A Wider Embrace
Trevor Watts in Tampere

Bill Shoemaker


An Interview with Trevor Watts
5 November, 2005
Tampere Jazz Happening
Tampere, Finland

Bill Shoemaker: It’s often cited in articles and histories about British jazz and improvised music that you, John Stevens and Paul Rutherford met each other through an unlikely party, The Royal Air Force.

Trevor Watts: In 1959.

Shoemaker: But, I’ve never come across any pre-history, so to speak, about you before that, and I can only assume that when you met Stevens and Rutherford, you were ready for them, aesthetically and technically. You had a sensibility about the music going into this, and I’m wondering how and when it came together.

Watts: It came together long before that. I would have to start at the beginning, really, because jazz was always there for me, it’s always been in the house. I was born in 1939, so I listened to all that music in the ‘40s, because my father lived in Canada and the States in the late 1920s and early ‘30s, and he brought a lot of stuff back from there. I heard a lot of swing in the house on the wind-up gramophone: Artie Shaw, Bob Crosby, Duke Ellington. When my parents used to go out, they told my older brother we could have an orange and play the gramophone records, so we played this music all the time, because it was the only music in the house. Of course, in the area of England I come from – the working class industrial north – there wasn’t much music in the community itself. I only know that these records had an influence on me with hindsight, because you take what’s in the house for granted, even though we were probably among the few people who had a lot of this music in their house at the time.

It wasn’t until I failed all of my exams and left school at 15 and had to take a job – you can either work in a factory or whatever; I worked in a bakery – that I decided, I can’t do this all my life. I was already saying to myself, I have to get out of here. It had nothing to do with music. It was a romantic idea that things could be better than this. That’s when I began to think about music, as a way out. So, my parents scraped up some money and bought me my first alto saxophone, a silver Beuscher Underslung, the one with the octave key underneath the crook on top, which Charlie Parker used to play. He didn’t play this actual one, of course. I wanted to learn to play the sounds off these recordings, so that’s what I spent my time doing. No guidance; I’m completely self-taught. At one point, I thought, I’ve got to learn to read; you have to know how to read. So, I bought a book and taught myself how to read and write music. It had a slightly adverse effect on the aural thing. I found it more difficult to pick things up aurally, because it’s a different part of the brain you use for reading.

I really started seriously playing the horn at 17. That’s when I started to get some level of expertise on the horn. I was 20 when I met Paul and John at the Royal Air Force School of Music. By then, I hadn’t really played with anybody. I was just practicing all these things I had heard off recordings subsequent to what I had heard of my father’s record collection. By then, the LP had been invented, and I was listening to Stan Getz, Buck Clayton – everything. I got particularly keen on what you could call Black American music, which my father liked quite a lot, so it was already in the house. So, we began to try playing together. I think John had been playing on biscuit tins. I think Paul was the most advanced of us at that time. He was playing in a trad jazz band in a pub in London; a place called The Tiger’s Head in Lee Green in South London. We used to go along and listen, but I didn’t have the skill then to play with them. Neither did John, really. And, we were buying Down Beat magazines and stuff like that. There was a lot of Marty Paich stuff in Down Beat. I’d bring along these Marty Paich things I found in Down Beat and we’d get together and practice them. Then we’d try to do our own stuff, based on standard materials, making odd arrangements, say, with a bar of 3/4 in it, where there wasn’t one before, trying to make it interesting for ourselves, not just to copy something else.

That’s got to be the beginning of it, the fact that we were all looking for something. None of us had a music education in terms of schooling. You had to cobble it together yourself. That makes you stand on your own feet, in a sense. There were some very interesting characters in that RAF music school. There was a guy called Scales Hollingsworth, who got his name because he could play every scale under the sun. But, he couldn’t actually play music. That was strange; you start to learn all these scales, and then you learn it’s not about just playing these scales. It’s about getting something from the inside out, which can be done in many different ways, which we found out later on.

We were all posted to Germany together for three years. Incidentally, I was the only one who really had to do military service. John and Paul needn’t have done it, but I had to sign on for more years in order to be in the band and learn music – supposed to learn music; we didn’t learn much, really. The guy who was supposed to give me lessons did his shopping instead on Saturday mornings, which suited me. I just practiced jazz. In the forces, most of the time, your band practices are one hour in the morning. The rest of the day is yours. Being in Germany instead of England, you could go out at any time of night, so that led to a lot of practicing and playing in the afternoon and evening, and then you could still go out at 10:00. We were based near Cologne, so the Kurt Edelhagen band were the radio band, and they would have musicians like J.J. Johnson guesting and Carl Drevo, Jimmy Deuchar, and Derek Humble, who were all very nice and encouraging. We met people like Alex von Schlippenbach during that period, when he was trying to play like Bill Evans. We had a jazz cellar where we could experiment and do our own things. Derek Humble and some of the others would come down and play. He got John to play with J. J. Johnson then.

Shoemaker: Were you, Stevens, and Rutherford still working you’re way through mainstream jazz at this point, or were you already looking to the new music of the day – Coltrane, Ornette and the rest?

Watts: I was in Germany when I first heard Ornette’s Tomorrow Is The Question. It was Rutherford who would get the newest Coltrane or Ornette recording as they came out. He would go down to the big shop in Cologne. I got it, he would say when he came back, and we’d check it out. I had a tape recorder in my billet and I recorded radio programs – the music they played was a little more advanced in Germany than in England at that time – so that’s why I heard a lot of the newer things. We went to see Miles Davis during his green trumpet period with Trane. It was a triple bill with a full Count Basie band and Stan Getz. We saw Eric Dolphy. We were exposed to so much. But, when I first heard Ornette, I thought it was incredibly fascinating. I remember feeling absolutely fantastic listening to him. It had this beauty about it. But, at the same time, I was thinking, How do I get there? But, long before then, my first influence was Ernie Henry, the lead alto with the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band. He made about three recordings with people like Kenny Dorham that I bought. What I liked about him is that he had his own individual way of phrasing that just caught my ear. That’s why I liked Eric Dolphy, the angular-ness of his playing.

You can’t listen to all that and not try to do something yourself, because that’s what the whole language is telling you. I was quite lucky because the message I got from Charlie Parker was, Be yourself. That’s what I took in; but thousands of saxophone players have fallen over each other trying to sound like Bird. That’s such a waste of time, really, trying to take on that mantle, which you never will. I can see why one would want to study Charlie Parker’s solos on a technical level. It’s a great thing to do. But, playing them makes them cliches, and they weren’t cliches when Bird first played them. And, the more you play them, the harder it is to get yourself out of them once you decide you want to do something else. I still have a little bit in there.

Shoemaker: Did you have an articulated consensus that you needed to take the music somewhere new, or was the need for progress an unspoken given?

Watts: There definitely was the consensus that we had to go somewhere else with our music. But, we only had the conventional tools at the time. We didn’t know how to make this step, so we experimented. We would hit on something and talk about it. There were things that didn’t work, and we’d talk about why, and there were things that we didn’t know would have any value or not. But, the part of my mentality that said I didn’t want to be stuck in this – mainstream jazz – came from outside of music, and I think it was the same with John and Paul. Music represented a way out, freedom. I always wanted my own freedom, somewhere where I felt, Yeah, this is what I want to do. I have to be in a situation where I feel right about it. If I don’t, it’s time to move on, basically.

Shoemaker: Is it correct to say that this creative process between you accelerates once you’re back in London?

Watts: Yeah. We were freer then. We got out of that straightjacket of being in the armed forces.
The question was how do we all live In London? I’m not a Londoner, so I have to get a flat. Paul could still live at home with his parents in Black Heath. John lived near London. He was married than and doing cleaning jobs. John immediately started getting work at Ronnie Scott’s, playing with Tubby Hayes and people like that, the straight-ahead time thing. Good players. He was doing a lot of that, but Paul and I never went into that area of music. I’m sure Paul had his own reasons, but my reasons were that it was a very cold, unforgiving place to be. It was all about what you had to do. I said, Fuck that, I’ll do what I want to do. That means you’re not really working. Paul also didn’t go down that road. I don’t think he was into it, making a career out of playing “proper jazz.” So, Paul and I stuck together more at that point. I used to go to his house and we experimented with whole tone scales, tone rows, quirky melodies and all kinds of stuff. Some of it ended up on that first SME recording, Challenge. Paul and I got ourselves a gig at the Peanuts Club, and John came along to listen and got enthused by what we did. I want to get back into that, he said afterwards. That’s when he came back into the fold. There was a good 6 or 7 months where we were apart in ‘63-‘64, because he had alternatives, and we didn’t. By focusing on the things we were doing, we worked very little, so it wasn’t easy in that respect.

Paul and I joined a band called the New Jazz Orchestra with Jon Hiseman on drums, Ian Carr, and others, which was fairly experimental in a lot of ways. Not radically out there, but things that sound like "Milestones,” pentatonic scale things, things like that. That’s when we began to think that we had to find a place to play. John started using his vast amounts of energy to find a place. If he wanted to make something happen, he would actually do it. That had its negative side, but its positive side was that things happened. He found someone, Veryan Weston’s sister, Armorel, who was a singer. She knew of a place, which was the Little Theatre Club. There was a woman named Jean who ran it. I remember her serving beer and changing money with only the use of one of her arms, I can picture that now. There were all these actors, including very distinguished ones like Dame Sybil Thorndyke, who would have a drink there in this sleazy little club and there would be a play on, as well. It was arranged that we could use the club after 10:30. So, we took it on, and John really tried to hold the club together seven nights a week at first. Talk about putting a strain on your relationship with your wife. That was the beginning of ’66 and we were off and running.


Shoemaker: When you first moved into the Little Theater Club, was the music closer to Challenge than what we’ve come to call SME music?

Watts: Absolutely. The SME started to come in at the end of ’66. Challenge was our first recording.

Shoemaker: What triggered this very radical change?

Watts: John Stevens. He’d been away to Denmark and he heard this band and was inspired by it, but I don’t know in what way. All I know is he kept talking about this guy who played a musical saw. He said, We’re not going to do any more of this now. We’re going to do this. I thought, and I think Paul did too, We’re all friends, so let’s give it a go. John was the catalyst – for everyone, in terms of that music.

Shoemaker: How did he articulate goals and methods for this music?

Watts: Sometimes, he’d articulate them through little methods that reflected his philosophy, because it really was a philosophy about playing. It was very simple in some ways, and that was the beauty about it, its simplicity. You could understand it immediately. He put into words what we all knew and were doing. “Search and Reflect,” for example, is named for the purpose for what you’re doing when you’re playing in this way. It is a listening process. When the three of us would play, you weren’t just trying to take care of what you were playing; you were responding to the moment and to the other players. “Search” was the listening; “Reflect” was your reflection of what you heard. The idea was to do that in the most subconscious way possible.

When John and I played as a duo, he had something called “the click piece.” It worked like this: Say, he’s got a click on his drums and I’ve got a click on my saxophone. On the sax, you can get it through slap tonguing. (Snaps fingers slowly) And, that click would be your space and time, a sense of rhythm of a kind. The next step of this click piece was to eliminate the clicks, feel the clicks and play in between the clicks. The improvisation happened in between, in little bursts of sound. Then, he could go onto my click and I could go onto his. Or do one click together, and move on. Usually, it was a slow click, but you’ve got to keep your time. Some of these ideas came from Eastern music. John – all of us, really – were big on listening to Gamelan, Indian classical music and Buddhist music.

“The sustain piece” was something that was used to incorporate a lot of musicians, and even non-musicians, even the audience sometimes. Basically, it was just playing a note on your out breath, breathing very slowly, which was also a meditative thing to slow you down. The idea was to stretch out these sounds. Then, you could move your fingers when the time was right, which was different for every person, so at some point you have some people playing phrases and some still playing long notes. A good example of this is on the Arc recording we did for CND, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament – For Peace, For You To Share.

These approaches got people like Evan (Parker), myself, Paul and John into similar states of mind, for a while, and we were focused on the same thing. You know, John had what he called his “small drum kit” with small drums and gongs. He also liked to use little sticks, so he had an approach that worked very well inside this more pointillistic music. This was very radical for me, because I was a melodic player. Rhythm is very important to me, too, but I would say that the melodic aspect of playing was most important to me then. Playing in this completely different way was quite challenging to me. It was challenging to everybody in different ways, I suppose. I think it was a way for John to get people to play a bit more like a drummer, though he never said that. It’s something that I’ve thought over the years.

For me, I would say that now the rhythmic aspect of music has taken over somewhat. Not that I’ve lost my interest in melody, but I do find, especially when I’m practicing with Jamie (Harris) in the current duo that more often than not I’ll pick up a drum up to find a melody. In this context, I need the drum to get to the rhythm that will kick, then I find the notes in that space. Consequently, that makes the melody “kick.”

Shoemaker: For a brief period a little later in the 60s, avant-garde British jazz and improvised music were snatched up by the big record companies, and you all had a moment in the media’s glare. That must have been pretty strange, given how uninvolved you were with careerism.

Watts: A lot of that had to do with Julie, who now goes by Tippetts, but she was Driscoll when she came out of the pop scene. I think her first encounter with improvising was when John called her up and asked her if she wanted to try a few things. When we did Birds of a Feather on BYG, it was recorded in a nice studio in Paris with a swimming pool, the whole thing. That was because Julie was there and her ex-manager Giorgio Gomelsky secured this. And we did gigs like the Palermo Pop Festival, a football stadium full of people who still thought of Julie as a pop star. There were chants of “Julie, Julie, Julie.” But, when we started to play, they started throwing things on stage, like dirt wrapped inside newspapers. Half of the audience was throwing stuff and half of them were cheering like mad. It was quite riotous. We just carried on playing. That’s the only time I’ve been stuck in a dressing room. There was a mob, and all of them wanted Julie. It was a frightening experience. No danger of that now, though.

Also, we were dealing with record companies like Polydor, producers like Alan Bates, so we got good studios and good engineers. In this instance, it was John who hustled the deals vis a friend in the business named Terry Yason. The only problem was, with Polydor, we recorded about three things that they never issued. Alan Bates said to John quite straightforwardly that they would be worth more to him when John was dead than while he was alive. So, where are they? And, they still have those tapes. Dave Holland brought Rashied Ali over for a session in the early ‘70s. It was Evan and me, John and Rashied, Dave and Peter Kowald. I’m not sure if Derek (Bailey) is on it or not. It was a blast. We just went in and did it.

Another session that I really, really enjoyed was the one with Steve Swallow, where he did some trio things with us. That was another one that Bates wouldn’t let go. These things would have come out at the time, normally. It would have been good for us and, I’d like to think, good for the scene, generally. You can ask Steve about this. This is my understanding from a third party. Manfred Eicher asked Steve if there was anything he wanted released, and he said to Manfred that he wanted these tapes with John and I released. But, Bates wouldn’t let them go. We had a nice time playing together; the vibe was good. There was this one little bit, a little glitch, that Steve suggested editing out. John said no; it would be like sacrilege. It was a puritanical thing for him. Steve replied with something like, What’s the problem, Miles has one edit every three minutes.

Shoemaker: Do you consider yourself to be a purist, when it comes to improvised music?

Watts: I’ve done a lot of things that would suggest that I’m not. I played with Long John Baldry for a while at the Marquee, a gig with Sonny Boy Williamson, who was very interesting because his choruses weren’t always exactly 12 bars. He would leave something out or add something, so it was like 11 1/2 bars, 12 1/2 or whatever. That’s what a lot blues musicians used to do. It really taught me something about freedom.

Shoemaker: Over its 13-year life span, Amalgam went through a lot of changes, both in terms of personnel and the focus of the music, which incorporated jazz folk, rock and other idioms. What were the core ideas that unified this body of work?

Watts: I guess the core idea was to put together, in as natural a way as possible, diverse elements and musicians. I firmly believed that it was possible to put almost any type of musical idea with any other, providing it was done in a way that made it sound natural, whatever “natural” is – made it sound like it was OK to be there. I go strongly on my instincts above anything else. So it was never an intellectual exercise; that’s why it all worked. An example was the 1979 version of Amalgam. I’d come from the improv and free jazz areas, Liam Genockey from mainly blues and rock and pop; Keith Rowe from a noise or sound-based approach to the guitar; and Colin McKenzie was into funk at that time. So, the exercise was to get that jelling in its own way, and with a million rehearsals and two or three gigs, we managed to knock it into shape as an entity. Same with the Drum Orchestra that came just directly after Amalgam. It had two traditional African percussionists – Mamadi Kamara from Sierra Leone and Nana Tsiboe from Ghana – Peter Knight on violin, who is mainly known from his long involvement with the folk rock group Steeleye Span, and the bassist was a South African, Ernest Mothle. The drummer was Liam Genockey, who is from Ireland. I think the element of rhythm pulled it all together. But, we did improvise freely. This group was known as the Trevor Watts Drum Orchestra, circa 1982.


Shoemaker: Rhythm doesn’t become such a prominent part of your music until you began projects like the Moire ensembles. What were the key points that led to this?

Watts: It was always important to me to connect with people of other cultures that live in my country. I wanted to extend the connections the music makes between cultures, somewhat in the way that jazz music, which had primarily African-American sources, was and is now making with European music. The question was, How to do it? What enabled me to do this was a connection with musicians from Africa, the more traditional type of players. I felt that would help me to start from the base where it all started, anyway, the rhythmic side of things. It really began with meeting Nana Tsiboe, who I ended up playing with for about 16 or 17 years in Moire Music and Moire Music Drum Orchestra. I met him in 1979 in a band that Louis Moholo got together for a tour with Nana, Harry Miller and Frank Wright. Meeting Nana was really important for me. Nana sometimes put gigs together using more traditional African musicians, where the rhythms were considerably complex. Dudu (Pukwana) was on some of these gigs. So, I began drawing off that.

I had already been into stuff like (The Master Musicians of) Jajouka since about 1973 and that was a turning point for me, also. I saw them and it made me cry, it was so beautiful. I loved the fact that they were all from these families. It had a real community feel to it. I thought, God, they really have something there. That left me desiring something very much like that, that kind of friendship, that kind of support. And, you get that in African music, that collective thing, in the true sense of the word. Through Nana, I met all of the African musicians who would play in the Drum Orchestra. At that point, I tried to get Peter Knight, the violinist who played with Steeleye Span, the folk group, to play the Irish music he knows with this African rhythm, but he never would do it, except for jamming in the dressing room.

Shoemaker: That European tinge was present in Moire’s thematic materials, though, even when the African rhythms were up front.

Watts: There was a Celtic influence, definitely. I see all musics as connected, anyway. People travel, and leave something wherever they go, and pick up something each stop along the way. After centuries of that, really, it’s logical that music from different parts of the world would work together. And, there’s also the question of how does a tradition become a tradition. Is it tradition because it stays the same? And, if it changes, what causes the changes? If you think about Irish music, it has similarities with Chinese music, in that they both basically use pentatonic scales, and there are similar melodies. So, it’s not that far a stretch of the imagination to put a bit of African drumming there. Why not? Nobody wants to tread over anybody’s culture and insult it, but it’s all there out in the world and you can use it. “Use it” is the wrong phrase. I was inspired by it and I wanted to be myself with other people being themselves through their traditional music. I think you honor these different cultures by wanting to incorporate some of their practices into your own.

I didn’t do this because I thought it was a good idea for a project – I never think in terms of projects. With the Drum Orchestra – we just enjoyed playing with each other. When I first put the Moire Music Drum Orchestra together in 1990, I managed to secure a six-week tour: the States for two weeks, Mexico, which is great, because you go around to all these different towns like Mexico City, Xalapa, Qaxaca and Guanajuato, and then to Venezuela. I never said a word to anybody on this tour about what we should play, and nobody said a word to me. I never asked a question; nobody asked me any questions. And this music formed over this six weeks. For instance, the African musicians would sing a traditional song; I’d play with it, and (bassist) Colin (Gibson) and Liam (Genockey) would play with it, all in our own ways, and add something to it. It wasn’t about trying to play like an African musician. That’s as pointless as trying to play like Charlie Parker. The beauty of that group was that we all accepted each other. As we went on, people started to bring in ideas, but that first tour was really exciting, because it was completely improvised. It sounded structured because of the rhythmic principles involved. The four African drummers all had their traditionally defined roles, which fed into what we were doing.

Shoemaker: In a way, it’s a form of Search and Reflect.

Watts: Absolutely. Being involved with improvised music made it easier to sit in with musicians from another culture. With the Africans, there were things that I knew from the outset – devices to stop, devices to change, to speed up or slow down, and to hit the ending together. I was always amazed by their ability to end together. I was always listening for their cue, but I could never quite be sure if I was responding to the right thing until it ended. I just felt they were going to stop, and they would. That comes from improvisation, in my case. Nana would say, It’s nice to play with someone who listens. That initial improvised music period definitely gave me the skills to listen and play with these musicians. I could have learned them in an academic way, I suppose, but I prefer to have a degree of ignorance. It allows me to have some romance. In the final analysis, I have learned it all instinctively, and therefore I know it better than if it had been an academic process.

Shoemaker: In recent years, you have mostly been in reducing the size of your Moire Music ensembles, down to a trio, and now the duo with Jamie, and you’ve even recorded a solo album.

Watts: In regards to the solo CD – which is called World Sonic – perhaps I’m thirty years too late. (Hi4Head producer) Nick Dart cajoled me to do it. Playing solo is somewhat strange for me, I need something to bounce off of. Making the CD was a challenge. I recorded it myself with all the gear I’ve got at home. I took three days and really tried to get things down. I enjoyed the process because it made me get into the horn in a different way. I would just start and try to develop something. I’m glad I did it, but I’ll probably never do another one.

Shoemaker: Lately, your groups like The Celebration Band and your duo with Jamie Harris have drawn upon musicians in and around Hastings, where you now live.

Watts: The Celebration Band is a bit different, because it evolved from a series of workshops I was doing. The members came out of that workshop. It’s about involvement and desire and all that kind of stuff. I thought I could make a band out of it. They’re all nice people and there is a really good community aspect about it. It’s a bit of a risk and a challenge, but let’s do it. That was my thinking. My philosophy at this stage of my life is to be really straight in all aspects of playing, to be really straight with them and say, No, that’s not right. No matter how difficult it was for them, they took it and learned from it. It was great. And I thought, If it gets to the point where they’re missing rehearsals or gigs because they’ve got something else on, I’m just going to finish the exercise, because it already took a huge effort to get it to a good place. I didn’t want to be dealing with that, as well. I’ll give everything I have, but I expect quite a lot in return. Things started to go a little awry, and I thought it was time to change. There was one person in the band I knew I could still have a connection with, and that was Jamie. You can hear his energy and involvement. It’s fantastic. He has a raw talent. He didn’t play drums when he first started in the workshop. He’s a singer, and I told him I didn’t have anything for voice, but I have this rhythm. I gave him a drum and he played it the first time. You’re a drummer, I told him. And he took it on. He’s got the feel; he’s got the accents; and he gives the rhythms the right emphasis. I’m happy with that. I don’t have to look here or there for something else at the moment. It’s not just about going out and getting gigs. It’s fundamentally a lifetime’s learning process.


> More Embrace

> back to contents