Lu Watters was a cornetist and bandleader in San Francisco from 1939 when he formed the Yerba Buena Jazz Band until 1956 when he retired from playing. During the interim, he led one of the best-known traditional jazz bands of the era and one of the primary influences, along with the Los Angeles-based Firehouse Five Plus Two, and his protegé Turk Murphy of the traditional jazz or ‘Dixieland’ revival of the late 1940s. He also gave many of San Francisco’s traditional jazz musicians such as Turk Murphy their starts. As reported by the JazzBeat magazine,
Meanwhile in California, a bunch of disaffected swing musicians began to work on some of the old jazz numbers of the twenties as a welcome relief from playing dance music from arrangements. The unofficial leader of this group was trumpeter Lu Watters.
Lu soon discovered that he wasn’t alone in being bored to tears with big band jazz. A handful of Bay Area jazzmen began meeting for after-hours sessions at the Big Bear Tavern, a roadhouse in the Berkeley hills. Gradually these sessions coalesced into a rehearsal band, which practiced atop the Mark Twain Hotel, but never actually played a job. He reorganized that band early in 1940 when he decided his band had to have two trumpets- his new band included himself and Byron Berry on trumpets, Bob Helm on clarinet, Turk Murphy on trombone, Forrest Browne, piano, Benny Johnson, banjo, Dick Lammi, bass and Gordon Edwards, drums. By that summer, Berry, Johnson and Edwards left, to be replaced by Bob Scobey, Clancy Hayes and Bill Dart.
Watters’ group, soon renamed the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, was known as a highly arranged band. Although the majority of the pieces they played were tunes well-known to the traditional jazz fan, Watters also wrote a number of originals as well, such as Annie Street Rock, Big Bear Stomp and others. Some of his band members – notably Turk Murphy – also wrote tunes for the band. The vast majority were arranged by Watters himself and have formed a subset of the standards in the genre.
However, although the Watters arrangements are very distinctive and have an instantly recognizable sound, they are not the easiest to play. The reason for this is due to the fact that they are mostly hand-written arrangements, which have been photocopied and mimeographed (bonus question: anyone remember mimeographs?) multiple times, rendering their legibility somewhat questionable. the second reason is that Watters’ roadmaps were not exactly what I would refer to as intuitive. The Watters charts tend to have multiple areas of ambiguity coupled with non-intuitive repeats and returns to earlier sections with little documentation. These idiosyncracies make the Watters charts something of a challenge, especially on those numbers that are standards, such as Tiger Rag or Tin Roof Blues. Watters gave his own ideas to these charts and the results, which clearly recognizable to the listener, can drive musicians quite literally up a wall.
However, that being said, Watters had an excellent ear for arranging and his arrangements, when played as designed, are wonderful pieces. And the best part is that according to Bob Schulz, who was Turk Murphy‘s last trumpeter,
Lu Watters was fairly free with his music- he had piles of arrangements lying around his cottage and young bands would visit and he’d let go of an arrangement or two. Finally he made a deal with Dr Ed Lawless, one of his biggest fans, under which the arrangements were preserved and duplicated and now anyone in the world can buy Lu’s arrangements and start a band. As Bunk Johnson would have said, “they are hot as written.”
The Lu Watters arrangements are available today by contacting Jim Jones at Yestertunes.com although there appear to be copied or mimeographed copies floating around through other sources as well – most of the traditional bands in the San Francisco Bay Area have at least a part of the Watters library in their repertoire, thus keeping at least a part of the spirit of the Yerba Buena Jazz Band alive.