Jack Waterson and the art of saying yes

Future Music
Jack Waterson runs Future Music to connect with people in Eagle Rock, Los Angeles, CA. Oct. 26, 2022. Grace Meadows/The Occidental

Jack Waterson’s journey into the music world began with shoplifting.

Long before he started Future Music in 1999, Waterson was a self-proclaimed “shitty kid” and shoplifter growing up in Long Island. But one day, in the early 1970s, he was on the right side of things. Waterson said he caught people stealing drumsticks from a local shop called Matthew’s Music. He set them back on the counter in front of the owner.

“He told me, ‘You can come in here and hang out every day if you want to,’” Waterson said.

Waterson said yes. During his time at Matthew’s Music, he said the team taught him a lot about music. Waterson eventually became a professional musician, and he moved to Los Angeles in 1980 on a publishing deal with the internationally successful band Green On Red.

Future Music
Jack Waterson runs Future Music to connect with people in Eagle Rock, Los Angeles, CA. Oct. 26, 2022. Grace Meadows/The Occidental

As a professional touring musician, Waterson built a vast knowledge of music equipment. In 1988 he said he found himself back in the music store business, once again simply by saying yes. A friend asked Waterson to watch their store for a few days, and he took interest in the exchange of knowledge between himself and the customers.

“It was interesting, because of all the things I’ve learned, I could give that to people and then learn from them,” Waterson said. “And from there, my knowledge just kept growing.”

Inspired by this experience, Waterson set up a brick and mortar music store called Future Music on Sunset Boulevard in 1999, which he said relocated to its present-day spot on York nearly 15 years ago. Future Music has since become a Highland Park mainstay, according to LA-based writer Sam Sweet.

“In the words of Noah Cross in Chinatown, ‘Politicians, public buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough,’” Sweet said via email. “Same goes for lime green guitar shops.”

The shop made it onto the list of Grammy nominee and LA local Steve Lacy’s favorite spots in the city.

“Jack from The Midnight Hour [owns] this music store,” Lacy wrote for Hyperlocal, shouting out Waterson’s band featuring composer and producer Adrian Younge, rapper and DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammed of A Tribe Called Quest and other members. “This store is amazing. I love vintage gear, and I love that the store is owned by another musician from a band I respect.”

But for Waterson, the fame and success of Future Music are secondary.

“I looked at it as though [Future Music] is how I repay the debt to the store that let me hang out as a kid,” Waterson said. “And it’s enabled me to do incredible, weird, cool things.”

What he owes to that fateful music shop in Long Island, he said he pays forward to the community he lives in, Highland Park. He said he knows everybody in the neighborhood, and they know him because he makes the effort to talk to them. Remembering how the folks at Matthew’s Music took the time to answer his many questions, Waterson said he talks to his customers to figure out who they are and what they are trying to do. This way, he said, he can help them find the equipment they need.

Future Music
Speakers, synthesizers and sound boards piled high in Future Music in Los Angeles, CA. Oct. 26, 2022. Grace Meadows/The Occidental

Since the pandemic, Waterson said he has gained a new perspective on his role as a business owner in the community. During the lockdowns, he and his coworkers would play music in the shop for passersby on the street; for many people, it was the only way to hear live music, Waterson said.

“This is a community, it’s not a transient thing here. There’s not like tens of millions of people coming through here every ten seconds. It’s not like that. It’s very unlike the rest of the city around here. And because of that, you can establish yourself as who you are and have those relationships with your neighbors,” Waterson said. “So I realized that there’s a real power to that and just being present, and it gave an anchor to everybody. And because of what I do for a living, I’ve got a responsibility to people.”

To Waterson, fulfilling this responsibility and having a positive impact on the people around him has far more value than the bottom line on the store’s balance sheet, he said.

“What’s more important is that your encounter here encouraged you, or that it gave you some spark of inspiration to create from, or we said something to you that helps you go, ‘Yeah, man, that’s what I’m doing,’” Waterson said.

Waterson said he is fortunate to have people who understand the ethos of his store. Staying true to it is how he plays his part in the neighborhood, and he encourages others to consider doing the same.

“How are you in the neighborhood? Do people know you? Can they knock on your door and ask you to help push a car? Are you the first person to open the door for somebody? Do you say those little things to somebody just to make them feel good that day?” Waterson said. “There are the things you can control and the things you cannot control. Care about the things you can control.”

Future Music
The eclectic insides of Future Music on York Boulevard in Eagle Rock, CA. Oct. 26, 2022. Grace Meadows/The Occidental

Waterson said being forced to do his best with limited options made him focus on what he could control.

“There’s an art and a science to everything,” Waterson said. “The science of life is, ‘You got to pay the bills, you got to do this, you got to do that.’ The art becomes, ‘How do you do that?’”

Waterson’s advice?

“Keep saying yes to stuff and challenging yourself, and there’s no end in sight to what you do. You can do what you want,” he said. “It’s a very difficult word to actually utter because it comes with commitment and it comes with challenge … And whether it’s a good experience or not, it can be education.”

Visit Jack Waterson and Future Music at 5112 York Blvd. And if he asks you something, consider saying yes.

Contact Oliver Otake at ootake@oxy.edu