As a Rolling Stone, Charlie Watts has whacked his drums on stages in just about every major theater, hockey arena and baseball stadium in the Western world. Yet until little over a year ago, the closest Watts could ever get to the stage at his favorite club was a ringside table. He'd been a loyal customerr at the famous London jazz club Ronnie Scott's for more than two decades, regularly dropping by to see such visiting Yankee giants as the late Ben Webster or such top local players as drummer Bill Eyden and bassist Dave Green, an old schoolboy chum. But Watts, a jazz fiend who got sidetracked into becoming the undisputed master of rock & roll timekeeping, had never felt the thrill of swinging away behind a set of traps at Ronnie Scott's to the sound of his favorite Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton tunes.
But being a millionaire Stone has its advantages, and in the fall of 1985, Watts – with the help of John Stevens, a close friend and experimental jazz percussionist – went out and hired more than thirty of the best jazz musicians in Britain. He commissioned big-band scores for classic numbers like Hampton's "Flying Home" and "Lester Leaps In," a tenor-sax rampage by the great Lester Young. Then Watts rented Ronnie Scott's for a week of performances.
Flanked by Eyden and Stevens and assisted by a brass section, pianist, two double bassists and two vibraphonists, Watts finally made it to the stage of his dreams. What's more, he played to packed houses the whole week. One night Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Phil Collins were all turned away because the club was full.
"It was a complete self-indulgence," Watts admits sheepishly, nervously running a hand through his graying mop in the New York office of Columbia Records. "I hired the band, and I hired the club. But after we did the first week, they asked us back. And" – Watts smiles proudly – "they paid us for it."
For Watts, the big reward is that his little jazz fantasy is now a real working band. Since the first Ronnie Scott's shows in November 1985, the Charlie Watts Orchestra has performed throughout England and in Germany. Late last year the group also released its debut album, Live at Fulham Town Hall, and did a five-city tour of the United States to promote it. For many of the musicians in the band, these shows marked the first time they had ever performed in America.
Even without the reflected glory of a Rolling Stone at the helm, the Charlie Watts Orchestra would be a five-star jazz experience. British swing masters in the band include tenor sax man Bobby Wellins and trumpeter Jimmy Deuchar, while the avant-garde community is well represented by John Stevens, trombonist Paul Rutherford and saxophonist Evan Parker. Watts and Stevens also had the foresight to recruit members of England's new generation of jazz explorers, like rising young sax star Courtney Pine and trombonist Annie Whitehead.
Because of the shoestring lifestyle of jazz musicians in the U.K., the band's lineup shifts with each tour or performance, depending on what prior engagements the various members have. "Booking these guys is a problem," Watts says, "because a lot of them will be working on other things. They gotta be on the phone getting jobs. They keep a diary with all their bookings in it. I never know what day it is. I get a list of places where the Stones are going to play and that's it." Watts recalls that when the orchestra played at one jazz festival in Britain, Bobby Wellins had to stop off on the way to the gig and play at a previously booked afternoon pub session.
John Stevens and trumpeter Harry Beckett, a veteran of prominent European big bands, like Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath, agree that Watts's fannish enthusiasm and initial financial patronage have been crucial to the orchestra's success. "This is like two big bands together," claims Beckett. "Someone like Chris, a full-time jazz musician, couldn't keep something like this going." While the wages are "not in the pop bracket," he continues, "it's good jazz pay."
"Charlie saw the Ronnie Scott's gig as heroic in terms of supporting jazz in Britain. That was his idea of contributing," Stevens explains. "Apart from the fact that he loves big bands anyway, he wanted to get as many people as possible involved, to project the quality of their talent. And he's succeeded in doing that."
Watts's love of jazz goes back to his teens, when he started buying Chico Hamilton, Johnny Dodds and Charlie Parker records. At the age of twenty, he published a book of cartoons, Ode to a High Flying Bird, based on Parker's life. When he arrived in New York on the Rolling Stones' first American tour, Watts headed straight for the legendary club Birdland to see jazz heroes like Charles Mingus and Sonny Rollins.
But Watts has discovered to his chagrin that leading his own jazz group, even part time, entails more responsibility than he's used to. "Just the transatlantic phone calls of setting the U.S. tour up – I don't even like to answer the phone," Watts says. A tour of Japan is in the offing, and possibly another live album, this time featuring new band originals. And there's the small matter of the Rolling Stones, which is still a going concern even though everyone is currently beavering away on solo projects. "I don't want it to take my life over," he says of the Charlie Watts Orchestra. "Then again," he adds, laughing, "every band I was ever in was like that. The Stones were only supposed to last eighteen months, too."
This story is from the February 26, 1987 issue of Rolling Stone.