Born: July, 1975 Primary Instrument: Drums
Watkins, who has three brothers and four sisters, was born in Chicago on July 26, 1975. His interest in music was sparked at around age three when he first saw his father playing drums at a local Apostolic Overcoming Holy Church of God. Prior to devoting himself to religion, Alious C. Watkins Jr.
had played trap drums and other percussion instruments with the Pharaohs, a now-legendary jazz-funk group in which Earth, Wind & Fire leader Maurice White had been the original drummer, and he also backed the Dells on local engagements. His dad’s drumming led Kobie and his brothers to bang on pots and pans around the house. Kobie took up trumpet in fourth grade, played it in the jazz band while attending Orr High School, and later used it in his work as an elementary school music teacher in Joliet, Illinois, where he also played oboe, flute, clarinet, trombone, tuba, and French horn in order to demonstrate them to his fourth- and fifth-grade students.
Alious bought a toy drum set for Kobie when he was nine and a real one when he was 12. Kobie shared the set with his younger brother Asa (who remains active as a drummer in Los Angeles), and they began playing it in church, where their father had become pastor. The lessons learned from playing for a Pentecostal church choir continue to inform Kobie’s playing. “The intuitive part that goes with gospel drumming is making sure your eyes and ears are in tune with whatever’s happening in front of you,” Watkins explains. “Those are probably the most important things that I have learned with music in general, especially in jazz. When people tell me that jazz is all you need, I’m, like, wow!
“A lot of times with gospel music, it had to be in the moment. You had to be there spiritually and musically. That was probably the hardest musical experience I feel I’ve ever had, especially as a kid. If you don’t play correctly, they will put you off the drums right in mid-song. They will point to someone else and tell them to get on the drums. It’s happened to me. If the shout beat is not right, they’ll throw you off. It’s one of the most devastating things that can happen to you as a kid, but you also learn and your skin toughens. It’s worse than being out in the jazz community, or being out in the world anywhere, because at least they give you a better chance.”
Watkins’s early heroes were all professional gospel drummers: Dana David with the Winans, Michael Williams with Commissioned, Joel Smith with the Hawkins family, and Kevin Brunson with the Thompson Community Choir. He also cites Chicago gospel, blues, and jazz drummer Kenny Coleman as an early favorite. It wasn’t until Watkins was in high school that he started listening to Buddy Rich, Art Blakey, Dave Weckl, Dennis Chambers, and other jazz drummers. Watkins played his first professional engagement in 1997 with pianist Bethany Pickens and went on to play and record with her, her father Willie Pickens, trumpeter Orbert Davis, saxophonist Jarrard Harris, pianist Ryan Cohan, guitarist Bobby Broom, and other Chicagoans. Watkins also played reggae with James Cameron and the Sunshine Festival, gospel music with Kim Burrell, and R&B and neo-soul with Julie Dexter, Kendra Ross, and Javier. He balanced his gigs, which averaged three nights per week, with his studies at Vandercook College of Music (from which he earned a B.A. in music education in 1999), his three years as a elementary school music teacher, and his graduate studies at Northwestern University (from which he earned an M.A. in jazz pedagogy in 2003). He has also taught at Chicago State University, the Thelonious Monk Institute, and Christian Teen Camp in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.
Recommended to Sonny Rollins by Bobby Broom, Watkins auditioned for the legendary saxophonist in February 2006 while in New York City attending a conference of the International Association of Jazz Educators. Besides Rollins, the musicians at the audition were trombonist Clifton Anderson and bassist Bob Cranshaw.
Watkins arrived an hour and a half early to the audition. “I was somewhat nervous and somewhat curious,” he recalls. “Once we started, there was no tension from anyone. Everyone was just playing like we had been playing for awhile. It was a very comfortable situation. “Bob Cranshaw got off his stool and gave me a big hug. And then Sonny took me out into the hall and talked to me. He said I should work on the calypso and listen to his recordings. He said, ‘Keep thinking about the music.’ That was really inspirational. He was like, ‘I will be calling you.’ It seemed as if he was saying, ‘Wait by the phone.’”
The phone rang more than a half year later, and Rollins hired Watkins for two engagements in November 2006. There were a few more dates in 2007, until Rollins let him go in July of that year. “I didn’t leave on bad terms,” the drummer says. “It was like a musical decision he was making. He was able to explain what he was looking for.”
Then, in 2008, Watkins got “the call,” as he puts it, and he’s been Rollins’s regular drummer ever since. “It is very intense, very energetic,” he says of playing with Rollins. “You have to have a lot of energy. You should always come prepared to listen. You have to come in with intense, focused energy all the time. That way he knows that you’re on board.”
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