Trevor Watts

Trevor Watts is a saxophonist, improviser from Spontaneous Music Ensemble to Moiré Music. This interview was undertaken as part of an AHRC project for the book Circular Breathing: The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain (Duke UP, 2005). 

12 December 2002, email correspondence


What was it about jazz that attracted/attracts you to it?

I was born in 1939, and my father, who had lived in Canada in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and also visited the States at that time, brought back his love of Jazz and popular music of the time, which was closer to Jazz in those days anyway. So we had a wind up gram and lots of 78s of Tex Beneke/Artie Shaw/Duke Ellington/Nellie Lutcher/Nat King Cole/Fats Waller etc, etc. My parents let my brother and I use the gramophone, so we were constantly playing all that music which we grew up with. Eventually when I became a teenager and left school at 15 (having failed the damned 11+, or at least been told I’d failed) to work in a bakery like him, I wanted to find a way out of that life, and the constrictions of the industrial north [of England] (Halifax) in the early 1950s. I heard all this fantastic music, but there was none around ‘live’, nor any way of hearing it live. So I chose to play the first instrument my parents found, and could afford. It happened to be a Buescher saxophone. And taught myself. I also started to buy recordings of Charlie Parker and Stan Getz. This time on 33s of course. And heard in the later 1950s the Count Basie and Duke Ellington bands live.

I always seemed to be attracted towards the surprise elements in the most original Jazz musicians, and in particular to the slightly more quirky players and playing styles. For instance, Ernie Henry was my first big sax influence. This eventually led onto all the greats, Eric Dolphy, Thelonius Monk, Charlie Mingus, Ornette Coleman etc. Anyone who had a different take on it. They were suggesting through their playing that the game was eventually to find your own voice and way through. That’s what I took from it. Sadly lacking in today’s teaching methods I feel. Nothing attracts me to the current methods of teaching and regurgitating the music. I think promoters and teachers are perhaps even more to blame than aspiring musicians. They teach kids to be very proficient on their instruments, competitive and judgemental. Whereas I feel there should be some encouragement of a musician’s individuality and to show the students of the music how to embrace and value discovering their own way through this music.

I heard the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra a few nights ago and thought it was the most appalling music I’d heard in a long while. A true parody of the music. It was awful. Fronted by that self-styled guru of Jazz, Wynton Marsalis, who has the audacity to berate Miles Davis whilst serving up this pap! Sure he can play the trumpet o.k. But his propaganda about the music, and need to claim that he’s holding the torch for future generations is so far off beam in my opinion. That this is helping to kill Jazz forever, if it’s not dead already. Lousy arrangements under the guise of ‘Rhythm is our Business’, what rhythm? Tenor solos that sound cloned. All the licks from John Coltrane without the passion, and the middle eights of tunes, using a different set of Coltrane licks tagged together sounding unrelated in storybook terms. And this at great expense. The promoters of all this are irresponsible. They’re in it purely for profit and self gain, and the new audience I fear are not educated for the sound of surprise (sorry about the cliché). None of this is said with an ounce of sour grapes because there’s nothing to be sour about. I am so glad I didn’t go down that path, and I feel sorry for the state of the music, and what is being touted as good jazz, or so called excellence. Excellence in what?

Many musicians and enthusiasts talk of jazz as a music of ‘freedom’. Do you agree?

Any music can be the music of freedom. No music has inherent freedom within it. Sure it may have chordally or non chordally for that matter, but that isn’t where true freedom lies. It lies in the head of the musician. I didn’t think Jimmie Hendrix was any less free than Ornette in his playing, and Charlie Parker was free as a bird. It’s when the freedoms of a musician become institutionalised and learnt as a language that there becomes less freedom for the individual learning it and playing it by rote, because it’s been done before. You have to find your own voice, and there would lie your freedoms as well as some restrictions of course. I played with Sonny Boy Williamson in a blues context. He was as free as anyone else I’ve played with. So no style of music can claim that. It’s too naive a thought.

To what extent, if at all, has your music engaged with politics, in its widest sense? (eg benefits, involvement in campaigns, experience of self-organisation in jazz, influence on music, contribution to education)

I’ve done many tours for the British Council, which is part of the Foreign Office. I have done benefits for the Anti Nuclear Campaign, Anti Apartheid Campaign and for a well in a village in Africa that didn’t have water.

The British Council tours to weird and wonderful places have all had some aspects of politics attached to them in the widest sense. It is the cultural arm of the government’s foreign policy. So with the Moiré Music Drum Orchestra (5 Ghanaians and 2 British) we travelled to many places. We were the first band to play in Burma for 10 years. And we played there on two occasions. The first time we were not allowed to play outside the confines of the British Embassy. But some Burmese were allowed in. They hadn’t danced for all those years because it was banned. We also did a concert in the Inya Lake Hotel, opposite the hotel, on an island in the lake, was the place where Ne Win (the old dictator lived) and also where his revolution started. Half way through our concert searchlights raked the building and a lot of Burmese left. This made us play even harder. When I got home a reporter from the Daily Telegraph phoned to interview me, and I told them the story. But in print it came out as ‘it was very scary when the searchlights came on’ but in actual fact I’d said ‘we played harder’. When I questioned the reporter about this, he only said ‘Well, that’s what I thought you said’. We also collaborated with their leading pop group Emperor and recorded with them at their studio on both occasions. On the second occasion we also played in a sort of bamboo restaurant in Mandalay opposite and with some Philipina [?] girl musicians. We met the leading Burmese poet who had been just let out of jail. We also met others in the audience who valued our presence there, and were told it gave them some hope. In that same audience were secret police of the regime. So, goodies and baddies. We managed to slip in the Bob Marley tune ‘Redemption Song’ as a political statement. Music can be very good like that.

I remember when we toured in S Africa, Lesotho and Botswana also with the Drum Orchestra. Originally we visited Lesotho, and it was close to change over time in South Africa, but not really there yet. The black musicians union of South Africa said we cannot go there to play unless we did a workshop in Soweto. Which we were very pleased to do. We also played a mixed race club in Jo’burg and did a workshop for mixed races. In Botswana we did a workshop in a school there, and the workshops generally were to do with getting together and playing music. Once it was suggested that I could show them how to actually write the rhythms down, and who would be interested in that. Everyone in the class said they would be interested. We also played at a Lutheran mission. Inside they had the white tutors and students who had a brass band. So we did a concert with them. They played some rather stiff Christian type of music, and we played our much looser rougher stuff to a very polite audience. When we went outside to play there were crowds of very excited people. Really enjoying our music. Quite a noticeable difference. A festival we played in Khartoum was very interesting, because there was one day when we didn’t play a concert with our own group, but mixed things up. I was asked to play with a group from Western Sudan by them, and we all had a delightful time. There were a lot of Sudanese officials sitting in the front row, and although with their turbans and beards looked like the ‘heavy brigade’. They seemed to be having a good time with all the shenanigans. The young musicians there were desperate to learn Western musical tricks of the trade. Funky bass rhythms etc. All in all we had a great time with some very nice and friendly people.

The biggest project I involved myself with was a 35 piece project that had seven musicians of the Drum Orchestra and 28 from the black music and theatre group of Venezuela, Teatro Negro de Barlovento. The project took its name from a Moiré Music recording of mine called ‘With One Voice’ and was called ‘Una Sola Voz’. We first met them in 1990 on a Drum Orchestra tour of the USA/Canada/Mexico and Venezuela. They played a concert opposite us, and then we all played together. I thought that it would be a good idea to try to do this in Europe. So a couple of years later the British Council wanted to send me back to Venezuela to stay with them and learn about the music and to help make some arrangements for a tour in Europe. At that meeting I said that I thought an African from the group should come with me as that would help the situation. And so they agreed to also send Nana Tsiboe along with me. The Barlovento Foundation is one of many in that region originally formed to preserve their African traditions once they were freed as slaves. So the music and theatre was a mixture of Voodoo practices, Christian religious ideas and others I guess. They performed a show for us and also some of their music. I was the only white person in the entire community. Then they asked us to show them what we did. So we did. Nana took advantage of the fact that he was African and made many connections through that fact. I had a little bit of a crisis part way through, but having done all this in absolute good faith I thought that in the long run I had as much right to be there. But I felt I had to work for that right beyond the fact that I could have been thought of as some sort of organiser/manager. I think I lacked a bit of courage at first, and this caused a bit of friction between Nana and myself. I think his prejudiced side came through a bit more at that point with his long lost brothers on the other side of the World. Nevertheless we managed to do some playing and touring in Europe and also Venezuela. I have many more experiences, but perhaps these are enough.

I always wanted to go to Africa with the Drum Orchestra to check out how they would relate to me within an African style context. And it was in the main a very positive experience. I know my rhythms for a start, and so once this aspect is a serious part of your music, and more importantly, the people there hear the subtleties of that easier than in Europe. This also goes for Latin America. This has been proved on many occasions. I’ve been cheered like mad in the middle of a solo primarily because of the intensity of what was being played, but also at a moment when you know you’ve done something good rhythmically with your melody. The fact that I had a drum and vocal choir basically singing and playing African style with me improvising with it (sometimes over it, but not really because I was aware of the rhythms, and later on, the songs also) so whatever I played had a relationship, but (and this is where the freedoms come in again) not in an African style. And to me, that was the beauty of the music. Strangely enough, back home here in England some people even said it’d be better without the sax etc. But then what you’ve got left with is just another African group. A kind of lack of imagination on the part of that person’s opinion (who was always white) and also some kind of prejudice. I wasn’t messing with anyone’s music. We all came together voluntarily. Plus that kind of attitude differed than say from Nee Daku Patato’s, who was the elder statseman of the band, who always took me aside and said ‘Trevor, this group is important, you’ve got to keep it together’. But Nee Daku, who’d travelled all over the World with Osibisa as well as Moiré Drum Orchestra, was a true man of the World, and could fit in anywhere. When I first got the Drum Orchestra together we just improvised all of it. Nothing was ruled in or out. Ghanaian songs, jazz, improvisation and even noise was all inclusive. The music worked itself together, and that’s the way I wanted it. This idea and method often gets misunderstood. Like when I had Amalgam in the 1970s and Peter Brotzmann and Peter Kowald put me down for playing ‘Rock’. Ten years later Brotzmann’s playing with Last Exit. Not a million miles away from the Amalgam music of the ‘70s.

How far do or did you identify jazz as an American culture? Positive or negative?

In the first place I viewed Jazz as an American culture, but I wasn’t hung up on that fact. As I’ve said before. I also viewed it as a music that I personally related to, and a music to find my own voice within. So it eventually became my music. Sure, in the ‘60s we reacted against the Jazz music scene here, and the fact that you were compelled to play Jazz like an American or not at all. So the music of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble came about from the fact that we didn’t want to dote on American jazz, but take the spirit of that music for ourselves, and move things along in the way we wanted. Quite a novel idea still in 1964! However by the ‘70s a lot of free and improvising musicians in Europe who began via those American jazz influences became rather anti-American Jazz and almost fascistically pro-Dutch or -German, saying this is Dutch Music or German Music now. And denied the fact that without that involvement in American jazz in the first place, they wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing. But that American music had led them on to where they were by then: without players like Albert Ayler and others, they wouldn’t be doing what they were doing in the ‘70s. Instead of just acknowledging it had become an international music. That is when I started to lose interest in the free music scene. That and also all the rules that tacitly, and not so tacitly, became apparent for European improvising musicians. A rejection of anything to do with American jazz, or rhythm or melody. So being a rhythmic and melodic player it wasn’t on for me. Plus the fact that some of those so called pioneers of free music are playing almost exactly the same today as 30 years ago, and are still talked about as innovators. Conservatives more like.

So for me the association with Jazz as an American culture was a positive one that I could take from in a natural way, and develop it how I liked. Even today when you go to America, jazz is more prevalent everywhere. More accepted than here.

In what ways, if at all, has British (and/or European) jazz developed indigenous voices or forms?

Collective pointillistic improvisation a la SME is a definite. And various other groups like AMM. So much more from that end of the spectrum.

Do you feel your colour or ethnic identity is important in jazz? Does it inform your playing/repertoire? Perhaps your national or regional identity is important—if so, how does it manifest itself?

No. But others probably do. I don’t relate to colour for anything. Just whether a person is good at what they do, or is a good or bad person, that’s all. There is one thing though. I wanted to play with African drummers because of the traditions they uphold, and knowledge from an early age. So they play those rhythms with a certain feel born out of that long term preservation of culture and practice within it right from being kids. So most of them happen to be black because of where they come from. This isn’t to say white people cannot play with a good feel, and many do, and as far as playing percussion, many more white people now are studying rhythm in the right way, and so many more white people will be playing with a good feel. And even what we conceive at the moment as an African type of feel. Primarily a historical thing I think. Rather like the slow change over in giving black people executive jobs in the U.K. More are suitable for that type of thing than ever before. But in both cases a prejudice has to be overcome.

Does it mean anything to you to be male or female in jazz? Jazz performances in Britain on stage and in audience are seriously male-dominated—is that significant to you?

No. A good player is a good player. And I’m not one of those people chosen to dominate the stages here. I hardly get a gig in the U.K. And I don’t think I’m a female! I would prefer there to be more women in the audience than there are.

Is jazz alive or dead?

Dead. See my reference to Wynton Marsalis and Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.

Is there anything else you wish to add?

I did this in one sitting. I could have written much more. Especially about all the different tours, and the dynamics of the Drum Ork. Not only Drum Ork but SME. But as you’ll be interviewing loads of people I didn’t want to hog the space. And also just mention if you want more elucidation on any aspect of it.

Maybe I should have written a book??

Every question made me groan in a way as there’s so much to say when you’ve had such a long and varied career as I have had. And to write it down takes a long time. I hope this has been of some help.

All best wishes, Trevor.

Follow up email correspondence, January 2003. In response to his invitation, I asked Trevor a number of other questions, including a sensitive one about the Drum Orchestra’s line-up (white man solo front line blowing over a black African group of drummers), and whether this could be seen as replicating rather than challenging or bypassing colonial relations, and this was his reply.

I’ve just scanned your new questions. I really didn’t expect this amount of info required. Trouble is, in trying to answer your questions, you’ll either think you have understood my answers—that’s if you think I’ve made myself clear in the first place—or the answers will lead onto a load more questions. Don’t you think also that you’d try to make the answers fit into ideas that you may already have about doing British Council work, for instance? So I’ve got to be careful here not to misrepresent myself and experiences I’ve had. Personally I’m not interested in what people think about whether Colonial perceptions about us whitey English boys have been even more cemented by the fact I was the leader of the Drum Ork etc, etc. As it tells me more about them than it does about what’s actually really happening. I.e. one of the drummers Nana Tsiboe had a much more privileged education and up-bringing than myself, for instance. His Mother was a politician in Ghana, his Father owned a newspaper there, and he was sent to England for a good education. I was brought up in a Northern working class town in the 40s & 50s and left school at 15 after a bad education. So unless I went into everything in miniscule details, chances are I’d misrepresent myself on questions like this. See what I mean. I’m trying to write music, record it, get some work, which is, and always has been tough. So how much time have I got?? In the end it’s your work I’ll be helping. I won’t gain anything very much out of this whole exercise. Not really. So although I appreciate your interest I may give it a miss. You’re far better off talking to more politically motivated musicians in the improvised area of music like Derek Bailey or Evan Parker. I’m sure you’d get lots out of them! Maybe not, but have you given it a try?

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