[Author's Note: I got to talk to Charlie Watts for a half an hour and he was one of the most generous and talkative interviews I've ever had. Definitely a career highlight.]
Charlie Watts is one of the most famous rock and roll
drummers of all time but his first love was jazz. In the early
‘80s Watts returned to his first passion with an allstar big
band and, when the Rolling Stones’ schedule permits,
organizes a new project a little more swinging than his day
job. This month he appears at Lincoln Center with his
newest project, the The ABC&D of Boogie Woogie, which
has him swinging behind a modern day Meade Lux Lewis/
Albert Ammons duo consisting of pianists Axel
Zwingenberger and Ben Waters.
The New York City Jazz Record: The British jazz scene
was thriving when you were musically growing up in
the late ‘50s and as an early 20-year old in the early
‘60s. Which British jazz musicians influenced you?
Charlie Watts: Phil Seaman, Jimmy Deuchar…there’s a
whole crowd of people. Half of them were in an
orchestra I had, a big band I brought over to New York
[in the mid ‘80s]. But there were many of them. The
guy [Dave Green] who is playing bass with me was my
childhood neighbor and we used to listen to jazz. He
used to play with a lot of those people.
TNYCJR: How close were you to trying to make a
career out of being a jazz musician yourself?
CW: Not very. I used to play the drums and the only
drumming I knew was jazz drumming. Eventually I
was asked to play with various R&B bands but it’s not
an easy adventure trying to be a jazz musician. You
live on the end of a telephone. I was pleased to be in a
band. I’m not really a virtuoso. I prefer to be a band
TNYCJR: Does your approach to the drums change
when you are in front of 200 people rather than 20,000?
CW: Only volume, really. It’s about the only difference
for me. I play exactly the same either way. You just fit
in with what’s going on. You hope.
TNYCJR: You’ve expressed a distaste for touring but
does your interest change when you are leading your
band? Or is a hotel room a hotel room?
CW: I never had time to do anything outside of the
Stones things. Touring was constant and it got on your
nerves really. I never had time to do anything at home.
I’m so used to it. It seems easier now than it used to be.
Our tours used to go on so long. They would become
an epic on its own but it’s turned to naught now.
TNYCJR: What jazz drummers influenced you and, as
you were growing up, what American jazz drummers
do you recall hearing live? And who left the biggest
CW: The first guy I ever heard play was Chico
Hamilton. I’ve always loved what he does. From
records, you know. Davey Tough, Big Sid Catlett. The
man I used to see in Paris was Kenny Clarke who I
really loved but the ambassador of jazz drumming
throughout his life is Roy Haynes. I think Roy Haynes
is the most amazing man to be playing like he does at
his age with his skill and everything. He’s never played
in a bad band. Every artist that has asked him to play
has been for one of their great bands, from Lester
Young to Charlie Parker, Stan Getz. The band he played
in with Stan Getz was one of the greats. Haynes is
someone everyone should admire.
There were a lot of guys when I was a kid that I
was lucky to meet. They’ve been very friendly to me
like Jake Hanna. Jake was fabulous and Stan Levey.
Stan Levey was one of those real admirable guys. He
was something else really.
Shelly Manne was a great influence as well. One of
the guys I used to see in London was Joe Morello. Elvin
Jones and Chico Hamilton came to see me play a jazz
gig once. They’re just having a good time and you have
TNYCJR: In 1964 you released a children’s book about
Charlie Parker, Ode to a Highflying Bird. Did you have
any idea that copies would eventually sell for $3,000?
CW: During the early ‘60s I used to work in a studio.
To get a job you had to have a CV - a folder with all
your work. That was just me making an excuse to draw
and write a thing so that I could show it to people.
That’s what I do. About two years after the Rolling
Stones started going John Lennon brought A Spaniard
in the Works out. They asked if I wanted to put it out
[Ode] and I told them, “If you do it exactly like I did it
then yes.” And it sold. And then about 20 years after
that a guy called Mark Hayward wanted to put it out
and he said put some music with it. And I said “no, no,
no, I’m not going to do that” but we got a quintet
together anyway. Quite a good replica actually.
I’ve got the original original and the reprint that
Mark Hayward did and it’s copied exactly. Difficult to
tell the difference. I hope the one that sold was an
It’s for children. It’s to help children learn about
Charlie Parker. I didn’t realize about all those sorts of
things but given time. I have programs signed by
Coleman Hawkins - they’re worth a 1,000 pounds
today but for you to say to Coleman Hawkins in 1942
that this would be worth that he would have laughed.
It’s a bit like painting. The artist sells it for 10 quid
and then ten years later they sell for 4,000 dollars. The
painter doesn’t get the other 3,990. It’s all collectors
really and I’m one of them. I collect jazz records and I
pay a fortune for some of them.
I collect drums too. I have lots of guys’ drums. I
have one of Joe Morello’s drum kits. Sonny Greer. I
have some things of Stan Levey. I got Jake’s snare
drum. Big Sid Catlett’s cymbals are recently obtained.
They’re just lovely things to have.
TNYCJR: When you would tour the States did you
make a point of sneaking away and hearing live jazz?
Do you spend a lot of time in New York?
CW: Oh yeah. Always did when I first came here. My
shaggy dog period. That was the first thing I did in
New York. Me and [Rolling Stones co-founder] Ian
Stewart would go to Birdland and the Hickory House.
Then I went to the Metropole. I saw Gene Krupa there
with a quartet. We hit all the clubs really. I first saw
Roy Haynes somewhere like that.
When I go to LA I’m very lucky. Since 1970 I
became very close to [drummer] Jim Keltner. We do
sort of drum weeks and look for people playing. Once
we caught Roy Haynes at Catalina’s and then went
over to see Elvin Jones at the Jazz Bakery in one night.
TNYCJR: You put out a record with Jim Keltner. How
did that collaboration come about?
CW: It was an accident. It was never to be anything.
The Rolling Stones were recording and we took the
whole of whatever studio it was. Well, we didn’t take it
over. It just so happened we were using all the rooms
in the place. There was a room there not being used
and Jim and I went in there. He always asked me to
play on his electronic things. We had [drummer] Kenny
Aronoff knocking around. It just grew out of that.
I should have taken more time and done it properly
but it was never meant to be anything. I took it to Paris
with me. I was waiting to start a tour. I got this guy in
Paris, Phillipe Chauveau. He started playing around
with it a lot. He put all sorts of samples of things on. It
was just Jim’s electronics stuff and me overdubbing on
them. Some of it was live. The Latin stuff was live.
TNYCJR: You guys honored a wide variety of
drummers. How did you settle on particular drummers
like Max Roach, Art Blakey, Billy Higgins, etc.?
CW: When we were recording we had no way of saying
what song it was. We were just talking and started
naming my favorite drummers. If you got to call it
“Stormy Weather”, you might as well call it Shelly
Manne. I thought it was a way to get the drummers
names on the label. Give the drummer some.
One planned was Elvin’s suite. The other ones
were Airto, Tony Williams. That was the week Tony
died. Jim was on his megaphone period. Mick [Jagger]
was mucking about on the Rhodes and we started
doing this. Jim read an article on his megaphone that
Tony had written. That was really for Tony. The rest are
TNYCJR: Whose idea was it to get Sonny Rollins to
play the saxophone solo on the Rolling Stones’ Tattoo
CW: That was Mick. Mick asked me. We’ve always
used saxophone players. Mick asked “who could we
use to overdub a couple of tracks?” I said the best
saxophonist alive. This was the late ‘70s but he still is.
“But you’ll never get him,” I told him. “It’s Sonny
Rollins! The god of gods!” Sure enough when we were
in New York, Sonny said yes. My only disappointment
was that we didn’t do it live. Since then I’ve sort of
spoken to him. He’s a lovely, lovely man. A real
gentleman, Sonny Rollins. And still for me in the same
way Roy Haynes is, he has a terrific sort of wow. An
amazing talent and terrific sort of dignity. I love them.
Both of them.
TNYCJR: Your recent CD project (The ABC&D of Boogie
Woogie: Live in Paris) shows you’ve been recently
playing with some boogie woogie piano players. How
does your approach to that sound change versus a
CW: Dave Green is the bass player, me in the middle
and two grand pianos. It’s great. Very unusual. People
don’t play that anymore. They don’t play it as a way of
piano. [In the Rolling Stones] Mick and Keith [Richards]
write the songs. Here most of it is jamming. It keeps
you on the edge. Some of it is kind of predictable and
you’ve done it but we never rehearse anything. I never
know what they are going to play. It’s not very
professional but it is more fun. The Rolling Stones is
enough being on it all the time for me. Mind you,
playing with Keith is fun. But when this band gets
going it’s like a steam train. That was one of the things.
In the late ‘30s when it was kind of developed it was
fantastic. It’s just swing. It’s swing all the time, which
is really nice to do.
Charlie Watts @ NYC Jazz Record