Jeff "Tain" Watts, 2017 Guggenheim Fellow, Talks Steeler Nation on SportsJam

Apr 11, 2017

Jeff "Tain" Watts
Credit Doug Doyle / WBGO

Jazz drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts is a 2017 Guggenheim Fellow in the field of music composition. Tain has performed with Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, Betty Carter, Michael Brecker, Alice Coltrane, Ravi Coltrane and many others. 

During this Jazz Appreciation Month, SportsJam with Doug Doyle is dipping into the archives to provide you with an opportunity to find out more about your favorite musicians and their connection to the sports world.

Jeff "Tain" Watts was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1960, the year that Pirates beat the New York Yankees in the World Series. But it was his city's football team that really captured his imagination.

During a visit to SportsJam in November 2013, he was right in his comfort zone with host and fellow Pittsburgh fan Doug Doyle. He recalled how, during his long tenure in the house band for the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, he represented his city's sports legacy.

“I would adorn my drum kit with various pennants from the Pirates, from the Penguins, and from the Steelers. So, everybody that came on the show knew I was from Pittsburgh.”

Watts is a virtuosic yet a subtle drummer who is versatile enough to fit into many settings.

“When it’s time for me to play I’m kind of unconscious. I really just want to get lost in the music and react to things just instinctively and not have to think about anything”.


But during the conversation, he recalled that the drums were actually not his first choice.

“When I was in fourth grade, it was time for us to select an instrument. They came to me and asked what do I want to play? Even though I already had a little toy drum set around the house that my family got me, I wanted to play the trumpet. To this day, I feel that the teacher ran out of trumpets, but he didn’t want to break my heart. So, he told me that my teeth were incorrect for playing the trumpet, and that I should choose something else. And so, I chose the drums.”

Tain's love of football grew to a fever pitch in 1987, when he performed at the big game in New Orleans.

“I was playing with Wynton Marsalis at the Super Bowl between the Bears and the Patriots whenever that was, in '87. So we’re in the Superdome and we’re going to play the national anthem with the gang. In the holding area, it was Pittsburgh heaven because they always have all the MVP’s from the previous Super Bowl that have a lap around, and I’m in there with Tony Dorsett, Joe Namath, Joe Montana, Lynn Swann and Terry Bradshaw. It was crazy.”

Watts has focused on leading his own bands in recent years, and releasing albums on his own label, Dark Key Music. Here is "Blakzilla vs Yo' Mothra" — a track from his most recent album, Blue Vol 2, recorded at his home studio in Easton, Pennsylvania.