The Ballard Jazz Festival, which celebrates Seattle’s vibrant jazz scene May 29 to June 1, started in 2002 as a project of the intrepid indie jazz label, Origin Records, run by local drummers John Bishop and Matt Jorgensen.
In 1999, when Origin was just a baby, the label put out an album called “Speakin’ Out,” a collaboration between the erstwhile local trio New Stories — pianist Marc Seales, bassist Doug Miller and drummer (and Origin founder) Bishop — and the sizzling tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts, who has played with everyone from Charlie Haden to The Rolling Stones. This year, the festival is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the album with a reunion of Watts and New Stories.
“Speakin’ Out” included a swingin’ tune by Seales, “Highway Blues,” which has been a surprise moneymaker for Origin. The track was distributed to some 500 million people as sample music with the Microsoft operating system Windows XP, but the real payload came when YouTube started paying royalties: It turned out people had been using “Highway Blues” as background music for cat videos!
Bishop declined to share just how much money the tune has brought in, but modestly called it a “steady revenue stream.”
There’s no telling if Watts and New Stories will play “Highway Blues” on Friday, May 31, but in a phone interview from his home in Cambria, Calif., Watts said the group would probably play at least one tune from the album. The rest will probably come from his recent CD, “Home Light.”
Watts plays with a distinctively glossy, buzzing sound and has a dazzling command of his instrument that recalls John Coltrane. At one point on each album he usually busts into free-jazz territory, but he can be tender, too, as he is on the title track of “Home Light,” a slow, soulful waltz written by Watts and Seales.
Watts has deep musical connections to the Northwest. He and New Stories used to play often at the now defunct New Orleans Creole Restaurant, in Pioneer Square, and recorded many times in Los Angeles with the late saxophonist Bud Shank, who presented Watts twice at Jazz Port Townsend. Quincy Jones’ label, Qwest, released Watts’ two Grammy winning albums, “Chariots of Fire” (1982) and “Musican” (1985).
Jones also recommended Watts to Mick Jagger for the Stones’ 1981 “Tattoo You” tour.
“My audition was in San Diego in front of 80,000 people in a stadium,” recalled Watts. “I got the gig.”
Watts’ career as a studio ace included a 20-year stint in “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” band, but even if you never saw him on TV, you probably heard his sax on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” or Glenn Frey’s “The One You Love.” While Watts was working with Haden in the late ‘80s, he began to gravitate away from studio work, returning to the “intense, focused” jazz he grew up with, he said. Since 2000, he has released nine jazz albums on his own label, Flying Dolphin.
The mainstage concert at the Ballard Jazz Festival used to be on Saturday and the Ballard Jazz Walk on Friday, but last year the order was reversed. The mainstage has also moved to the beautiful concert hall at the Nordic Museum and new venues have been added to a more geographically concentrated Jazz Walk, which this year features piano-vocal duo Dawn Clement and Johnaye Kendrick, trumpeter Nathan Breedlove, guitarist Lage Lund (who opens for Watts), saxophonist and trumpeter Jay Thomas and many others.
Bishop and his partner at Origin, fellow drummer Matt Jorgensen, were selected this year for a national “Jazz Heroes” award by the Jazz Journalists Association, which they will receive at the headline concert.
Ballard Jazz Festival, 8 p.m. Wednesday, May 29, through midnight Saturday, June 1; various Ballard venues; individual tickets $13-$60, Jazz Walk passes $35-$40, festival passes $80-$120; 206-219-3649, ballardjazzfestival.com
This story has been updated with the correct figure for Windows XP distribution.