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Calm, cool and collected Charlie Watts lets loose with ABC&D of Boogie Woogie

Charlie Watts found fame and fortune keeping the beat for The Rolling Stones. But he found his passion as the drummer with the ABC&D of Boogie Woogie.

By Patrick Prince

For his entire musical career, Charlie Watts has been known as the cool one.

He’s the one that the other members of The Rolling Stones always wanted to be like. In Stephen Davis’ Stones biography “Old Gods Almost Dead,” a source claims it’s because Charlie is “genuinely hip” and has “innate good taste.” Even in his autobiography “Life,” Keith Richards goes as far as calling Watts “the secret essence of the whole thing.”

The Rolling Stones Universal Music publicity photo

Charlie Watts is known for being all business when he's onstage with The Rolling Stones. But when he's playing with the ABC&D of Boogie Woogie, he lets loose and has fun. Universal Music publicity photo.

When Charlie Watts sits behind his drum set at each Stones concert, he is the consummate professional. Calm, cool and collected, he is unblinking in his demeanor. He has a knack for keeping the rhythm of the band together, and absolutely nothing seems to faze him while doing so. But as the drummer of the ABC&D of Boogie Woogie, Watts does something he seldom does onstage with the Stones: He fully enjoys himself. Constantly smiling, at times laughing, Watts’ elation is clear as he revels in the music.

Boogie pianist Ben Waters was the first to initiate the formation of what would become the ABC&D of Boogie Woogie – a band celebrating a nearly forgotten style of piano-based blues and jazz music, featuring the A (Axel Zwingenberger on piano), B (Ben Waters on piano), C (Charlie Watts on drums) and D (Dave Green on bass).

Waters called Watts about three years ago to ask if the Stones’ drummer would be interested in performing with him and Zwingenberger. It took little to convince Watts. His only demand was to get Dave Green to play bass, telling Waters, “If Dave does it, I’ll do it.”
A year later, the musicians recorded “Live in Paris,” the ABC&D of Boogie Woogie’s debut, recorded over several nights in September 2010 at the Duc Des Lombards jazz club. The live album encompasses all the charm of the band in a city that has always been kind to jazz music.

The ABC&D of Boogie Woogie

“I said, ‘We should play in Paris. It’s big on jazz. It’s enthusiastically jazz-centered,’” says an impeccably dressed Charlie Watts during an interview from his hotel room in New York City. “All the great Americans either lived or went (to Paris) since the ’20s, from Josephine Baker to Sidney Bechet. It’s one of the few countries in the world where they have two 24-hour radio stations to jazz. It’s fantastic.”

The live set on the “Live in Paris” record is a cocktail of improv, originality and a salute to the standards. But it’s really a message of devotion to the great boogie-woogie musicians of history.

“I’ve only ever heard them on record,” says Watts, referring to iconic boogie-woogie piano players like Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson and Meade “Lux” Lewis. “And you couldn’t say they were bad records. I mean, they are the benchmark of how you play this music.”
Watts’ true love is traditional jazz music. Not only does he love playing jazz, he is also a huge collector of jazz memorabilia. While the drummer recognizes that his career is indebted to rock ’n’ roll and one of the most significant periods of its history, the British Invasion, Watts confesses that he would rather have been a jazz drummer during the 1940s, specifically in New York City.

“I’d love to have been good enough to play here then,” he says. “To listen to and play with all those people that I love, oh, sure. Having said that, there are other eras, as well. And my career, if you like, some things have happened to me that are just amazing, really.”

At the time of the British Invasion, Watts never thought the era was especially amazing or unique. He makes it clear that he was more interested in playing the drums or listening to other drummers than being part of a musical movement. Fact is, Watts still doesn’t fully comprehended the term “rock ’n’ roll,” even though he is a lifelong member of a band that has become promoted and known as the greatest rock and roll band of all time.

“I don’t know what ‘rock’ is,” says Watts. “It’s like pop. Pop is from ‘popular.’ I’ve never been interested in that. I love being popular, I might add, but I’m not interested in popular or its culture.”

Frankly, the longevity of the rock and roll musical movement has surprised him.

“I never thought it would last like it has,” he continues. “It’s also become, to be honest with you, just a word now. To me, rock and roll is Chuck Berry or Little Richard. I mean, there are no bands that play like that (anymore). All those people were of the ’50s and that, that’s rock and roll to me. Since then, I don’t think it is.”

Charlie Watts of Rolling Stones on pop vs. rock

He doesn’t even understand the term’s common use in today’s culture, especially among the fashionable and trendy. He quickly offers an example.

“And now, I mean, what the f**k’s a ‘rock chick,’ you know? It’s stupid. It’s just a popular name the fashion designers have called up. It’s nothing. In the ’70s, it would be called a groupie. Before that it was called a whore, you know, or a prostitute. So a ‘rock chick’ is a bastardized version of that.”

At one time, it was boogie woogie that was all the rage, Watts points out. Its approach had the same rebellious restlessness as rock ’n’ roll.

“Boogie woogie was a popular form of music for about five years in America. All the big bands did one boogie woogie record. The Andrew Sisters sang about boogie woogie. Tommy Dorsey … all the big bands had a section of the show that featured the piano player playing eight to the bar, they called it. ‘Beat me Daddy, eight to the bar’ stuff. I mean, it just died out, really.”

Today, boogie woogie remains a rarely heard form of music. The question is, can Charlie Watts’ fame draw new listeners to boogie woogie? Would Rolling Stones fans be at all interested? Could a younger generation be turned on to such a lost genre?

“Whether it turns them on, I don’t know,” he answers. “It’s dance music. It’s a dance beat. It died out, but it spawned New Orleans and rock ’n’ roll. Most rock ’n’ roll piano players played great blues, and they played boogie woogie with it, so it’s a combination of all.”

“If a young kid was talented enough to play boogie woogie piano, he might become another Little Richard or something,” he goes on to say. “When we loved Richard, he was a good-looking young man, and had great records, as well. It has to have a lot of things going for it. And kids follow movements. They were the ones that got boogie woogie players in the big bands and all that, because they loved to dance to it.”

ABC&D of Boogie Woogie photo by Alex Dobias

The ABC&D of Boogie Woogie is comprised of (from left) Axel Zwingenberger (piano), Ben Waters (piano), Charlie Watts (percussion) and Dave Green (bass). Publicity photo/© Alex Dobias.

If there’s one thing boogie woogie is, it’s a live performance music. The liner notes for “Live in Paris” emphasize this.

“Any music is,” explains Watts. “And any musician who is any good is much more exciting and thrilling to see live. You’re seeing them at work, and you’re hearing it as it comes from them.

“I learned to play from records and watching guys do it, watching it done live,” he continues. “The best way to see a drummer is live. Stand near him and watch him play. And hear. And if he’s any good, that’s what you hear, how good he is. You know, if you had gone to see Roy Haynes play, he’s phenomenal, and I don’t mean lots of drumming. I mean, just the sound of the man and the presence of him is as great as all the things he does. It’s just him being there, doing it. It’s live music.”

Although the Stones are known for their rehearsal efforts, The ABC&D of Boogie Woogie does not put much importance on rehearsing or following a set list. A live performance is spontaneous by nature, and the band capitalizes on that. Piano players Zwingenberger and Waters will spring songs on the rest of the band, and then any given song can be subject to an impromptu jam.

The one difference of playing between two piano players rather than two guitarists is that the music is much more conversational, according to Watts.

“They come out different every time,” Watts says of the songs introduced by either Waters or Zwingenberger to be performed by the band. “We don’t play them in any order. And we don’t play the same songs. So I don’t know if we are going to do ‘Route 66’ until the intro. We never know what we are playing. It keeps it interesting. You have to get the right sticks and all that, but that’s the only hard bit about it. You miss the intro sometimes, because you haven’t been ready; you know, but it’s different. It doesn’t need that rehearsed thing. In fact, it would lose a lot if it was rehearsed tightly.”

One would imagine it to be quite a challenge, shifting from the strict and serious business of mainstream rock ’n’ roll to the fun and loose spirit of boogie woogie. But Watts doesn’t see it that way, in large part because he does both.

ABC&D of Boogie Woogie photo by Philippe Marchin featuring Charlie Watts

With a grinning Charlie Watts keeping the beat, The ABC&D of Boogie Woogie let loose at Des Duc Lombards club in Paris, where the group’s live album was recorded. Publicity Photo/®Philippe Marchin.

“I mean, if I played jazz all my life and you suddenly said, ‘You’re playing rock and roll with the Stones tomorrow,’ it might be quite a jump. But I’ve played with jazz players while playing with the Stones — who supposedly play rock and roll,” Watts says.

All of this uninhibited energy of the ABC&D of Boogie Woogie is on display during the band’s engagement at The Iridium jazz club in midtown Manhattan. The Iridium is an intimate, classy jazz venue with great acoustics, just the kind of New York City club you could see Watts sentimentalizing over.

The audience is a mix of Iridium regulars, jazz aficionados and, of course, Rolling Stones fans — a few of whom are holding onto their copies of the band’s classic albums, hoping for the chance that their vinyl will become consecrated by Charlie Watts’ signature after the show.

Yet, one important person is missing — the “B” of this outfit, pianist Ben Waters. Waters is unable to make the performance for some unannounced reason. Earlier, Watts vaguely mentioned that Ben was “lost in the Adirondacks somewhere.” As strange as his absence may be, the gig must go on without him.

Fittingly, pianist Bob Seeley fills the “B” role of the group this evening. A renowned American boogie woogie pianist from Detroit, Seeley turns out to be quite a treat. He introduces himself by telling the story of his lifelong friendship and close bond with legend Meade “Lux” Lewis, and then leads the band into “Chicago Flyer,” a Lewis gem from the Blue Note years.

On the other side of the stage, Zwingenberger is smooth and restrained compared with Seeley’s emotive style. Watts, in the middle, waits for his cue with sticks under his arm. When he comes into the song, he plays it as if enjoying a dream. At times he rolls back his eyes, as if in a euphoric state.

During the next series of songs, Watts is in his element. He appears to be playing on Cloud Nine, with this music as his silver lining.

The crowd, once subdued with an inner, intense anticipation, is now on every jam, clapping when a musician excels. Watts, at times, lets loose when a given song builds to a crescendo. He likes to glance at his bandmates as an acknowledgement of respect, often looking over at Dave Green whenever the bassist has done a nice run.

One of the highlights of the night is guest vocalist Lila Ammons, granddaughter of Albert Ammons and niece of famed tenor saxophonist Gene “Jug” Ammons, who sings to a boogie woogie arrangement of “Oh, Lady Be Good.” Blessed with a slick voice, she then sasses through some “Alley Boogie” as if she were Lucille Bogan herself.

The performances are so pure, it’s easy for audience members to close their eyes and picture themselves in a New York City nightclub in the 1940s. And in the heart of this fantasy setting, Watts can picture the late Ian Stewart, a pianist, uncompromising boogie woogie practitioner and co-founder and inherent spirit of The Rolling Stones.

“Oh, Stu would love it. That’s what he did. That’s what he was. But he would have had his own band here,” laughs Watts.