Monday, June 20, 2022


 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Original liner notes Julius Watkins: Volumes 1 & 2 [Blue Note 7243 4 95749 2 2]

PRIOR TO THESE Blue Note sessions, Julius Watkins's first jazz exposure came from a Thelonious Monk quintet session for Prestige that included Sonny Rollins and introduced "Friday The 13th," "Think Of One" and "Let's Call This" to the world and an Oscar Pettiford sextet date for Debut.
As these sessions prove, Watkins had extraordinary facility and the imaginative mind of a jazz improvise!*. This music is pure hop with no concessions to the technical difficulty in adapting French horn to the form.
These recordings came at the end of the 10-inch era and, if they had any chance of selling, the new 12-inch format took care of that. Julius Watkins persevered and formed The Jazz Modes in 1957 with tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse (they'd worked together in Pettiford's sextet.) The group lasted for three years and five albums (on Dawn and Atlantic) with some success. "Linda Delia" and "Garden Delights" from these sessions found their way into the Jazz Modes repertoire.
But Watkins was becoming more and more in demand in studios, Broadway pits and the big bands of Pettiford, Pete Rugolo, Johnny Richards, George Shearing and later Charles Mingus. His technique and jazz ability made him doubly valuable on large-scale jazz recordings like Miles Davis's Porgy And Bess, Randy Weston's Uhuru Africa, John Coltrane's Africa Brass and countless sessions by Gil Evans, Oliver Nelson, Art Farmer, Curtis Fuller, Milt Jackson and so many others.
Watkins never realized his goal to bring his instrument into the jazz mainstream. But his efforts have been carried on by the likes of John Clark, Tom Varner, Alex Brofsky and Vincent Chauncey. And the music he made under his own leadership and with so many giants is a testament to his varied and ubiquitous career.

Gordon Jack is a frequent contributor to the Jazz Journal and a very generous friend in allowing JazzProfiles to re-publish his perceptive and well-researched writings on various topics about Jazz and its makers.

Gordon is the author of Fifties Jazz Talk An Oral Retrospective and he also developed the Gerry Mulligan discography in Raymond Horricks’ book Gerry Mulligan’s Ark.

The following article was published in the October, 2016 edition of Jazz Journal. 

For more information and subscriptions please visit

© -Gordon Jack/JazzJournal, copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with the author’s permission.

The french horn which has more than eleven feet of tubing is the most demanding member of the brass family. Because of its size swiftly articulated bebop choruses are particularly difficult. The mouthpiece which is smaller than a trumpet’s has been described by my good friend Ken Collins as “Unforgiving”. (Ken played french horn with the New Jazz Orchestra for a while back in the sixties). Julius Watkins brilliantly overcame these problems to become a virtuoso and the first-call horn player for NYC studio dates throughout his career. The instrument has a normal range of three and a half octaves but just like the legendary Dennis Brain, Julius could manage four quite effortlessly. He did not have a symphonic background unlike his contemporary John Graas who was the first horn with the Indianapolis Symphony in the early forties. Graas made a number of well-received recordings in Los Angeles during the fifties with people like Conte Candoli, Herb Geller, Art Pepper and Shorty Rogers.  His writing was always interesting but he never solved the instrument’s intrinsic problems as a soloist. 

Julius Burton Watkins was born in Detroit on the 10th. October 1921 and began lessons on the french horn at the age of nine. In 1939 he joined the Ernie Fields band on trumpet as there was no opening for a french horn. The band was based in Tulsa, Oklahoma and for the next three years he endured constant one-nighters throughout Texas and Oklahoma on his secondary instrument. He returned home to Detroit in 1942 where he enrolled in the U.S. Naval Reserve. After the war he played in local dance bands before accepting an offer from Milt Buckner. He stayed with Buckner until 1949, recording a memorable french horn solo on Yesterdays for the MGM label in a band that included Booty Wood, Billy Mitchell and Charlie Fowlkes 

Tiring of life on the road he enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music in 1950, remaining there until 1953. That year he was selected for a notable Prestige session with Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Percy Heath and Willie Jones where Let’s Call This, Think Of One and Friday The 13th. were recorded. Brian Priestley In Jazz The Rough Guide says, “To say that the french horn solos are not anti-climactic alongside Monk and Rollins is sufficient”.  In August 1954 he made his first recording as a leader for Blue Note performing four titles in a sextet that included Frank Foster, Oscar Pettiford and Kenny Clarke. 

In 1956 Stan Kenton added two French horns (Fred Fox and Irving Rosenthal) to the band and in May that year Julius took Fox’s place for three days of recording that produced Cuban Fire. The band had been expanded to 27 pieces to interpret Johnny Richards’ challenging music which resulted in one of Kenton’s most popular and successful albums. Watkins does not solo but he certainly impressed Billy Root who played baritone on the date. Years later when I met him in Las Vegas he told me, “Julius was something else. He could sound like J.J. Johnson on that thing”. 

That year Oscar Pettiford organised a big band including Julius and fellow french horn-man David Amram who was a cousin of Otto Klemperer the conductor. It survived for about eighteen months with occasional appearances at Birdland, the Café Bohemia and other local New York clubs but luckily two albums were recorded for posterity.  Gigi Gryce wrote a feature for Watkins and Amram titled Two French Fries - an up-tempo Rhythm piece allowing them to demonstrate just how nimble a french horn could be in the right hands. Amram was quoted saying, “I think this could have been one of the major bands of our time if only Oscar could have secured enough work for it.” In an interview for Cadence, Jimmy Cleveland said playing with the band, “Was one of the highlights of my life”. Another notable 1956 Watkins recording occurred when he was a guest on a Gil Melle’ Prestige date with Art Farmer and Hal McKusick. He is featured prominently on Soudan, a Melle’ original based on Bartok’s Walachian Melody.

Early in 1956 Leonard Feather asked a number of leading musicians to list their favourite instrumentalists.   Clifford Brown, Osie Johnson, Quincy Jones, Red Mitchell, Max Roach and Randy Weston all voted for Watkins in the Miscellaneous Category section. In 1957 Nat Hentoff described him as, “The most satisfying hot french horn improviser yet to be heard in jazz”. In November that year he and David Amram were heavily featured on an intriguing Curtis Fuller date with Sahib Shihab and Hampton Hawes produced for Prestige by Teddy Charles.

It was while he was working with Oscar Pettiford that he became friendly with Charlie Rouse. They decided to form a quintet together which they called Les Jazz Modes with Gildo Mahones, Martin Rivera and Ron Jefferson. It was actually their manager Princess Orelia Benskina who came up with the name and they stayed together until 1959 recording no less than five albums. The group appeared on Steve Allen’s TV show and worked at Birdland, Café Bohemia, Chicago’s Blue Note and the Modern Jazz Room in Cleveland. They made an effort to achieve a highly personal ensemble sound, occasionally adding vocalist Eileen Gilbert, harpist Janet Puttman and Sahib Shihab on baritone to some recordings. Ms Gilbert had been one of Julius’ fellow students at the Manhattan School of Music but it has to be said that her classically trained soprano adds little of value. Rouse occasionally played bass clarinet on club bookings with the quintet and he had this to say about his co-leader, “His horn has all the virility and hard masculine quality of the trumpet and trombone. There is so much more to the french horn than the symphony orchestra players ever realised and Julius is the person who has made everybody aware of this.”  Reviewing one of their albums for the Gramophone, Alun Morgan said, “Julius Watkins is quite simply the finest French horn soloist in the idiom”.

Early in 1958 Gil Evans used Julius on his New Bottle, Old Wine album and later that year he was again in the ensemble for the classic Miles Davis-Gil Evans collaboration that created Porgy & Bess. One of many highlights is Gil’s arrangement of Summertime where the three-man horn section (Watkins, Gunther Schuller and Willie Ruff) together with the woodwinds perform a haunting almost ethereal accompaniment to the trumpet solo. Studio time was expensive of course. That probably accounts for the slightly tardy ensemble playing on Gone which has some explosive drum fills from Philly Joe Jones and was the only non-Gershwin composition on the album. The following year Art Farmer recorded The Brass Shout with a ten-man group featuring some of the finest NYC brass players like Lee Morgan Jimmy Cleveland, and Curtis Fuller. Julius demonstrates his amazing upper register control on Autumn Leaves, Five Spot After Dark and Minor Vamp. 

1959 was the year he began a long association with Quincy Jones. Their first collaboration in March introduced Quincy’s new big band with features for Sam ‘The Man’ Taylor on tenor that were released as singles. Two months later a more jazz-oriented repertoire was recorded with some charts by Benny Golson including I Remember Clifford, Along Came Betty and Whisper Not. Later that year Quincy was asked to take an all-star band to Europe for the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer show “Free and Easy” starring Harold Nicholas of the tap-dancing Nicholas Brothers. It was intended that Sammy Davis Junior would take his place when the show reached London. Some of the band members had speaking parts and they all performed on-stage having memorised the music. The show was successful in Brussels but when it moved to Paris attendances were very poor. After a few weeks, the producer told Jones that “Free & Easy” was to close. Clark Terry who had just left the Ellington band was the straw-boss and as he points out in his autobiography, “Nobody wanted to see that band break up. Instead of taking a plane back home…Quincy lined up some dates and we stayed (in Europe)”.

The leader said at the time, “It was the best band I ever had” and their 1960 European performances over the next few months have been well documented with no less than ten CDs released including two concerts (Paris and Zurich) with Nat King Cole. One of Watkins’ regular features was an Ernie Wilkins chart titled Everybody’s Blues aka The Phantom Blues (The Phantom was Julius’ nickname).  Rather than sitting in the brass section, the sleeve-note for their Lausanne concert recording has a photo showing Watkins sitting with the saxes next to Sahib Shihab.  

It proved increasingly difficult to find club bookings and having lost some $50,000, Quincy decided to call it a day in October when he and the band returned to the States. He summed up his European experiences in a Downbeat interview with Leonard Feather titled, “How to lose a big band without really trying”. Early in 1961 Watkins was featured on Phil Woods’ Rights Of Swing holding his own in the heady company of Benny Bailey, Curtis Fuller and Sahib Shihab. A few months later the Jones band appeared at Newport and Julius can be heard on G’Wan Train, a cute, foot-tapping original by pianist Patti Bown.  He does not solo on the 1961 Quintessence album but on some tracks he plays lead in a four-man horn section with Ray Alonge, Jimmy Buffington and Earl Chapin. They are particularly effective on Quincy’s lush treatment of Bronislaw Kaper’s lovely Invitation.  The leader started to move into the popular music field and in 1963 he produced It’s My Party for Leslie Gore which was his first hit single.

In May 1961, Watkins was in the ensemble for two notable recordings – Miles Davis and Gil Evans at Carnegie Hall and John Coltrane’s Africa Brass. In the following years he continued to be in demand with leaders like Milt Jackson, Manny Albam, Charles Mingus, Tadd Dameron, Dizzy Gillespie, Michel Legrand, Art Blakey and Horace Silver. He also worked with the New York Municipal Orchestra as well as the New World Symphony which performed music by black composers at Avery Fisher Hall. Around 1968 he developed dental problems which were compounded by the onslaught of diabetes. He still managed to combine performing and teaching students like Tom Varner and Vincent Chancey at his home in New Jersey. In 1973 he joined the pit orchestra for the musical “Raisin’” and remained with the show for the next three years. His last recording was with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band on the 10th. January 1976. He died after a massive heart attack on the 4th. April 1977

Julius Watkins was the first-call french horn player for studio dates in New York despite the presence there of highly regarded performers like Jim Buffington, Ray Alonge, David Amran, Gunther Schuller, Willie Ruff and Bob Northern. Tom Lord lists him on no less than 198 jazz recordings and he was also in demand for Broadway musicals, orchestral and pop recordings.


As Leader

Julius Watkins Sextet Volumes 1 & 2: (Blue Note 7243-4-95749-2 CD) 

Charlie Rouse & Julius Watkins: The Complete Jazz Modes Sessions (Solar Records 4569911)

As Sideman

Thelonious Monk & Sonny Rollins: (Prestige PRCD 30010-2)

Oscar Pettiford: Oscar Rides Again (Properbox 5002)

Gil Melle’; Gil’s Guests (Prestige OJCCD-1754-2)

Curtis Fuller & Hampton Hawes With French Horns (New Jazz OJCCD-1942-2)

Phil Woods: Rights Of Swing (Fresh Sound FSRCD 746)

Quincy Jones Orchestra Live At Newport (Avid EAMSC 1107)

Quincy Jones Big Band: Swiss Radio Days Volume 1 ((TCB Records SWI 02012)

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