watts Dazzles Alongside Performers at the 2019 MTSU Illinois Jacquet Jazz Festival

By Derek Volkmann

The weekend of March 16, 2019 proved to be a bustling time for the Middle Tennessee State University School of Music. The School of Music held its annual jazz festival named in honor of jazz saxophonist Jean-Baptiste “Illinois” Jacquet, one of the music’s famed “Texas Tenors” known for his work with Lionel Hampton, Cab Calloway, and Count Basie. The festival is a time when middle and high school students of jazz can participate in clinics and performances given by the School of Music jazz faculty alongside renowned artists in the field. The guest artists on Saturday were Nashville trombonist Roland Barber and internationally revered drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts. The performance Saturday featured both performers alongside the jazz faculty, college students, and high school honors students in an impressive evening of improvisation, complex ensemble writing, and musical interplay between instrumentalists of the highest caliber.

Post with this year’s featured performers

The evening opened with a video made in honor of Illinois Jacquet. Created by the Jacquet foundation, the video highlighted his career as a saxophonist and the carrying of his legacy by his family through collaborating with MTSU to hold the festival and scholarships given to college students.

After the screening of the video, MTSU’s Jazz Ensemble I filed onto the stage under the leadership of Director of Jazz Studies Jamey Simmons. The band featured three selections: “Signal Fires” by Fred Sturm, “Everyday I Have the Blues” by Aaron “Pinetop” Sparks which featured vocalist Nia Morris, and an arrangement of George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” by Mike Holober. These selections demonstrated the students’ musical maturities, executing each selection with careful balancing of the various sections of instruments, navigating through complex time signature changes, authentically addressing period-specific stylistic expressions, and supporting each soloist.

After Jazz Ensemble I performed, Dr. Pamela Jacquet Davis, Illinois’ daughter and President of the foundation presented remarks with Board Member at Large John Henry regarding with the foundation’s work. They also awarded certificates to the current Illinois Jacquet Foundation scholarship recipient Gabriel Collins, a junior Jazz Studies major at MTSU, and to the members of the High School Honors Combo, who were under the direction of Assistant Director of Jazz Studies Don Aliquo. The honors combo featured a select group of students from the middle-Tennessee region recognized for their talent in jazz. The group was comprised of saxophonists Graham Broome and Jacob Kitchen, pianist Tyler Bullock, guitarist Samuel Feinstein, upright bassist Baily Johnstone, and drummer Ian Strubino as well as Collins, who collectively performed an arrangement of Wayne Shorter’s “Night Dreamer.”

A brief intermission followed the performance of the High School Honors Combo. The MTSU Faculty Jazztet, comprised of Jamey Simmons on trumpet, Don Aliquo on soprano and tenor saxophones, Matt Endahl on piano, and Jonathan Wires on upright bass filed onto the stage followed by Mr. Watts on drums. The group played four selections, all written by Watts. The first tune was “14E” after which the tune “Sebbin’” followed. The group then moved into a ballad called “412” before playing a rousing number called “Return of the Jitney Man.” Each piece showcased Watts’ incomparable ability of comping for each soloist and interaction with the other rhythm section members that went beyond conventional figures and phrases. By weaving complex polyrhythms with steady grooves, Watts was able to create tension and release that asserted himself as not merely a timekeeper but a contributor of equal interest and strength within the instrumental collective.

Six-time Grammy winner Jeff “Tain” Watts

After the Faculty Jazztet concluded “Return of the Jitney Man,” Jazz Ensemble I made their way onto the stage accompanied by trombonist Roland Barber, a Nashville-based instrumentalist who has enjoyed performing with a diverse list of artists such as Wynton Marsalis, Chaka Khan, and the Saturday Night Live Band. Barber was the featured soloist on Watts’ piece “Jonesin’.” Barber took a motivic approach to his improvisation, gradually exploring the range capabilities of his instrument as well as increasing the rhythmic diminutions throughout each successive phrase. This piece also featured solos from selected students including pianist Ray Palousek, baritone saxophonist Kyle Etges, and trombonist David Cooper.

The second selection performed by Jazz Ensemble I with Mr. Watts featured Aliquo on tenor saxophone. This up-tempo number called “Mr. J.J.” also showcased the saxophone section of the band with Davante Buford and Gabriel Collins on tenor, Zach Tyler and PJ Scott on soprano and alto, and Kyle Etges on baritone. Each saxophonist took an extended solo before culminating in an impressive soli feature with dazzling double-time phrases.

The final selection of the evening was the classic tune “Flying Home,” a piece written by Benny Goodman, Eddie DeLange, and Lionel Hampton that made Illinois Jacquet famous due to his solo improvisation on the tune in 1942. All of the featured guests and faculty with the addition of vibraphonist Brian Mueller performed with the big band, closing the evening with rousing shout choruses, highly expressive solos, and hard-swinging grooves.

All in all, the evening which stretched from 7:30 p.m. to just shortly before 10:00 p.m. provided the audience and participants alike with inspiring performances and recognitions by all who were involved. To find out more information regarding the MTSU School of Music Jazz Artist series, visit

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