Editor’s Note: Gene Seymour is a critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @GeneSeymour. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
I always thought it was a laugh-out-loud joke on rock ‘n’ roll that its best and most widely respected drummer was an abiding, committed and knowledgeable jazz hound.
Charlie Watts, who died Tuesday at 80 years old, provided the legs for the Rolling Stones in their rise to superstardom and, in doing so, set the standard for what the known world regards as pure, undiluted rock ‘n’ roll.
But Watts kept faith and, often, time with jazz music, most especially the post-World War II modernist movement labeled “bebop,” whose energies were as insurgent, paradigm-shifting and Dionysian as those propelling the Stones toward front-and-center of the rock-pop universe.
Indeed, Watts often called pounding the trap set for Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ron Wood and the rest of the Stones’ revolving cast of players his “day job,” while finding time to elsewhere engage in the kind of on-the-spot polyrhythmic invention practiced by such bop-era jazz giants as Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, Roy Haynes and Art Blakey.
There was even a 2017 book, “Charlie Watts’ Favorite Drummers,” collecting Watts’ quotes about every percussionist he learned something from, including swing-era notables like Jo Jones and Sid Catlett.
Every once in a while, Watts, wry, dry and self-effacing on- and offstage, would let his jazz flag fly in public, leading an all-star big band of British jazz musicians in a 1986 tour and helming his own quintet, which in 1992 recorded a tribute album to bebop’s greatest innovator, Charlie Parker.
Even Watts’ onstage manner and general deportment were redolent of the cool, crisply tailored jazz beaux; his attention to fashion detail was something a committed clothes horse like Miles Davis might relate to.
But the guess here is that what really would have impressed Miles Davis was what Watts did on his “day job.”
The most flamboyant of trap set players would be challenged to lay down the “big beat” of rock drumming with Charlie Watts’ precise timing and unobtrusive virtuosity.
As far back as 1966’s “Paint It Black,” Watts’ presence is strong enough to make itself known along with Jagger’s insolent growl, Richards’ rhythm guitar, Bill Wyman’s bass and the late Brian Jones’ sitar (unusual at its time, though not for much longer). And yet, here as with just about any Stones track you can remember at any tempo, Watts somehow finds a way to both drive and contain everybody in the group.
To use an analogy, Watts could set the table and keep it steady enough to keep everything added to it from spilling over. Don’t take my word for it. Listen to (let’s say) “19th Nervous Breakdown,” “Tumbling Dice,” “Midnight Rambler,” or (of course) “Start Me Up.”
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So consummate was Watts at containment and control that one wondered which of the Stones’ three longest-lasting members, Jagger, Richards or Watts, would be the hardest to lose. I guess we’re about to find out.
One more thing: shortly after Watts’ death, I came across one of those if-it’s-not-true-it-should-be quotes from somewhere or another that while for generations there were millions of fans who aspired to be Rolling Stones, the actual Stones aspired to be Charlie Watts.
Paraphrasing James Brown, one of Watts’ multitude of fans, let’s all give this drummer some.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly named Charlie Watts as the drummer on the Rolling Stones "It's Only Rock 'n' Roll." The drummer on that song was Kenney Jones. The reference here has been replaced with "Start Me Up", on which Watts was drummer.