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ALL THAT JAZZ

Charlie Watts Beats the Drum for Jazz

July 12, 1996|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Watch Charlie Watts in action, pounding out rock rhythms with the Rolling Stones, and it's hard to imagine that the heart of a jazz man beats beneath his rock 'n' roll exterior.

"Well, I am what I am, what do they call it, a 'Rolling Stone,' " Watts says. "That's who I play with, that's where I make my living, and it's my first love and first allegiance, as far as playing goes.

"But I like to think that when I play with the Stones, I do it like Kenny Clarke [the great bebop drummer]."

Watts pauses to laugh for a moment at the association. "Don't get me wrong," he continues. "I don't mean I play like a Kenny Clarke. What I mean is, I sit down at a set of drums and I try to play them with the same honesty he did when I saw him play. The same way that Max Roach plays. But if anyone would say to me, 'You're a great drummer,' I'd say, 'Thank you very much, but have you heard Kenny Clarke or Max Roach?' "

Watts, who periodically emerges from the rock world with his own jazz group, will be in town for a concert at the Henry Fonda Theatre on Monday. The tour supports "Long Ago & Far Away" (Virgin Records), the fourth album by the Watts quintet, this time with singer Bernard Fowler.

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The quintet, which includes the talented alto saxophonist Peter King, trumpeter-fluegelhornist Gerald Presencer, pianist Brian Lemon and bassist David Green (a close Watts friend since they were teenagers), will perform with a 21-piece orchestra in a program of laid-back, ballad-oriented standards featuring Fowler's vocals.

"I thought it would be great to do something with some old-fashioned, romantic-type songs, with strings, but done by jazz guys," Watts explains. "I like that kind of twist--like Nat King Cole with strings, or even like the Frank Sinatra albums, when you hear [trumpeter] Harry Edison come in after one of the vocals."

Generally known as the most phlegmatic of the Stones, Watts suddenly becomes animated and outgoing when the conversation turns to jazz.

"I can remember when the Stones first went to America," he recalls. "They introduced us--'Here they are, direct from England, scruffy lot'--and then I went straight to Birdland. That was America, to me. I saw Charlie Mingus, went back to the hotel and didn't care if we went home."

Extremely knowledgeable, deeply passionate about the music, he sees himself performing rock music with--if not the same style or the intention--the sensitivity and the musicality of a jazz player. And he bemoans the fact that so many rock drummers, both young and old, fail to appreciate the subtleties of jazz.

"Most of them probably don't listen any further than the next record that comes out," Watts says, "and that's fine, if all you're interested in is playing the latest beat, the latest whatever. But for me, jazz musicians have always been the best players, and they've always been the ones I would gravitate to see. Because I think improvised music's the most challenging music there is."

Working with his jazz quintet has been--and likely will remain--only a sidelight to his full-time occupation with the Stones. But Watts values the opportunity to share a world that has intrigued him since he bought his first jazz album (a recording by the '50s-era West Coast drummer Chico Hamilton, who played with Gerry Mulligan).

"I love playing with musicians like this," he says. "Sometimes I think it's very self-indulgent, because it's all done on my terms, and I'm never too sure whether people will like it or not. But, for me, it's wonderful, because I can imagine I'm singing the songs, I can play the way I like to play, and I never have to tell anyone what to do--which is one of the great joys of working with jazz musicians, because they always know just what to do."

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News and Notes: Universal Studios kicks off its CityWalk Jazz series on Sunday with an appearance by saxophonist-composer Tom Scott, with follow-up programs showcasing Everette Harp (July 21) and Eric Marienthal (July 28). Scott's performance will provide him with a welcome opportunity to stretch out and play. His busy schedule already has included conducting the Academy Awards show, and continues with a tour with his own group and a guest soloist spot with the American Jazz Philharmonic at the Olympic Village in Atlanta on July 27. Information: (818) 622-4455.

Universal Studios' apparently expanding interest in jazz also includes the establishment of a jazz center in the new E Zone at the company's Orlando, Fla., entertainment complex, set to open in early 1998. The center will have three elements: an innovative jazz academy operated by the Thelonious Monk Institute; a live performance venue featuring name performers; and a permanent installation for the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame that will display music and memorabilia.

The ubiquitous Wynton Marsalis follows Scott to Atlanta with a program of Latin, Afro-Cuban and American jazz at the "Olympic Jazz Summit," July 28-30. Marsalis conducts an all-star orchestra that includes, among others, Paquito D'Rivera, Wes Anderson, Wycliffe Gordon, Jon Faddis, Ryan Kisor and Ted Nash.

The Old Pasadena JazzFest this weekend in Pasadena's Central Park will be heavy on contemporary jazz acts. Spyro Gyra, Guitars, Saxes & More and Acoustic Alchemy perform on Saturday. The 14 continuous hours of Sunday's event will present Najee, Larry Carlton, Strunz & Farrah and Tuck & Patti. Information: (818) 771- 5544.

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