The French horn in jazz? You bet. And this Saturday, the 29th, some of the best hornists in the business will get together at Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond, for the 7th Julius Watkins Jazz Horn Festival.
Watkins, who passed away much too early, in 1977, is the godfather of the jazz French horn. He was the first hornist to become a member of the jazz world's inner circle, recording with some of the greatest names in the music's history -- John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Gil Evans, the Jazz Composer's Orchestra, Jimmy Heath (below), and Frank Foster and Oscar Pettiford (bottom). In the late 1950s, he co-led an innovative group, Les Jazz Modes, with saxophonist Charlie Rouse. And in 1960 and '61, he won Downbeat magazine's prestigious critics poll in "miscellaneous instruments." (No, French horn players have never gotten a category of their own.)
Jimmy Heath: "The Quota." Watkins' gorgeous solo begins at about 1:40. Jimmy Heath, tenor; Freddie Hubbard, trumpet; Julius Watkins, French Horn; Cedar Walton, piano; Percy Heath, bass; Al "Tootie" Heath, drums.
The Watkins Festival will feature contemporary jazz French hornists with impressive resumes of their own -- Tom Varner, Vincent Chancey, John Clark, Marshall Sealy, and Alex Brofsky. They'll participate in workshops and lead masterclasses during the day. In the evening, they'll perform at a special gala concert.
Lee Friedlander: Julius Watkins and Charlie Rouse, c. 1955.
There will be plenty for student and amateur hornists to do at the festival. Besides the workshops and masterclasses, all are invited to sit in on jazz horn choir reading session that will be lead by Vincent and Tom.
Julius Watkins Sextet: From "New Faces, New Sounds." Julius Watkins, French horn; Frank Foster, tenor; George Butcher, piano; Perry Lopez, guitar; Oscar Pettiford, bass; Kenny Clarke, drums.
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The best place to learn more about Watkins and the French horn in jazz is Patrick Smith's 2005 University of Florida doctoral thesis, which you can read, here.