||From today's Times
April 02, 2004
Rolling without rock
By John Bungey
Charlie Watts is going back to jazz
MIDDAY in Soho, and amid the gentle gloom of an empty Ronnie Scott’s club Charlie Watts is pondering what his career has been about.
“I s’pose I’ve seen 40 years of Mick’s bum running around in front of me. It’s what you play to a lot of the time.”
He ponders. “Well, one of the biggest compliments I can have as a drummer is that someone is dancing to you. ’Cos the drums should dance and they should make you want to dance. Even with John Coltrane — at his most out there — with Elvin Jones on drums, it was the sound of Africa rolling in.
“I can’t dance but if someone here” — he glances around the venerable club — “starts dancing when my band is playing, it’s the best thing. You can’t ask for more. Well, except money, I suppose. But that’s beyond money.”
Elegantly suited, craggily jawed, silver hair slicked back, the sharpest 62-year-old in town is chatting about his upcoming residency at the Soho club. The prospect of swapping the Rolling Stones and their comfort blanket of ancient hits for the uncertainties of a hairy blast of bebop fills Watts with a mixture of excitement and terror. Excitement because the tunes of Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonius Monk were his soundtrack as he grew up in a prefab in Wembley; dread because Watts is supposed to lead this ten-piece band.
There’s no hiding behind Jagger’s bum now, and with the virtuosic likes of Henry Lowther and Gerard Presencer on trumpet and Evan Parker and Pete King on, respectively, tenor and alto saxes, there are standards to match. “Mind you,” he chuckles, “if I’m in charge and something’s too hard I can just say we’re not doing it.”
And this time around the terrors are fewer — most of this line-up played together in 2001. One day of rehearsal at the Royal Academy will be enough, he says; “they’re that good”. But being boss still has its irritations. Having pencilled in more jazz gigs this summer he has just learnt that he is supposed to be making a Stones album. But he adds, with a wry laugh: “I wouldn’t bother to write that; with them you never quite know.”
It’s one of the ironies of Watts’s career that he only went into rock because he wasn’t quite good enough to make it on the jazz scene of early Sixties London (a young Ginger Baker nabbed the best gigs). Instead he threw his lot in with some gangly kids called the Rolling Stones, whose rhythm ’n’ blues music did as much as anyone’s to kill off his beloved jazz as a popular music form. Who was to know that the wild boys of Sixties beat music would one day mutate into national treasures? “I couldn’t have made a career out of jazz,” says Watts. “I was never good enough and now there aren’t the gigs. So many older jazz musicians have a money hang-up because you get so good at what you are doing and you can only get £100 a night.”
Instead Watts has had to settle for a 17th-century Devon manor house as home and, according to the Sunday Times Rich List, a £70 million fortune. His long marriage to Shirley is a beacon of rock’n’roll monogamy.
But there’s no hint of self-satisfaction — he’s always been the avuncular everyman among the alpha males of the Stones. At a Stones show the biggest cheer of the night generally comes when Jagger introduces “Charlie on drums”. Does anybody dislike him? “Well, not to my face . . . Taxi drivers always say they’re fans.”
But he is determinedly modest about his talents. Drum solos are out. “I don’t like ’em. I do drum interludes, more rhythm than solos. I can’t count. I’m not good at counting.”
Not, he says, that playing Mick’n’Keef’s tunes has been a soft option. What then are the hard Stones songs? “Oh blimey, they all terrify me. The music scares me. The drums scare the life out of me. Can’t You Hear Me Knocking: it’s great if it hits the groove. It can be fantastic but some nights it’s a real struggle.
“There’s a stupid little thing called Factory Girl, which again is wonderful if you get it right, but get it wrong and you are on your own.”
He shudders at the memory of the Stones suddenly deciding that because they were in Elvis’s home town of Memphis they would play Hound Dog.
“Great drum part but if you miss a beat everyone hears it. And everyone in the audience thinks they can play it. No . . . a nightmare.”
But Watts seems happy that the day job will be continuing with more Stones shows next year. “On the road we all have our little routines. Keith lives like he is at home — same music, books. Mick is always working — e-mailing, on the phone. We live in a bubble. Getting on the plane (the band’s customised 727 jet) is like getting on the Tube to go to work.”
Watts’s own little routines incorporate his famous fastidiousness — the sock collection sorted by colour — and a habit of drawing each hotel bed.
Inevitably for a man his age there’s a tendency to nostalgia — about vintage cars and vintage tailoring (he owns much of both) and the musical greats of the past. Kenny Clarke was his role model. “When I was learning to play drums, I wanted to be a black American playing in New York. I thought that was the highest level you could achieve.”
He’s less keen on innovation — electronic drums, karaoke pop or, indeed, the compact Times. He bemoans the lack of characters in jazz. Wynton Marsalis is “a college student, serious. He’s a terrific player. But he hasn’t lived the life like Miles did.”
Did Watts ever meet the notoriously volatile Miles Davis? “Yes, and he frightened the life out of me. I was with Mick. I think he liked Mick and envied him because of the girls. But it was more: ‘What are you lot doing nicking our (black) music and making more money than us?’ ” Jagger, not known as a jazz cat, may well make the Watts shows. “I’m not sure but I spoke to him the other week about it. Rather enviably he was in Trinidad on the second day of the second Test and he was sitting with Ian Botham. The only nice thing for me was that it was raining.”
Charlie seems to be getting loquacious in his old age
||this guy is fantastic...period!!
Having pencilled in more jazz gigs this summer he has just learnt that he is supposed to be making a Stones album. But he adds, with a wry laugh: “I wouldn’t bother to write that; with them you never quite know.”
Great interview! That one above is the only point that I didn't like But I suppose it's nothing too serious to worry about, just Charlie keeping his feet on the ground with the crazy people he's dealing with
Has anyone here ever caught him live in one of those jazz gigs? It'd be very interesting.
||great read - I felt like I was in the same room with him. God bless Charlie!
||Is there a classier guy on the planet?
Charlie is quite simply the bomb.