Remembering Charlie Watts. An interview from 2001 by Chris Parker

Chris Parker writes:

When Charlie Watts appeared with his Tentet at Ronnie Scott’s in June 2001, I interviewed him on 5 April of that year so that he could give the readers of Jazz at Ronnie Scott’s a preview of what the band (Dave Green, Brian Lemon, Anthony Kerr, Luís Jardim, Evan Parker, Julian Argüelles, Peter King, Henry Lowther, Gerard Presencer, Mark Nightingale) were going to be playing during their residency.

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Charlie Watts in 2010. Photo credit Poiseon Bild & Text / Creative Commons

He was absolutely charming, elegant and thoughtful, everything he said imbued not only with sly, self-deprecating wit, but also with his deep passion for, and knowledge of, jazz. Below are some highlights:

The Tentet: “Pete King [club manager] and I had a meeting, and I said I didn’t want to do what I did last time – because with the Stones we always do what we did last time – cos this is fun for me. We’ve got [lists band members]. On paper, it’s a pretty good – potentially a fabulous – blowing band. Without me, of course: I’ve got to try and play it all with them. Because Ronnie’s is a great place to play, but very exposed; the audience hears everything you do, so there’s nowhere to hide, you’re not behind the balloon!

“Pete [King, saxophonist] and Gerard will do the arrangements, and I’ll get Brian on it. I’m not Gil Evans, so I don’t have a sound going, just these records that I play. I’ve got a couple of things that I’ve asked Pete to do – percussion things from my album – so we got Luís in; he’s Brazilian [actually, he’s Portuguese, from Madeira], so we’ve now got a Chano Pozo thing, but I didn’t want him just for two numbers, I want him to play timbales, be as much there as I am, so it’s going to be an Afro-Cuban-type band. A bit open, too, with Evan and Julian, and Henry’s also a very free player – having said that, they all play everything, so … And we’ve got the best bass player, best timekeeper in Europe, plus Brian Lemon, who’s fabulous. What happens when we finish the head – Evan could go anywhere, so that’s gonna be fun. I’m worried it’ll be a bit too good for me to keep up, that’s the problem I have. It’ll be a bit like Sonny Greer doing a jam session; I’m locked in to the Rolling Stones and I love it – like playing Ellington: you’ve lived it all your life and it’s like playing forty years of this. The Stones do put on a bit of a show. I don’t really like being a bandleader much, but once the thrill of ‘Ooh, it’s ’im’ is over, it’ll be fine.

“This is the most adventurous one I’ve done; the big band had everyone I loved – Bill Eyden, Stan Tracey, Jimmy Deuchar etc. – tenors were Courtney Pine, Bobby Wellins, Skid, Don Weller. Huge camaraderie thing. Went to the US, had trouble keeping them together. This is closer, more stretched out. The mix of players is interesting. On paper, they don’t come any better: Gerard is phenomenal: I put him in as Dizzy in the Bird things, and being Bunny Berrigan in the Nat Cole stuff with the singer. I wonder where he learnt it all by 19 – I was 40 when I learnt all that! And having Pete King do ‘Just Friends’ – it’s like having Bird there. Really, you should have a band together on the road for six months before you go into Ronnie’s, but this doesn’t mean that the people I’ve asked to play with me won’t come up trumps, cos that’s how good they are.”

After this preview of the residency, we talked about the forthcoming Ken Burns documentary, which he’d seen, so he was keen to tell me what I was in for when it came to UK television: “Up till Bird, jazz musicians would put shows on. Since then, it’s become Miles with his back to the audience. The series is fabulous [detailing this transition]. You and I – I would hope – should know it all, but it’s fabulous to see all these things moving: the Savoy ballroom dancers, with Chick Webb. And Gary Giddins is great. Wynton’s a bit characterless, to be super-critical – it’s a bit like Internet teaching; he’s not Fats Navarro – but he does a great job of explaining Louis Armstrong, and he points out how great Bubber Miley is. Once you’re in [to the series] you can’t stop: you can see Davie Tough in the Benny Goodman stuff. It’s a great job: a bit Black, a bit angry, a bit American, but …”

We then talked about the difference between playing rock with the Stones and jazz with his other projects: “The Rolling Stones is a singer-based band. Singers love the time – even Georgie Fame, who’s a musician who sings – from a drum point of view. The Stones are a blues band, and in the blues, once you’ve got the groove, that’s it. In jazz, it’s got a lot of air in it, it moves around, and I don’t really do that, so [the gig’s] gonna be interesting. The problem’s the same, tho’: losing the time’s the same in both … Jazz has grown into a terribly complex music – whereas it was Louis Armstrong being terribly complex, but the the rhythm going djum djum djum, now the rhythm is [for instance] Dave Weckl, who’s doing what Louis did on the top line and his foot’s doing the other thing. It’s grown a lot, and for a listener, it’s fascinating, but to play the stuff! Martin Drew’s a whole other thing – you tend to think ‘Is Mornington [Lockett] better than Tubby [Hayes] was?’ They’re different. Clark [Tracey]’s another great player.”

We then discussed his route into jazz: “Dave Green’s prefab’s back door was next to ours. He had a tea chest, and I had an upside-down banjo with brushes. From there, I’d play him jazz records, the first jazz records (excluding Earl Bostic’s ‘Flamingo’; my uncle bought that). I’d love that alto/vibes sound, but I’m into Bird and Milt Jackson too. Then David got a huge German bass. My first record was ‘Walkin’ Shoes’ by Gerry Mulligan. I wanted to be Chico Hamilton. Then I saw Phil Seamen and Tony Kinsey. Phil had a great personality, but Kinsey and Allan Ganley, and Bill Eyden were lovely players. David, by the time he was 18, was at Ronnie’s with Ben Webster. Then I went with Alexis [Korner] and Cyril Davies, who was Charlie Parker on a mouth organ. I’d never heard that sort of thing: the blues to me was Bird playing slow, which it is, of course. I’d never heard Chicago blues or rural blues. But I had this thing behind me – Ginger [Baker], bless him – so I moved over. No one knew what R&B was – it was Louis Jordan. Alexis was a great bandleader, with great ears. Chris Barber was right behind Alexis then, used to put him on at the Marquee. I used to go and see the Johnny Dankworth Orchestra, or the Joe Harriott group with Shake Keane with Bobby Orr – Alexis put the dance thing back into the Marquee. I’ve got the greatest respect for Ginger, but the polls in the 1960s which put me and Ringo at the top, with Buddy Rich at 8, and Jo Jones at 10! When Ginger was voted in there, he deserved it – he played fabulous, like an African. And Alexis saw this. I was in the studio, working, and I didn’t give it up. But that was something else: people came to look as well as listen.

“It does annoy me when people ignore jazz – Mick’ll say ‘We need a tenor player’ and I’ll say ‘Sonny Rollins’ – and he’s on our record next minute! And on the last tour we had Joshua Redman – we did a TV show with him – so in that I crusade a bit. I don’t mind dropping names – if someone asks me who’s a good drummer, I rarely mention rock drummers. I say ‘Kenny Clarke, Sonny Greer …’.”

“Mick Taylor turned me on to John McLaughlin and took me to see Tony Williams’s Lifetime with Larry Young. I’d seen Tony with Miles, but this was great. He also turned me on to ‘Gymnopédies’ by Satie. He’s been dumbed down now, on ads, like those compilation albums, everything laid out for you, without the morbid bits; I like the morbid bits! Kenny Clarke is my favourite drummer – you’d sit near that ride [cymbal] and he had that touch. Kenny invented that [mimes cymbal strokes]. I don’t think like a Dave Weckl or a Jon Hiseman. I sit behind that guy doing this [mimes cymbal strokes again]. Kenny’s Fred Astaire – the way he plays and looks. Davie Tough is another of those subtle people.

Then, after a brief chat about his relationships with the other Stones (in which he wryly told me that if you wanted advice about abstaining from drugs you went to Keith, and if you wanted advice about maintaining relationships you went to Mick, they both being experts in their particular fields), I left him looking through a pile of complimentary jazz CDs he’d been sent, so that he’d have something to play on the journey back to his horse farm in Devon. I must say I’d love to have gone with him … A lovely man …

LINK: A tribute to Charlie Watts by T Bruce Wittet

4 replies »

  1. Chris has responded: “As far as I remember, he was a little concerned about the series’ occasional neglect of white jazz musicians (Europeans especially, but also Keith Jarrett, Joe Lovano etc.), something that was commented on by several observers at the time…”

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