OATTS AT THE HALL: Saxophonist Chris Oatts poses in front of the Merriam Theater in Center City before rehearsal on Sept. 20. He comes from a long line of jazz musicians.
Leading a big band may seem like a major undertaking for a young musician fresh out of college. But when saxophonist and recent Temple grad Chris Oatts launched the South Philly Big Band early this year, in a sense he was simply entering the family business.
Oatts, along with his triplet brothers Jeff (a drummer also in Philly) and Eric (a saxophonist living in Kansas City), is a third-generation jazz musician. His grandfather, the late Jack Oatts, has been called the Father of Jazz Education in Iowa, having start-ed the states first high school jazz band in 1954. He also led the Fort Dodge Big Band for many years. Chris father, Jim, is a trumpeter who recently stepped down as leader of the Des Moines Big Band, an Iowa institution that he led for more than two decades.
The best known member of the musical family is Chris saxophonist uncle Dick, an in-demand sideman who is a mainstay of the Village Vanguards house big band and is a professor and artistic director of the jazz studies department at Temple. It was Dicks presence in the program that led Chris from Des Moines to Philly.
Dick was always my biggest inspiration growing up, Chris says. He was in New York so Id only see him once a year, but I always loved his playing. He gave me a lesson once I started playing saxophone, but I wasnt quite ready to hear what he had to say when I was in sixth grade. It wasnt really until I got to Temple that I started to put together all the things that hed been telling me since I was younger.
Uncle and nephew will share the stage at Chris Jazz Café on Friday night, a gig that was originally slated to feature the elder Oatts sitting in with the South Philly Big Band but was downsized to a quintet date by the popes visit. It wont be the first time the two have played together; Chris cringingly points to an embarrassing video on YouTube featuring the pair dueling for a crowd of seniors at Chris grandmothers retirement home in Jefferson, Iowa.
While Chris was growing up, Dick was teaching at the Manhattan School of Music or on the road, but would receive regular updates from his father, Jack, who was mentoring the young saxophonist. My dad always had a knack for hearing young people and knowing if they were going to go the distance or not, Dick recalls. I remember him telling me, You know, your nephews going to really be something. Its been amazing to watch him grow and develop and start to find his own voice in this menagerie of music. When you hear somebody like Chris or some of the other students at Temple, it moves you to keep playing, to keep searching, to keep growing and developing as a teacher and a player.
Chris insists that he received no special attention from his uncle, with whom hes continuing to study in a masters program at Temple. He was so hard on me about my playing and would call me on every little thing that I did, but thats exactly what I needed when I first got here, he recalls. That echoes Dicks own memories of his father, whose 2008 obituary mentions the nickname given him by his students: The Taskmaster.
My dad was very intense and dedicated, and somewhat obsessed with music and with young people who have a gift, Dick says. He was brutally honest and sometimes that was inspirational and sometimes it was pretty brutal, but Im quite thankful to have had that honesty instead of someone just telling me I sounded good.
Dick recalls dedicating his life to music when he was 8 or 9 years old, when his father introduced him to the legendary Duke Ellington and his longtime saxophonist, Johnny Hodges. After the concert when I saw them get on that bus I said, Wow, thats what I want to do. Not realizing all the diesel fumes are bad for you, I just knew I wanted to travel like that and play with those kinds of players. It was a kids dream, but my father helped facilitate it.
Similarly, Chris fell in love with jazz through his own fathers regular Monday night gigs with the Des Moines Big Band, whether they were performing at an Italian restaurant called Spaghetti Works or the lounge at a local resort hotel, the Adventureland Inn. The familys musical lore has been passed down in more concrete fashion through the hundreds of pounds of big band charts that Chris has received from his father and grandfather and repurposed for his own ensemble.
It came naturally because Id heard so much big band music from the time I was little, Chris says about launching the band. It seemed weird to have all these charts and not play them. Especially after graduating, it seemed like a great opportunity to get together and read all this great music with my best friends.
$15 // Fri., Sept. 25, 8 and 10 p.m., Chris Jazz Café, 1421 Sansom St., 215-568-3131, chrisjazzcafe.com.