The Oldest College Newspaper in Pennsylvania

The Lafayette

The Oldest College Newspaper in Pennsylvania

The Lafayette

The Oldest College Newspaper in Pennsylvania

The Lafayette

Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts: The Grammy winner you never knew you knew

Jeff+Tain+Watts+most+recent+Grammy+win+was+for+the+Best+Opera+Recording+in+2024.
Photo by Austin Carey for The Lafayette
Jeff “Tain” Watts’ most recent Grammy win was for the Best Opera Recording in 2024.

Jeff “Tain” Watts has won Grammy awards such as Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Best Large Jazz Ensemble and Best Opera Recording. He has worked with numerous notable musicians throughout his career, including Stevie Wonder, Boyz II Men and Elton John. He also happens to be the director of Lafayette’s jazz ensemble. 

Watts centers his instruction around welcoming his students’ perspectives while imparting his musical wisdom.

“Younger musicians, they have the tendency to kind of discover things on your own,” Watts said of his teaching approach. “It’s kind of like Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy. He says every child feels like the alphabet was written for them, or whatever, and it’s cool, and it’s really natural.”

Alto saxophone player Julia Sealing ‘27 had to adjust how she learned to play music when she joined the jazz ensemble.

“He’s definitely a lot more laid back, just the way he runs things,” Sealing said. “It’s not like in high school. I’m used to having it more structured, but with him, it’s a lot more just like, ‘Oh, here’s a new piece. Let’s just play this.’”

Watts has also helped broaden the musical catalogs of ensemble members, such as Jackson Eshbaugh ‘27, trombone player and jazz vocalist.

“So, I said, ‘I can sing, here’s a list of artists that I know,’ and I listed all those, and he goes, ‘Oh man, how about ‘Throw it Away’ by Abby Lincoln?’” Eshbaugh said. “I’m like, ‘Who is that?’”

“With my perspective, I can provide some historical information and some precedent, but at the same time, I’ve learned to learn from and welcome younger perspectives,” Watts said.

Watts’ musical experience dates all the way back to his fourth year of elementary school, when he decided to learn how to play the drums.

“I would play along with radio,” Watts explained. “R&B radio, classic rock radio, stuff like that, you know, things that were very popular. But, you know, I never thought about it. It was just like another activity like gym class.”

After teachers told his family he should consider playing professionally, Watts ended up at Berklee College of Music.

“When I went to school for music, I just wanted to be able to support myself, be myself with music and have another job and for the most part, that’s been basically true,” Watts said.

Watts played with many notable musicians during and after his time at Berklee, including Wynton Marsalis, Dizzy Gillespie and Lionel Hampton.

“The early 1980s was a good time because there were a lot of young musicians and young Black musicians really interested in researching the tradition of the music and stuff like that and trying to find logical extensions to push music forward,” Watts said.

Eventually, Watts settled down on College Hill. Even though he is currently teaching, he hopes to tour soon as he works on his own musical projects.

“I try to reserve my time for artists that I have a relationship with, and friends and things like that,” Watts said. “Teaching plays into that.”

Watts also hopes to create new courses that go beyond the music department.

“Maybe I can create some courses that interface with the math department or other disciplines outside of purely music,” Watts said.  “If I can have a positive effect, then that will justify my being there.”

Watts’ students feel grateful for his instruction and influence. Tenor saxophone player Andrew Manni ’27 is a more confident musician than he’s ever been because of Watts.

“We had to jump right in and it helped me become more confident in myself in my own abilities as a player,” Manni said of improv sessions during practice.

“From an expert, from someone who has recorded multiple different albums in jazz, we get to hear it from someone who actually is in there, who’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m friends with that guy,’” Eshbaugh said. “It creates a whole new dynamic. So we’re all blessed to have Jeff really.”

Leave a Comment
About the Contributors
Kristen Vincent, Assistant Culture Editor

Kristen Vincent ‘26 is an English Major and a Government and Law Minor. Aside from writing and editing for the newspaper, she is an EXCEL scholar, Writing Associate, LEO, and Secretary of the English Club. When she is not critiquing the latest biopic about a musician with a legendary past, she can be found working on her latest poem or rustling through the bargain bin at your local record store.

Austin Carey, Staff Photographer

Comments (0)

If you wish for your response to an article to be submitted as a letter to the editor, please email [email protected].
All Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *