When Kobie Watkins was a kid in Chicago, he paid careful attention to the arrangement of the pots, pans and Tupperware bowls in the kitchen pantry. They formed his first drum set.
"I was always particular about the sounds and tones. I would always place them in a certain order with a certain sound and pitch," Watkins says, relaying a story he'd forgotten until his brother reminded him of the fascination. The memory put the rest of his career as a drummer in historical perspective, as it's a penchant that continues now. "I'm always the one to tune the drums, to make sure their intonation's there and doesn't sound wacky."
At 38, Watkins, who settled in North Carolina in 2009, has performed around the world, drumming behind legendary saxophonist Sonny Rollins, vocalist Kurt Elling and guitarist Bobby Broom. And he's now working to share his lifetime of jazz education, which began in the kitchen decades ago, with aspiring local musicians.
Watkins' father, Alious, served as both the pastor and drummer at the Apostolic Overcoming Holy Church of God in Chicago. There were eight children in the house, but Kobie cared the most for the timbre and tempo of the pots and pans. So his dad showed him a set of basic drum exercises, including paradiddles, or staggered patterns that shift between the right and left hands. He practiced those to the music he'd hear on television, especially the jingle of Wrigley's Spearmint. And come Sunday, he studied the players in church. After he assumed his father's role of performing for services, he received the congregation's uncensored feedback.
"It's worse in church—in black church, let me say—than it is anywhere in the world, as far as learning to play an instrument. You get up there and not know the beat? If looks could kill, they'd put you underneath the church. Or somebody taps you on the shoulder and says, 'That sounds terrible, get off the drums,'" Watkins remembers. "It happened enough that you get it together after a while."
Watkins continued to hone his chops, eventually earning degrees in music education and jazz pedagogy from VanderCook College and Northwestern University, respectively. The city's abundant jam sessions—especially The Green Mill and Fred Anderson's Velvet Lounge—were his real musical incubators because they were so open to young players.
"At the Velvet Lounge, when I was there, it became a culture: 'I'll meet you at the Velvet Lounge,'" Watkins remembers. "That was church. That was our jazz church."
Watkins eventually relocated to New York. From 2007 to 2009, that served as his homebase for extensive travels with Rollins and Elling. But he followed his wife, Allison, a modern dancer with Tar Heel family ties, to North Carolina. Now a Durham resident, Watkins works as a sideman with area luminaries such as Branford Marsalis, Brian Miller, Brian Horton and Al Strong. He conducts drum clinics and has recently led workshops at The Cary Academy and Durham School of the Arts. Watkins hopes to offer these young Triangle jazz musicians the same opportunities for performance, camaraderie and professional networking that he benefitted from as a youth in Chicago, both inside and outside of church.
"In the jam sessions, and even as a kid coming up in church, those guys allowed me to sit in, play, develop and deal with my stuff," he explains. "Why shouldn't I be able to do that for someone else?"
For the last six months, Watkins has hosted the Jazz Jam Playhouse at the Beyù Caffè in Durham. He tailors the Wednesday night session to kids age 8–18: The first hour is reserved for young musicians in middle or high school, while college-aged or pro players jump in after 8:30 p.m. There's no cover, and the café discounts food for participating students. And whether it's spoons, spoken word, violin or alphorn, any instrument is welcome.
"As long as you can carry it up there, fine," Watkins says. "This is for kids to come out and practice what they're learning."
On a recent Wednesday evening, the house trio—with Watkins on drums, guitarist Russell Favret and bassist Kenny Phelps-McKeown at his wings—stoked standards while a lively crowd enjoyed shrimp and beignets. At the bar, jazz fans bantered with musicians who came and went, sax or trumpet case in hand as they sized up the jam session, waiting for their moment to interject.
"My dream is Beyù could be the place where this young, unbelievable next Miles Davis or John Coltrane could play," offered Beyù owner Dorian Bolden. "You never know. That's the fun part."
James Wood, a 16-year-old from Enloe High School, finally stepped to the stage for a few performances. He plays in a combo at school, and he studies privately with accomplished pianist Ed Paolantonio. But the Beyù gig tests his skills in surprising ways, like an athlete suddenly trying a new workout. This is his second time joining the Beyù band.
"When I came in November, it was a lot harder. But I think I've gotten a little better at being able to sense where they are in the form," Wood says. "I look around for opportunities like this where I can play with people who are way, way better than me and learn."
Wood arrived at the session with a ready list of songs he knew how to play, something Phelps-McKeown recommends.
"This dude came in super prepared," he explains. "It's so much easier to play with a kid who gets up there and says, 'I know this, let's do this,' versus a kid that gets up there and says, 'Uhh, what do you guys want to do?'"
It takes commitment from parents to get kids to the session. Wood and his mother, Karey Harwood, made the commute to downtown Durham from Raleigh. They can't make the drive every week, but when time allows, the experience matters enough for the trip. "The hunger that he has to play is so great that, as a parent, I just want to provide any opportunity I can to satisfy that," she says.
The logistics of getting kids to the jam session may be one thing, but making them feel welcome on stage is a different challenge.
"We say, 'Well, let's just play something that you know well,'" Watkins says. "You don't have to get all the notes right, but what you do want to do is challenge yourself and come up and play. This is the platform for you to mess up."
Wednesdays, Free, 7–10 p.m. Beyù Caffè, beyucaffe.com
Saturday, March 15, $5–$12, 8 & 10 p.m. Beyù Caffe, beyucaffe.com.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Afterschool special"