JAZZ : A Stone’s Throw From Rock : Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, who once dreamed of playing jazz sax, indulges his passion with a tribute to Charlie Parker
It was odd enough seeing the Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts on stage without Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, but even more unusual was that the heralded drummer was holding a saxophone.
A private passion revealed?
Yes, but not for the sax.
Watts was at the Blue Note, a celebrated club in Greenwich Village, because of his longstanding affection for jazz.
Where other members of the Rolling Stones reminisce fondly about spending their teens marveling over the records of such blues and R&B; greats as Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters, Watts grew up enthralled by a different set of musicians: jazz stars like Chico Hamilton, Shelly Manne and Charlie Parker.
Watts was on stage at the Blue Note with four other British jazz musicians to promote a book and record project that he put together to salute one of those heroes--the late saxophone great Parker. The set, titled “From One Charlie,” has been released by Continuum Records, a New Jersey-based jazz label.
The drummer was at the microphone with a sax at the start of the recent performance in which he acted out a scene in the book, where Parker is just learning to express himself on the instrument.
After a few ragged notes, Watts retreated to the comfort of his customary drums and Peter King, a respected jazz saxophonist, took his place at the microphone.
As Gene Seymour noted in his Newsday review of the performance, jazz purists would normally be highly skeptical of a famous rocker delivering a suite of tunes dedicated to someone of the stature of Parker.
But Seymour praised both Watts’ “legendary sure-handed sense of rhythmic containment” and his “genuine reverence for Parker.” He called the brief set heartfelt and “surprisingly cogent.”
That respect for jazz was obvious during an interview two days after the Blue Note performance.
“I still remember the record that turned me on to jazz,” said Watts, a reserved, unassuming man with a tendency toward stylish but conservative suits rather than torn jeans or T-shirts.
“It was Earl Bostic’s recording of ‘Flamingo.’ My uncle, who lived with us, bought the record and I just loved the sound of the saxophone.
“I was probably about 12 at the time and I remember rolling up some old newspapers into the shape of a saxophone and painting them orange so that I could stand in front of the mirror and pretend to be playing.”
Another record, however, soon sent him in another musical direction.
“As it happened, Chico Hamilton was playing drums on the first record I bought,” he said. “I can’t really explain how the music made me feel. It was just something with the sound of the brushes. But I just fell in love with it and I think I threw away my paper saxophone the same day.”
For the last three decades with the Stones, Watts, 50, steadfastly avoided interviews--partly out of shyness, but also because he had little interest in all the questions about the Stones.
After years of being hounded, Watts would even be testy at times when unsuspecting writers aimed a question his way.
So it was disarming to see him talking so freely as he sat with King in a hotel suite. He was relaxed because the topic wasn’t the Stones, but jazz.
Watts’ eyebrows went up, after the story about the paper saxophone, when he heard King say he also used to stand in front of the mirror pretending to be a hero: Elvis Presley.
“Really?” he said, looking at King. “It’s funny, but I must say that the first time I saw Elvis was in the middle page of the Daily Mirror and I thought he looked awful.”
Leaning forward as if confiding a deep secret, he added:
“I’ll tell you who turned me on to Elvis. It was Keith Richards. My group (of friends) used to listen to jazz, not pop. It was sort of an elitist thing, I guess, which I dislike terribly now.
“But I used to just think Elvis was awful until Keith, and then I began to appreciate him. I fell in love with D. J. Fontana, who was Elvis’ drummer in the early days. He was a wonderful, fantastic player.”
Watts--who was raised in a middle-class environment in suburban Wembley--had two interests as a youth: art and jazz records. He studied art at school and listened to music at home and at the house of his best pal, David Greene, who is a respected bass player in England and who joined Watts on stage at the Blue Note.
Watts attended art school and got a job as a graphic designer at an ad agency, but he continued to play drums on an informal basis at night. In 1961, he combined his two interests by doing a series of drawings that told the story of Charlie Parker, but with a bird as the main character.
It was a “kids’ book,” as Watts defines it, that tells about the little bird ( Bird was Parker’s nickname) finding he has a unique gift and soaring to great heights, only to eventually go through bad, painful times. Parker--one of jazz’s greatest soloists--was in his mid-30s when he died in 1955 after years of struggle with drugs and alcohol.
After the Stones became popular, a publisher approached Watts about turning the drawings into a book. Titled “Ode to a High-Flying Bird,” it had a limited distribution in England in 1964.
Tim Brack, president of Continuum Records, approached Watts last year about reissuing the book as part of a box set that would also include a record.
Watts felt there was no point in his trying to re-create Parker’s own music so long as that music was still available on record. But he did like the idea of new music based on the book and Parker’s style.
So he asked Peter King to write the music that is featured on the 28-minute disc that is part of the “From One Charlie” package. Besides King and Greene, Watts is joined on the record by two other British musicians: Gerard Presencer on trumpet and Brian Lemon on piano.
“The idea isn’t to compete with Charlie Parker,” Watts said, “but to demonstrate our gratitude to him and to maybe help (coax) a few people who might know my work with the Stones to listen to Parker.
“I think sometimes that pop or rock fans feel intimidated by jazz and that keeps them from hearing a lot of marvelous music. I hope this record is a kind of a bridge for them.”
M arch 17, 1962. That’s the date, according to one Rolling Stones historian, that changed Watts’ life.
Watts was playing drums in Blues Incorporated, a band led by Alexis Korner that became the focal point for a set of young musicians interested in the blues.
One of those attracted to the band’s show in London on that night 29 years ago was guitarist Brian Jones, who not only eventually got on stage with Korner, but invited Watts to join a band he was putting together with Keith Richards and Mick Jagger.
“I was playing in three bands when Brian asked me if I’d like to play with the Stones,” Watts recalled. “In those days, bands were like a three-week gig, so you were always looking for the next group to be in. You’re 20 and you don’t see the end of next week, do you?”
He found himself spending more and more time, however, with the Stones, rehearsing at night and just sitting around in the day listening to records and talking about the blues. He didn’t think that he was taking a dramatic step away from jazz because the blues scene in London at that time was interwoven with the jazz scene, especially in the music of someone like Korner.
He still remembers that his greatest thrill on the Stones’ first trip to America was going to Birdland, the famous New York jazz club named in Parker’s honor, and seeing composer-bassist Charles Mingus.
“That was it for me,” he said. “All the rest was work. I thought I had died and gone to heaven, though, when I walked into Birdland.”
Watts has made a few steps back to jazz, including a few live dates five years ago with a big band that he organized. Mostly, however, he has been seen and heard all these years only with the Stones.
Does he ever wish he could have spent more of his life playing jazz?
“Well, I don’t know,” he said, caught off guard by the question.
The gray-haired drummer poured himself a cup of coffee from the room service tray, using the time to frame an answer.
“Who could ever complain about being in the Rolling Stones?” he replied finally. “Regardless of what kind of music you are playing, you are still (drawing on) the same emotions. I think of (the differences between styles of music) as the difference between languages.
“Whether you are speaking English or German, it’s the same person speaking. The same with music. You may work a little differently because of the style. In rock, for instance, it’s important for the drums to hold the beat, where in jazz you have a bit more freedom to move around. But you are drawing upon the same emotions and techniques. You bring your own personality to whatever you play.”
Watts paused again, looking at a group of jazz photo books he had piled on a table the way thousands of fans and musicians might have piled Stones photo books over the years.
“This whole thing about classifying music (by category) is only useful when you walk into a record store and someone can say, ‘Oh, jazz? That’s over there.’ The rest of the time it’s the quality of the music that is important,” he said, resuming the thought.
“To me, James Brown at his best is as great as Duke Ellington at his best. I may personally admire what Ellington did more, but the truth is there is so much good music in lots of styles that you are limiting yourself if you only listen to jazz or rock or pop or classical.”