Don’t scat! That was Shakura S’Aida’s advice to her friend Dawn Tyler Watson when she came down from Montreal to compete in this year’s International Blues Challenge.
“She was amazing. She told me, ‘Dawn, you’re going down to Memphis. This is what counts.’”
Shakura had made it into the finals years before, but didn’t win the contest. But in her heart, she knew Dawn had a good shot. Yes, the winners always seem to come from the south, but things are changing.
“She’d judged and stuff, too. She’s like, ‘Blues content! Avoid the scatting,’ you know, ’cause jazz is my thing. She said. ‘Get into the blues. Remember, it’s blues, and play every single stage like it’s a huge festival because they’re looking for headliners.’
“That was good advice because you go in and you’re playing this little dinky bar, right? Dinky bar on Beale St. Small stages with less than ideal sound systems and a way less than necessary, in our case, sound system because we’re an eight-piece band.
“So, I have the horns blasting in my monitor. It sounds like crap to me on stage, but I still have to play like I’m having a ball, and that I’m loving it, and that I’m in front of 10,000 people, in front of the Montreal Jazz Fest on one of the big, huge stages.
“So, you have to play that way, and I’m grateful she told me that, and I did that. And she understands on the other side of that mike how all those things can factor into your mood and to your performance. It doesn’t mean that as a professional you never show that you’re not happy, but it can affect you if you allow it emotionally.
“So, you just ignore it for the 15 – 20-minute set you have and do your best. It was a great suggestion because after my first performance, she said, ‘Girl, you’ve got more than that,’ you know? So, she was great. She coached me and helped me so much. I love that girl, but I cannot believe she did not win the year she competed.”
But Dawn did win.
And five months later, she still hasn’t totally processed what that win means. A 52-year-old daughter of mixed race parents with one foot in jazz, another in acting and what once was a vestigial foot in blues, is suddenly the highest profile up and coming blues act in the world. Add to that a back story that includes a life-threatening heart operation that almost prevented her from competing, and you have a woman in a daze, a wonderful daze, but a daze nonetheless.
In an interview earlier this year, Dawn told me she had three months to recuperate from her triple bypass before competing in this year’s International Blues Challenge. She may have thought that was enough time, but her doctor didn’t.
“He said, ‘Dawn, if you’re on stage and you feel any pain, any chest pain, I don’t care if you’re in the middle of a song, you need to stop, go sit down, squirt this stuff under your tongue, wait five minutes and if it doesn’t go away, do it again, and get your ass to an emergency room. I don’t care if you’re on stage in the middle of a show.’
“And I’m like, ‘Ok, no problem.’ He says, ‘You have to choose your health over your ego here,’ and I was like, ok, and in my mind I was thinking I would do that, but there is probably no way. I know myself. I would finish the song. It’s my passion. I’m in that moment. I’m in that giving 100%. This is my all. This is what I’m born to do. This is what I love doing, and if I die on stage, I’ll be a happy camper, you know? Seriously!”
Today, she’s had some more time to reflect. “It sounds corny, but it’s the truth. Each day really is a new beginning and a gift, and that may be your last. You gotta live it. Can’t waste it. I was shocked the last time we spoke about the fact I’m going down with seven white boys from Quebec and a Frenchman on drums, and we were able to go down there and have enough – I don’t know – passion, creativity, I don’t know, whatever it takes to stand out with this band.”
It’s like she put on a pair of polarized dark glasses and the clouds switched from being portents of darker things on the horizon to God’s paintings of a beautiful world. Those glasses make her look cooler to the world, while looking through them gives her a new perspective on the meaning and significance of her personal clouds.
“I think this band and I are a really good fit, and these guys are exactly what I needed to shine. I could not believe that against all that south-centric talent and all the artists that were there that we actually won. It was shocking. You never know. That’s what I mean. You never know who’s going to win. I mean Paul Deslauriers and myself when we were down there. I don’t know if you were there. I think it was 2012, and we were an acoustic act. We went all the way to the finals and people are like, ‘You guys shoulda won,’ but to me I know blues content was not our strength.”
Months before the competition when she went into emergency heart surgery, her friends gave her a heads up. “You might die. Do you have a will?” “Uh, no. So, I get my girlfriend to start videotaping me on her iPhone. That was the weirdest thing because you know in a way I’m still in denial that all that happened to me. It’s like I was in such shock. I mean, I was making jokes with the guy going into the operating room. I really didn’t grasp the situation. I could have seriously not come out or come out on the other side. You know what I mean?”
Now, six months after her win, she feels like she has a new heart “engine.” Her voice is stronger, she’s stronger, and the nightmares have disappeared. “I haven’t had any nightmares. I still carry whatever that stuff you’re supposed to spray, nitroglycerine, but I mean I can’t live my life in fear. I really just believe I got a new engine, got a new lease on life. You know, cleaned all the engine out. This is good. My heart’s working better than it was for years. So, I’m not worried.”
And she wears the scars on her chest like the badge of the survivor she is. “It’s like this huge diamond crested silver lining of all this pain that I went through. The healing process and I’ve got this hot real sexy scar right down the middle of my chest, man. I’ve just started wearing low cut stuff again now. I really had thought for the longest time and it’s pretty prominent because of the kind of skin I have.
“So, some people say, ‘Oh, you can get a tattoo.’ And I’m like it’s great to draw more attention to that area, but with a little makeup I don’t mind, and since I’m now part of the zipper club as they say, I keep seeing other people and I see a lot of women who – I have a man who comes and buys CDs and is like. ‘Hey, I’m in the zipper bag, too.’ You know like I can see their scar and I’m like ‘Why hide that? Why hide that? I don’t have to be perfect, and there’s no reason to hide that. It’s a badge of honor for me. It’s like a survival – I’ve survived this. This is something to be proud of. So, yeah. I’ve stopped kinda hiding it, but I’m not exactly flashing it either. I don’t know.”
“I’m till super super proud of myself, and I have a hard time being proud of myself. I’m a perfectionist. I’m always trying to – ‘Yeah, I did good, but!’ I win an award or I get something and I’m like, ‘Oh, it’s great and I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah. You screwed this up or that up. But this, every time I think about it I really smile with my heart that we won this. And mostly because it was such a team effort. I can’t take credit. It was really a unit. We’re a unit. The band – the Ben Racine Band and myself, we make that product.”
Ben Racine took home the Albert King Guitarist Award at the IBC.
“They weren’t getting paid ’cause they’re a committed unit. You find a lot of people, ‘Ugh, they’re sidemen. You know people working as sidemen and if a better gig comes along,’ but these guys they’re so committed, and the fact that they’ve dropped their lives and their wives, and they didn’t have gigs. And there was no money for us going down there. Everybody went down there basically unpaid, and they had to spend their own money on food and stuff like that, and these guys all came down. So, I don’t take that lightly, and the fact that we won is absolutely a gift, really. They’re freakin’ amazing.”
In 2004 Dawn starred in the film Jack Paradise. “Gilles Noel, the producer, came into the jazz club and they heard me and they said, ‘We’re gonna do this movie, and we need a jazz singer, and you’re Curly Brown. You’re the heroine in the movie, not the heroine, but the female whatever.
“So, I was like a year later I got a call to come in and do the sound test, and with a guy named Ray Dupuis who’s internationally known for his role in Nikita, that show that’s shown in like 50 countries and translated into like 30 languages. Anyway, he’s the Brad Pitt of Quebec.
“They called me up, and I auditioned, and I got the part, and in 2004 they released the film. It told the story about a black singer and a white piano player set in the ’20s through the ’70s which was a really rich cultural time here in Montreal for jazz. Like everybody played here: Ella Fitzgerald, Louie Armstrong. Anybody who was anybody played in Quebec at that time in Montreal.
“I was lucky because a jazz singer is basically playing myself and I based the Curly Brown character on my own life. I could totally relate to Curly. She was a little black kid who sang, had a lot of talent, loved to – she was young. So, she would sit outside the jazz club, and listen, try to sneak in all the time back in the ’30s and ’40s and finally, when she hit 18, she went in. They discovered her, and she started a career as a singer, and she always dreamed of going to New York and making it big and fell in love with this white piano player, and at the time, of course, black and white relationships were kind of frowned upon. He fell into drugs, and he became a bit of her savior.
“Then, he married a white woman and had kids with the white woman which broke her heart. She took off, got deeper into drugs and depression and ended up in New York eventually. Anyway, in the end, they came back together, but I could understand Curly’s passion for the music, and drive to succeed.”
Dawn could relate to Curley’s death dance with drugs.
“I had my stint with craziness in my youth, you know, with drugs and drinking and partying. I didn’t get caught up in the (music) business so quickly because really literally I got sidetracked with the drugs and alcohol. Once I got back on track, then music became my focus. Music is my driving motivation, my force, the thing I love to do most in the world. Music became my power, my force.
“I know the devastating effect of addiction in people’s lives that I’ve been able to overcome that and conquer that is a miracle and not for nothing. I do a lot of volunteer work and stuff like that with youth at risk. I’ve come so close with the operation, and I feel it’s time now to connect the dots a little bit more. I don’t exactly know how to express it yet. I don’t want to go too far into my past, but suffice it to say, yeah, it was pretty dark and for me what I’m living now to come to where I am now to where I came from is nothing short of miraculous.”
Dawn recalls her first gig with a band that played R&B, Doors and Aretha Franklin. “The guy came up to us afterwards and gave me $50, and I was like wow! I got paid. I was shocked that I got paid to do something I love to do. Today, I can tell you you can pay me all the money in the world, but it’s not – there’s no price tag on the joy I have on stage. The money you pay me is a to deal with the website and the social media, and the rehearsals and booking and the paperwork and the visas and you know. That’s what I get paid for. That’s the hassle, the day-in-day-out music business. Yeah, pay me big bucks for that because that’s a lot of work, but once I’m on stage, that’s my high. That’s when I’m highest. That’s where I believe I’m also expressing – manifesting the highest part of myself. The creativity that was given me, the gift that was given me.
“When I give back to people on stage that is my nirvana really. That is my joy. It truly is. Even when the sound is crappy, I don’t like this. I’m not in great mood, I still get transported to that place when I look somebody in the eye, and they have that smile on their face, and I know I’m connecting to that person.
“Last night there was this girl on the dance floor. We played in a park in the West Islands. As soon as we started, two bars into it, I don’t know. Maybe she was 13 or 12 or 11. She gets out on the dance floor, and she starts dancing with her dress and swirling her dress and she was having so much fun. Within two minutes, all the other people got up and started dancing, watching this girl. She stayed there for the full hour or whatever we played and just the joy on her face every single time I connected with her. I looked at her, and she’d smile and I’d smile. I mean come on! There’s no price tag for that. I love my job, you know? I just love it.”
On tour around the world, and being nominated for a Blues Blast Award are just some of the perks that are helping Dawn actualize her new reality.
“Every time I turn around now, I’m looking and everybody’s looking at me with love in their eyes like a puppy watches their masters. There’s this connection. They’re there. They’re there for me. They’re supportive as all get out. They support me. They’re there for me and that’s a beautiful feeling. I think this is the first time I’ve had a band that’s there for me. It just fills me with joy. What’s life about if not connections? It’s about connections.”
So, is there life after winning the International Blues Challenge? She doesn’t know yet. “I haven’t stopped really. We’ve been running around the globe. It’s been great. It’s been awesome, and I had a meeting with my producer Francois Thiffault, and he’s like ‘Well, Dawn, now you gotta start thinking about the next record now.’ I’m like, ‘I’m too busy,’ but he’s like, ‘You gotta start now,’ which is true because what usually happens is I just get busy and it’s like, ‘Ok, time to do a record,’ and I get slammed with it, so this is why it’s taken me so long to do.
That’s why I have so few albums with relatively such a long career. So, yeah, actually I’m on my way today to get to the country for a few days and take a look at my material and get a base idea of where I’m at with that so that we can start arranging songs and stuff. So, that’s exciting. Meanwhile, I’m still touring and getting around. We’ve done a bunch of American festivals which is awesome. I got nominated for a Blues Blast Award which I guess you know is awesome, my first American nomination.
And as for Shakura’s admonition not to scat? She’s still a little willful about that. “Yeah, she was right. But I still scat in my solo ’cause I love it. I just love it. It’s part of my act. Jazz is part of who I am. And I still have a jazz trio I work with quite often in the city when everyone else is away on tour. So, I still do jazz quite actively in Montreal. Yeah, I scat. I’m a scat fool.”
Visit Dawn’s website at: www.dawntylerwatson.com
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.