The Rolling Stones have been around for six decades, but even they have their influences. Blues musicians like Buddy Waters and B.B. King inspired Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. However, The Rolling Stones’ drummer, Charlie Watts, wasn’t exactly influenced by the blues. He was a die-hard jazz enthusiast up until the day he died, which sadly was August 24. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre, and when he couldn’t relate to the rock star lifestyle, he always knew jazz would be there for him.
Before The Rolling Stones, Charlie Watts wanted to be a jazz musician
As a child, Watts grew up loving jazz, and the drums weren’t his first instrument. He bought a banjo thinking he’d play in a jazz band one day, but when he realized the instrument was hard to play, he broke off its neck and made his own drum from the remains.
“Yeah, I bought a banjo, and I saw all these dots in a book,” Watts told Down Beat in 1987. “Did you ever see a banjo book or a guitar book? I couldn’t have done that. Oh dear, all these little dot things.” His father later bought him his first drum kit, and he taught himself how to play by listening and watching his favorite musicians.
“I was 12 years of age, and I heard (saxophonist) Earl Bostic play ‘Flamingo,’ and when I was 13 I went out and bought a record by (baritone saxophonist) Gerry Mulligan called ‘Walking Shoes,’” Watts told the Union-Tribune in 1991. He’d heard Chico Hamilton “play brushes on ‘Walking Shoes,’ and – bingo!– I wanted to play the drums.”
To his day, he still plays those records. “I still love Gerry Mulligan, and to this day I play that record; the same applies to Charlie Parker. When I play ‘Walking Shoes’ now, I’m 13 again, I’m young. It still does that to me. A lot of people will say, ‘I love a record that the Stones did,’ and a lot of it has to do with what they were doing then, when they were young, because now they’re old.”
Charlie Watts didn’t really know about rock until The Rolling Stones
After finishing school, Watts got a job at an advertising agency and played drums part-time for a few jazz bands. He was still worshipping musicians like Charlie Parker, Buddy Rich, and Max Roach until The Rolling Stones came knocking.
“I never liked Elvis until I met Keith Richards,” Watts told Mojo (per the New York Times) in 1994. “The only rock ‘n’ roll player I ever liked when I was young was Fats Domino.” He quickly learned the tips and tricks from the godfathers of rock, and soon he was thrust into a fully-fledged rock ‘n’ roll career. But he never forgot his jazz roots.
Charlie Parker was forever on his brain in whatever he did with The Rolling Stones. “I have no idea why I should be, at the age of 50, talking about Charlie Parker, still, but he’s always been in my life,” said Watts. “He’s the yardstick that I judge all records by, subconsciously.
“I don’t know what it was about him, I really can’t tell you (because) it’s very difficult to explain. I could put a record on and say, ‘There we are, that’s the bit I love, and still do — I’ve loved it for 30 years.’ But other than that, I don’t know.”
Speaking to Chad Smith, drummer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers for DrumChannel.com, Watts related the first time hearing Parker to that of fans hearing Jimi Hendrix for the first time. “You suddenly think, ‘What the hell is he playing?’”
Charlie Watts never lost his love for jazz
In 1991, Watts released a jazz album called From One Charlie, the musical companion to his book Ode to a High Flying Bird. He gave rare interviews to promote it and went on tour, playing at prestigious jazz clubs.
At the time, Watts hoped “to expand his quintet’s repertoire to include more of Parker’s music and more originals by King,” the Union-Tribune wrote. “I got the confidence to do this through having the big band and playing with a lot of people I’d longed to play with as a boy, Peter King being one,” Watts said.
“America doesn’t book English jazz musicians, for some reason,” Watts continued. “They invite lots of little young white boys to play guitars here, but they don’t like saxophone players coming over. I don’t know why that is.”
However, Watts continued to work with his groups, which included “Charlie Watts Orchestra and two with Green, the Charlie Watts Quintet and the ABC&D of Boogie Woogie,” the Times wrote. Watts may have loved jazz very much, but he’ll always be a Stone.
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