Charlie Watts (1941-2021)

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In most photos of the Rolling Stones, Charlie Watts always looked like the band's accountant. Unlike Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones and Bill Wyman, he didn't seem to fit in nor did it appear in photos that he wanted to. And in many ways he didn't. Watts, at the tail end of the 1950s, was on his way to a jazz career, or so he hoped. It didn't take long to realize that jazz was drying up around him. The 1950s were over.

In all fairness, we all start out heading someplace because we want to and wind up someplace else because we had to. That was Watts. Like many young serious British jazz drummers of this period, Watts fell under the spell of English players like Phil Seaman, Tony Crombie, Lennie Hastings, Kenny Clare and Jackie Dougan. They lived hard lives touring and playing smoke-filled rooms for less money than they should have been paid. But they loved the fraternity and camaraderie of jazz, the taut intensity of polyrhythmic playing, and the mandatory risks that made jazz drumming special. If you broke into that scene, you were legitimately cool.

In the late 1950s, while in art school, Watts played in jazz combos in Middlesex with an eye on London. But in 1961, Alexis Korner approached him for his Blues Incorporated band. Watts was heading to Denmark for a graphic designer gig, but when he returned to England at the start of 1962, he joined the band but kept his advertising agency day job. He still wasn't sure what he wanted to do.

Operating in an R&B orbit and playing in blues clubs, Watts met Brian Jones, Ian Stewart, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in mid-1962. The Stones reportedly turned to shoplifting to help pay Watts what he wanted to sit in at the start of '63. A month later, Watts became the band's drummer, recommending Ginger Baker to Korner as his replacement.

Watts likely imagined that his time with the Stones was a pit stop before moving on to a jazz group. But as the Stones' fame and fortune took off following the success of the Beatles and the Dave Clark 5 in the U.S., Watts surely heard the heavy metal trap door slam shut. He was stuck.

For the next 58 years, Watts made a fortune touring with the Stones but found himself playing many of the same songs over and over again. It was a Faustian bargain for the drummer who loved Charlie Parker. While Watts would be photographed smiling from time to time, his face was more often as still and emotionless as an Alpine lake, the regret in his eyes impossible to hide. The Stones was a job for Watts, something he settled for artistically.

Watts never became a true jazz player, he never became a significant graphic artist and he had no idea what he was doing drumming for the Stones. But once you're in and the rocket takes off, your entire life grows accustomed to the checks, the luxury and the attention. It's a different kind of cool measured in things rather than self-satisfaction.

Watts in public seemed to live an interior what-if life. He always appeared to be wondering what might have been had he been courageous enough to give jazz a go, if he had been accepted in jazz circles and made the financial sacrifice. Perhaps he might then have been truly gratified and pleased with himself.

Over the years, Watts bankrolled a string of jazz groups to temporarily re-live the chills of playing brushes or bop. And for a short time during the songs his groups played, Watts was transported back in time to that crossroads in 1963. Deep down, he had to know that the jazz groups he assembled were rides in his own amusement park. As good as these groups were, he yearned for the improvisational challenges and the heavy cats he respected looking over at him after songs with a smile.

For Watts, that was the dream that got away. Instead, he'd continue to play Jumpin' Jack Flash and Brown Sugar night after night on tour, perched Sphinx-like at his minimialist drum kit imagining he was playing behind his heroes at Ronnie Scott's or the Village Vanguard and rising to the occasion. For me, Watts always looked the way a saloon song sounds: Unmoored and riddled with regret.

JazzWax clips: Here's Charlie Watts on The Dennis Miller Show in 1992 with his quintet. This clip more than any other illustrates Watts in his true element, experiencing the pleasure of a dream...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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