Cleveland Watkiss: ‘I thought maybe they’d given me an MBE to me to shut me up’

Cleveland Watkiss
Cleveland Watkiss
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On his latest tour, jazz singer Cleveland Watkiss is exploring the Great Jamaican Songbook. Duncan Seaman reports.

Cleveland Watkiss is renowned as one of the great voices of British jazz. His concert at the National Centre for Early Music in York is one of two national dates this month dedicated to the Great Jamaican Songbook.

Songs from the Caribbean island, the Hackney-born singer says, are an important part of his heritage.

“It’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time. This was the music that got me really inspired in my teens, it was music that spawned all the other things, really. My parents being from Jamaica, I grew up listening to a lot of that sound at home. Come the early 70s, when the music morphed into more dubby sounds and Lovers’ Rock, great prolific artists like Dennis Brown and Jacob Miller, The Wailers, Burning Spear, Delroy Wilson, Gregory Isaacs etc were a big influence on me as a vocalist.

“Having gone through the decades and been more of a vocal explorer, I guess is the term, I wanted to return to this passion for this music, especially in lieu of what’s been going on in the Windrush scandal. I just wanted to pay homage and honour that great music.

“I was having a conversation with Orphy Robinson, the great vibraphone player, and I was talking to him about my desire to do this type of project and really go back and play this music, and the words he said to me were, ‘You should do the Great Jamaican Songbook’. That was the line that really kicked everything in motion, just having that great title.”

Cleveland Watkiss

Cleveland Watkiss

Selecting which songs to perform, he says, was “really easy”. “Obviously growing up with that music, it was fun and easy going back and finding the songs that really resonated with me back in that time.”

Watkiss feels naturally steeped in the history of the music. “It’s part of the culture,” he says. “If you grew up with ska, reggae, bluebeat, dub sound systems, hip-hop, grime, the history is all in there. One of the things that I’m really interested and fascinated in is the Alpha School. Sister Ignatius, this nun who was running the boys’ music orphanage, tutored some amazing musicians that went on, people like Don Drummond, a trombone player that’s been an influence on so many great American trombone players – I know Delfeayo Marsalis went to Jamaica to research Don Drummond – then you’ve got Joe Harriott who came here to England, a pioneer free jazz and world music, Dizzy Reece, the trumpet player who came here initially and lives in America now.

“And then you have jazz and the whole connection to its development in America. Duke Ellington spoke about the influence of the Caribbean on the musicians that were in his orchestra in the 20s and 30s, he had loads of Caribbean musicians of great quality. Duke Ellington said, ‘Before the ingredients of jazz came to New Orleans it made its presence felt in the West Indies. That ingredient, or a major part of it, came through these people who were brought to the West Indies’. That’s Duke Ellington acknowledging the root of the music.

“When the slave ships left Africa, the first stop was the Caribbean before Congo Square in New Orleans, we’re talking pre-recording area but there was a sound being developed in the Caribbean when it got to New Orleans, so there was a whole link of history with the Jamaican or Caribbean music that had a profound, direct influence on the early development of jazz, as Duke Ellington acknowledges.

It was unprecedented for jazz in the UK up to that point. We really set all the things in motion that you see today, when you see all the kids in Tomorrow’s Warriors, the Nubiyas and the Shabakas and Moses Boyd, they’re the continuation of what we started.

Cleveland Watkiss

“Then when you listen to people like Thelonius Monk, musicians that play with that type pf feeling, you hear that rhythm. It’s very obvious that it’s more of a Caribbean rhythm and flavour that Monk is playing with – well, it’s apparent to the likes of us anyway, we hear it straight away.”

The shows in York and the London Jazz Festival coincide with Watkiss’s 60th birthday. He sees it as a chance to hook up with long-time friends and introduce new faces. “It’s a party celebration, it’s in lieu of my 60th birthday, which was on October 21, and I’ll be celebrating for the next 12 months.”

He sees the landmark birthday as a chance to “take stock, you can be in the future and the past”.

“I’m always listening back to things I listened to 40-odd years ago and still learning from it too, there’s still so much information in the history of all this music – whether it’s the reggae-dub stuff or I’m listening to Thelonius Monk or Duke Ellington, there’s always new things to discover and then you’re able to chew it all up and make your own music. The Great Jamaican Songbook is one of many projects that I have.

“We’ve been doing a gigs around London and a few festivals over the last 12 to 18 months with a six-piece and I’m trying to recreate that sounds form the 70s within the drum and the bass part. It’s nostalgic and I’m trying to keep it authentic as well, in that section, because that feeling carries through all the other things I listen to. When I listen to Cuban music or different types of African music I hear that weight in the drums and the bass. For me the melody exists in the drum, the drum is king, as opposed to the other way round.

“There’s this idea that the melodic line is in the voice or in a string instrument, which it is, but it’s also in the drum and I think it was there in the drum in the first place. It was in that big explosion, that Big Bang that we talk about, it was in the drum – there’s the sound right there. What key was that in?”

In the 1980s Watkiss was one of the co-founders of the Jazz Warriors, a London collective that became the launchpad for many musical careers. “In the mid-80s there I was playing with a little ensemble called Alumni, and we had a three-night residency in a wine bar in Covent Garden, and we just thought we were the only black kids in east London who were remotely interested in this music. But we’d find that there were others that would come down, people like Courtney Pine, Steve Williamson, Gary Crosby and Orphy Robinson. Then I remember getting a call from Courtney not long after saying that he was putting together this big band, and I’m thinking, ‘A big band of young black jazz musicians? Where are they, what are you talking about?’ And then I remember going to the first rehearsal and there they were, about 20 or 22 fiery young black musicians that were all interested in playing jazz. That whole meet-up with the original founders of the Warriors I can remember like it was yesterday, it was incredible.

“Doing our first gigs, it was a real struggle initially because we couldn’t get any gigs in the jazz established places. There was that whole kind of snobby I don’t know, linked with bigotry and racism, probably – ‘Who are these young black kids? They can’t play, bah blah blah’. All this energy was flying around and we decided to play in the nonconventional jazz places, we got booking in art galleries and that’s how we initially went forward.

“Eventually the conventional places did come around. They saw there was a buck or two to be made because we were making a noise in the mainstream and getting magazine cover articles and being talked about in the press. It was unprecedented for jazz in the UK up to that point. We really set all the things in motion that you see today, when you see all the kids in Tomorrow’s Warriors, the Nubiyas and the Shabakas and Moses Boyd, they’re the continuation of what we started.”

Over the years Watkiss has won many awards; they now include an MBE which recognises his entire contribution to British music, including his ongoing work in education. “That’s how I accepted it in the end,” he says. “At first I wasn’t too keen to accept it, to be honest, because I thought maybe they’d given it to me to shut me up. I just speak my truth, if you like, and I know it rubs some people up the wrong way. I’m not frightened to talk about racism and political things because it’s a direct relationship to the music. Music is politics and politics is music as far as I’m concerned, there’s no difference. When I hear someone singing a love song that’s still politics to me.

“Eventually I did talk to some people and I thought about it and I thought, ‘No, it’s for my work, for my contribution’, and my name goes into that big book with all the kings and queens and lords and ladies and knights and there it is, Cleveland Watkiss is there as well, I like that.”

Cleveland Watkiss plays at NCEM, York on November 28. www.clevelandwatkiss.co.uk