San Antonio’s Resident Jazz Musician is Bringing Holiday Cheer This Season
By Antonio Gutierrez
Photography by David Teran
When notable jazz pianist Doc Watkins rattles off the list of music he likes other than jazz – such as rock, classical, and blues – of course, you are surprised to learn just how eclectic his musical tastes range after he mentions one in particular.
“I absolutely love mariachi music,” Watkins said by phone on a recent Saturday afternoon after relaxing from a previous night of performances at his popular nightclub, Jazz, TX at the Pearl. “You’ve got these voices singing in harmony, and everyone is playing instruments. It’s beautiful.”
Since arriving in the Alamo City in 2006 by way of Austin from his native Oregon, Watkins has established a name and built an impressive career for himself locally, as well as throughout the national jazz scene. He’s played alongside some of the big boys in the industry, including Kevin Eubanks, Butch Miles, and the late Jim Cullum. He’s also had the pleasure of gracing the stage of New York’s famed Carnegie Hall.
Watkins has been playing the piano since age 7, so one wonders if it was by choice or if he was forced to begrudgingly take lessons after school like many a boy and girl. “It was something I wanted to do. No one pushed me into it. I loved it from day one,” he said. “I asked my parents for a piano and lessons. I spent a lot of time practicing, learning new music, and performing.”
An accomplished musician and successful business owner, the 40-year-old father of four is also quite skilled in the kitchen. It provides an opportunity to relax at home among friends with good food and a glass of wine. More on this later.
For anyone wanting to catch him on stage, Watkins and his orchestra will perform a Holiday Big Band Show with all the classic Christmas songs on December 16 at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.
You have an unusual first name. Talk about that.
My birth name is Brent. I got my Ph.D. in music at UT Austin 10 years ago. After I graduated, my friends started calling me “Doc.” It stuck as a stage name, so I ran with it.
So you probably get teased on occasion with the old line, “What’s up, Doc?”
There’s always some guy who thinks he’s the first one to think of it. But he doesn’t know I’ve heard this one before.
You like so many types of music. What led to your interest and ultimate success as a jazz musician?
After I was finished with school, I wanted to play piano all the time. The opportunities in the classical world have been dwindling for years. The Riverwalk had multiple venues (to perform), so I started getting gigs and learning jazz to become more proficient as a jazz musician. I did my own bookings, and everything snowballed from there. I found a lot of work in a short period of time playing jazz. The jazz world is where I found my niche and success early on, and doors opened for me that had never been opened in other genres.
What do you like to cook?
Pasta, gumbo, steaks and all the classic dishes. On Sundays, we’ll have friends over. I put Tony Bennett on the record player, drink some wine, and chop onions, garlic and tomatoes and get the music going. It’s like a scene out of “Good Fellas.”
What was it like performing at Carnegie Hall?
I was 19 the first time I played there after winning an international piano competition and performed a classical program. Then in 2014, I performed a jazz concert with my trio. It’s a beautiful hall, and the audience is great. It has the name and prestige, and the piano there is one of the best I’ve ever played. I’m also a huge fan of New York and love to go there for fun.
What can people expect at your Christmas show at the Tobin Center?
Our Christmas shows have been popular for the last 10 years. At Jazz, TX, I do about 30 shows between November and December, but we only have 100 seats, and the shows sell out fast. We have an opportunity to partner with the Tobin, which has 1,700 seats. We’ll do a Charlie Brown Christmas arrangement and classical Christmas favorites, including songs by Count Bassie and Frank Sinatra.
Do you have a favorite Christmas song?
“The Little Drummer Boy” is definitely at the top of the list, but I also like Mel Torme’s “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.”