Brent Watkins Keeps the Talent as Happy as the Customers

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Doc Watkins at Luke. Photo by Iris Dimmick

Bekah S. McNeelBrent Watkins has what it takes to thrive in the creative economy. He's talented, and he knows how to lead talented people.

It’s four o’clock on a Tuesday, and while I take advantage of Luke’s extended Downtown Tuesday Happy Hour, Brent Watkins is wheeling a piano out onto the balcony over the river in preparation for his standing gig with Luke, as their Downtown Tuesday entertainment.

I feast on 50 cent meat pies and more beer than I really need at 4 p.m. on a workday until Brent hops onto the bar stool to my left, and a platter of oysters and a milk stout magically appear in front of him. He catches his breath from the piano hauling, but his pocket square is neatly in place, and his tie is straight.

Dr. Brent Watkins

Dr. Brent Watkins

Six months ago we featured Brent Watkins and South Texas Jazz, a consortium of jazz musicians (read After Dinner: San Antonio’s New Gentleman of Jazz). Business has been booming, and as of the last three months various combinations of South Texas Jazz musicians can be seen at 10 gigs per week, on average, in various combinations. Watkins himself is present for as many of these as possible, but fully stands by the quality of each arrangement, whether or not he’s hammering away on the piano.

Doc Watkins Trio performing at Luke.

Doc Watkins Trio performing at Luke. Photo by Iris Dimmick

One gig that has dropped from the calendar is relatively far-flung Luna on San Pedro Avenue. The band is sticking closer to downtown these days.

In a similarly strategic move, the eight-piece band Doc Watkins and the Hat Creek Seven— formerly the premiere product of the brand— is taking a back seat to the more flexibly, amorphous trios and quartets. It’s clear that Watkins is keen to demonstrate that musicians can be part of both the “creative” and the “economy” of San Antonio’s downtown desires.

“With jazz, [smaller, flexible arrangements] is a better model," Watkins explained, "It allows us to be site specific. Most places don’t have the space or budget for a big band, and this allows us to even tailor the music to the atmosphere.”

For quality assurance, Watkins depends on having a “deep bench,” a leadership strategy borrowed from Gregg Popovich. Watkins admires the coach’s approach to talent, his balance of when to step back and when to step in. Watkins sees this as the key to success in managing in the creative economy.

“There is a tension between flexibility and consistency,” Watkins admits. He resolves the tension in the hiring process. “I’ve got this really great pool of musicians, and I can pick the guys with the right chemistry for the venue, and then just let them do the gig and make people happy.”

South Texas Jazz performing at Luke.

South Texas Jazz performing live. Photo from SouthTexasJazz.com.

This model of leadership is indicative of many who successfully employ creatives, or any millennial for that matter. Millennials tend to value the innovation and creative opportunities of their jobs as ways to contribute something of significance to a project or product. As San Antonio seeks to attract this energetic group, management style will be key, and South Texas Jazz is a notable model. With Watkins at the helm, the consortium allows talented jazz musicians to find regular work in San Antonio.

Watkins also cites the influence of Steve Jobs and other tech industry gurus, who in spite of obsessive quality control, had to learn that if they wanted the best and the brightest, that they were going to have to let them have room and support to innovate.

“Find the right people and let them work,” Watkins advises, “If you don’t give someone the freedom to do things well, why’d you hire them in the first place?”

Doc Watkins and his Hat Creek Seven, courtesy of South Texas Jazz

One trademark of South Texas Jazz gigs is how happy the musicians look when they play together. At their Sunday afternoon gig at the Esquire, Tyler Jackson plays the banjo alongside Watkins on an old upright piano. The entire atmosphere is like a jovial riverfront saloon; one almost expects a 19th century Mississippi barmaid to hop up on the piano and start flirting (that doesn’t happen, and both Watkins and Jackson often have their wives in attendance).

The key to this happiness, again, is in the management. The band is not over-rehearsed, nor are they forced into situations that don’t suit them.

Count Basie had one of the most successful big bands ever, and most people are surprised to hear that they really never rehearsed and he never told them what to play,” Watkins said. “The music isn’t going to be happy if the band isn’t happy, and that doesn’t happen unless there’s chemistry between the musicians…[but simultaneously] excellence in the craft.”

The musicians who work for South Texas Jazz have plenty of direction. They look sharp. They show up on time. They deliver quality music. That’s why they’re booked all over downtown. But it’s the insight into how to nurture talent that keeps them at the top of their game, and for that Brent Watkins may become a guru in his own right.

Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.

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