Doc Watkins and his Big Band on stage at The Empire Theatre. June 10, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

“If you don’t mind, folks, I’d love to play me some organ…” and so he does, and church starts on Tuesday night, in a lackadaisical groove that slaps into the spaces with some fried tomato goodness and white in black tuxedo shoes a-tappin’ and holdin’ out that beautiful machine…

It is a great partnership on both ends, for the beneficiaries and benefactors alike. “We really wanna hit something home, it’s our 100th anniversary this year,” said Mike Riley, general manager of the Empire and Majestic Theaters over the phone.  “(This concert) was born through a simple conversation, from there the idea germinated and we created this together.”

This conversation set the stage not once, but six times for Brent “Doc” Watkins and his various ensembles under the South Texas Jazz flagship, which Watkins began in 2009.

Doc Watkins and his Big Band on stage at The Empire Theatre. June 10, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Doc Watkins and his Big Band on stage at The Empire Theatre. June 10, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Tuesday at the Charline McCombs Empire Theater, Watkins and his 18-piece big band threw down the fifth showing of their six-concert series in partnership with Alamo Beer with the panache and verve that has become definitive of their style, all the while refusing to let the stage limit the grand vision and dimension of their swingin’ sound.

Riley said Watkins is a huge ambassador for the Empire Theater and for local musicians.  “He has some musicians out on Houston Street before the shows, so when people are walking in, guys are playing which creates a vibrant life in the neighborhood. It’s always something different with Brent – never the same.”

Watkins was not hesitant to return the gratitude, which he did in front of the audience as the horn calls faded and the piano hushed for just a moment.

“You don’t always have establishments like this that support local musicians and we are so grateful for this relationship,” Watkins said with utter candor and charisma, so perfectly in his element that you would have thought him speaking to a group of friends in his living room.

Prior to the show, “Doc” took time away from his pre-concert time with his rhythm section to shed light on what makes him swing.

“I wanna have a dialogue with the audience; ideally you wanna have the whole room responding to what you’re doing,” Watkins said, having exchanged his Spurs T-shirt for a dapper and bona fide big-band leader tuxedo. “You wanna break that barrier, feel like you’re one with the audience.  If we can achieve that, we’ve accomplished a lot in my estimation.”

The gears and grinds and turnings and churnings all exposed, no cover on the back of the organ, wires revealed, like his soul, and you see as the pedal moves up and down in zigzag groove and the source of the soul doesn’t stop…trumpet waltzes out with mute in his hand and uses it for a bit, but then tosses it to the side in favor of just his two good hands and gut-soul side.  Basie all over it and inside it and all around it and no stopping it. People are getting their toes a-tappin’ and a lady is even shouting out when the feeling explodes so righteously, but man I don’t know how I’m still in my seat.

Doc Watkins plays his antique organ with his Big Band on stage at The Empire Theatre. June 10, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Doc Watkins plays his antique organ (and accompanying Spurs flag) with his Big Band on stage at The Empire Theatre. June 10, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

With eyes forecasting the intense love with which he would play, Watkins divulged further what inspired the evening’s take on the jazz idiom.  “I love big band music, everyone loves big band music I think, so this was a natural opportunity for us,” Watkins said.  “We’re definitely not trying to reinvent the wheel, just play music from the heart and that makes people happy.”

According to Watkin’s cookbook, the recipe for success calls for anything that is really hard swingin’ and soulful.  “Gotta have some vocals, good swingin’ stuff.  Whenever I put together a program I think about what I wanna play,” Watkins said.  “We’re throwing the kitchen sink at ‘em tonight, we got the whole deal.”

Laying back with his faded lavender blazer and bowtie, Rick Cavender gets sentimental and lays into something soft, taking the vintage bandstand mic like he’s dancing with a woman and lovin’ every second of it, letting his snappin fingers be the fire that keeps the flame going, his baritone sailin’ into the rarified air of the theater as the crowd calls out in hollas and waves and whirls.  Gladly we welcome the “Summer Wind” that blew his ship ashore tonight.

Rick Cavender croons with Doc Watkins and his Big Band on stage at The Empire Theatre. June 10, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Rick Cavender swings the microphone with Doc Watkins and his Big Band on stage at The Empire Theatre. June 10, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Musing upon the SA jazz culture, Watkins waxed historic.  “San Antonio has its own musical culture, goes back 100, 200 years.  German music, latin, jazz, country, blues, and specifically with jazz there’s a very deep history here,” he said. “The style of jazz we play is definitely informed by other types of jazz.”

Apparent from the organic evolution of the concert and his rapport with the raptured, Doc aims to give the Alamo City what they want.  “What do people identify with, what makes them tick, is going to be different in every city. Our city is a very soulful one, so our music should reflect that.  It’s important that they (the audience) can immediately become connected to it.”

A testament to that soul being magnetic is Pierre Poree, a New Orleans native saxophonist and vocalist who has now made San Antonio his home.  He graced the stage on several occasions Tuesday night, none more memorable than when he stood within a sentimental posture and reflected about his upbringing in the birthplace of jazz.

Speaking of the Mardi Gras Indian culture, Poree relayed a story about the tradition.  “The Indians see decided to dress themselves in jewels and such, which became like social clubs in New Orleans, and they had a leader, the Big Chief,” Poree said.  “Well, here’s one of the songs that came out of the Indian culture.”

Saxophonist and New Orleans native Pierre Poree sings with Doc Watkins and his Big Band on stage at The Empire Theatre. June 10, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Saxophonist and New Orleans native Pierre Poree sings with Doc Watkins and his Big Band on stage at The Empire Theatre. June 10, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Big Chief Pierre Poree laying it down on the tambourine and saxophone and vocal and taking it all so soulfully and the groove is infectious and all I wanna do is dance. It’s so against the New Orleans motivation, inspiration to sit in this chair the whole time.  Man, you can feel it from the tips of your toes to the tops of your temple, and for a moment you’re whisked away to Basin Street and you haven’t a care in the world.  Such is the authenticity and sublimity of this captured time, in spontaneity and rhythm and rhyme all things that jazz is and so it is beautiful.

Taking a break from the revelry of the tuxedo talk, drummer and San Antonio native Brandon Guerra revealed without hesitation what makes Doc and his ensembles so great.

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“He makes everything easy for everybody,” Guerra said. “As a drummer I know my responsibilities, I know where he’s gonna go, when to put a bomb in there.  It’s magical.”

In a congenial tone, Guerra admitted that it’s not as much about the music that makes the music great, but the camaraderie that creates it.  “What we have here transcends the music, it’s a friendship that adds to the music … It makes the music that much better.”

Guerra, the youngest cat in the troupe at 24, also gigs in Austin frequently, but sticks around the 210 for the opportunities that Watkins brings.  “He’s doing great things on the band stands and as a businessman. They say that everything he touches turns to gold, and you can see that.”

A confession of what I would see later that evening as the group danced with their spirits in swingin’ time, Guerra honed in once again to what makes the difference.

“When we first started it sounded good, but now a year later its much more evolved, it all adds together,” he said.  “It becomes even better when good friends play together.”

If you’re feeling the groove that Brent “Doc” Watkins is laying down, you can check him out around San Antonio, especially at Bohanan’s and Esquire Tavern.  Also, better get hip to what’s going on with jazz all around the Alamo City and the nation with Watkins’ new iPhone and Android App, Jazz Tonight.

Related Stories:

A Conversation with Joci Straus: Guardian of the Majestic, Empire Theaters

Empire Theatre, Clad in Gold, Turns 100

Brent Watkins Keeps the Talent as Happy as the Customers

The Jazz Tutor: Back From Jazz Fest, New Orleans

Adam Tutor

Adam Tutor is a Trinity University graduate, a saxophonist who performs with local bands Soulzzafying, Odie & the Digs, and Volcan, and a freelance music contributor to the Rivard Report.