If you know Birmingham music, you know jazz musician and club owner Ona Watson. And chances are that if you play around town, he knows you, too. First handed a horn by his Lincoln Elementary School bandleader, the jazz hall-of-famer Frank “Doc” Adams, Ona Watson has been championing music in this city for decades. In 1986, Watson was the youngest person ever inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. In 1997, he opened Ona’s Music Room in Southside.
This February, Watson celebrates two years in the club’s new space at prosperous Pepper Place. Beginning with a pre-Valentine’s Day Ona & Champagne celebration, Watson says to expect big things this year from his club — a space that’s been called the classiest club in town and now might be the most enlightening, too.
Weld: Are the first clubs you explored still in existence?
Watson: I was playing in clubs when I was in elementary school. I was 12 years old. My older brother would sneak me in. As I got older, we’d travel. We played in Harlem. There’s a club called Small’s Paradise there that still exists. Locally, I got to catch Ike and Tina Turner, Sammy Davis, Otis Redding when I wasn’t old enough to be in. All those clubs don’t exist anymore.
Weld: How are listeners different today than those days?
Watson: People appreciated music more then. We have so many outlets, now. Everywhere you look, there’s music. The Internet. People copying one another. It’s coming off the TV, out of the radio. Everything. Everywhere. You hear a song and go, “Hmm, I think I like that.” But it might not matter. Back then — when I was growing up — if somebody heard a great song, he went all out to see the band. That’s why you don’t have promoters working to bring in huge acts because you could just about lose money. Like Tony Ruffino. He brought folks to town like the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin and of course you came out, because you didn’t have the opportunity to see what they did regularly.
Weld: How is the new Ona’s Music Room in Pepper Place different from the old space on 20th?
Watson: Well, there’s better parking. And, really, it’s a better area pound for pound because we’re surrounded by two great restaurants, Cantina and Bettola. This space is more intimate. With [an architect] named Justin Brown, we renovated through and through. Any space here is a good seat. You can see the stage from any spot in the space. And the crowd’s more diverse now. We have people from 20 years old to 100. We had a lady in the other night who was celebrating her 86th birthday.
Weld: Describe an average week’s line-up.
Watson: We’re here Wednesday to Saturday from 5:30 p.m. on. Like a lot cities, Birmingham is a weekend city. But we do big band music with 25 guys on the stage every first Wednesday. Mark Avant gets 25 guys on that stage. He’s a talented man. He conducts for the Temptations, Diana Ross, the O’Jays, Tom Jones. I think he might be playing with Elton John next month. He’s part of the Tuscaloosa horns. [The Wednesday night show] is part of a workshop he’s does every Wednesday. I play twice a month. We’ve got other regular acts. All great musicians. You know, every night is different.
Weld: What other jazz clubs operate the way you do?
Watson: I ain’t telling you.
Weld: Is there another venue putting on jazz shows of this caliber?
Watson: I honestly don’t think so. I don’t think there are other clubs that do this. But if there are, they’ve dropped off because of the economy. I go play WorkPlay to see what Tommy’s doing. I go by Marty’s. I support what those guys do. I try to venture to all the clubs with live music. [The live music scene] is okay but could be better if more club owners booked live music. Bands can be a big expense. Traveling is expense. So it goes both ways. Taylor Hicks got 10 months in Vegas. Ruben Studdard is playing all over the country. Those guys came out of my camp.
We had Lil John Roberts here last week. He plays with Janet Jackson and Queen Latifah. We had a crowd here, but the turn out could have been better.
Weld: You mentioned the bad economy. Why should people spend money on music? In Ona’s?
Watson: This place is an education. You learn things here. We don’t just do jazz music. We do rhythm & blues, country, folk. It’s a music room. We do anything. There are a lot of younger kids, still in school, who’ve never seen music performed live — in their face. Seeing that can encourage young musicians to pursue a career in music. You can hear it, but if you don’t feel it, it doesn’t do any good. You’ve got to see it actually done. We do the workshop every first Wednesday, and parents bring kids by. Or their instructors drop by. We’ve got JSU’s band coming next week. You’re a kid, and you might like hip-hop or whatever, but when you see this done, you learn to appreciate all music.
Weld: So did you set out to make Ona’s Music Room act as a classroom?
Watson: People who come here want to learn. They say, “I don’t really like country but I like that.” You’ve got to hear. You got to feel it. Sometimes people have to be shown. Music is so diverse. It’s hard to be locked down in one particular genre. Whatever genre of music that you like, you can listen to other types of music that will steer you in a new direction. Basically, when my teacher, Frank Adams, put the horn in my hands, I was more interested in rhythm & blues and rock. He made me interested in jazz, too. Because a B-flat is a B-flat. It doesn’t make a difference what type of music you’re playing.
Weld: If you didn’t have musical education in mind when you opened the club, what did you have in mind?
Watson: I opened the club, basically, because I wanted people to appreciate musicians. I’ve got plaques up that say, “Please appreciate our performing artists.” And I mean it. I don’t do a lot of food here — we do what we call “ghetto hors d’oeuvres,” skins and potato chips — because I want people to applaud when guys finish playing. Because that means a lot to an entertainer.
Weld: But you wanted to be a teacher when you were young, right?
Watson: I came from a family of teachers, preachers, and bootleggers. But when I was growing up, teachers were the thing. They were more respected than they are now. The teachers were our leaders. Dr. Adams put a horn in my hands and encouraged me to play music. If he hadn’t done that, no telling where I might have ended up. Sometimes, people can play things that they can’t say to your face. Music has a way of soothing savage beasts, as they say.
Weld: So what did you learn from playing music?
Watson: I was 8 or 10 years old when I started playing. I was listening to what was on at my house. Dr. Adams encouraged me to branch out—listen to jazz, pop. I’m glad I did. I’ve got an ear now. I can listen to people as old as Tony Bennett. He’s a great singer, and he’s in his 80s. But I can also appreciate Justin Bieber, you know. I can appreciate Usher. I’ve got a wide vision of how music should be played. If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s bad, it’s bad. People say “But I’m playing for the church. I’m playing gospel.” If it’s wrong, it’s wrong. Simple as that. You can’t use the Lord as an excuse. Bad is bad.
It’s like this, too, though: When you’re in love, you only want to hear love songs. When you fall out of love, you’re only going to be listening to the blues.
Ona’s Music Room is located at 2801 2nd Avenue South. For tickets and a complete February line-up, visit onasmusicroom.com.