Swing and big band jazz

Pure jazz as such was never an influence on the Stones in any real way, but indirectly it has, since Charlie, all his life, from his youth to the present, has been a jazz fan more than anything else and has always listened to and appreciated jazz drumming. More than any the rock band, the Stones swing, as Keith is fond of saying, and part of that influence is definitely from Charlie and jazz (from swing was born jump blues, which in turn helped create rhythm and blues).

Swing is what traditional jazz and New Orleans dixieland jazz evolved into in the 1920s and '30s. Combos turned into big bands, the music got written, and featured more solo improvisations while maintaining recognizable melodies. Among its greatest practitioners were musicians and bandleaders such as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Lester Young, and singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole and Billie Holiday.

Charlie's greatest passion growing up was bop, the jazz music of the late 1940s and 50s that presented a radical development out of swing, yet he also nursed a deep affection for the swing era. In 1985, when he finally formed his first jazz outfit (his band Rocket 88 with Ian Stewart had focused on boogie-woogie), the Charlie Watts Orchestra, he ambitiously recreated a big band of the stature of those days, playing many of the swing and big band classics.

LOUIS ARMSTRONG  (1901-1971)

Born in New Orleans, Armstrong is recognized as the single most influential and significant performer in jazz history. In addition to leading ground-breaking bands that helped create swing more than any other bands, Armstrong was also an extremely talented trumpet player and singer. When Armstrong really got going in the 1920s and eventually became a bandleader, he brought blues influences and textures into the music in addition to his other innovations, sometimes backing female blues singers like Bessie Smith. Most significantly, by the late 20s Armstrong had, due to this soloing virtuosity, turned dixieland jazz from a simple folk music into a complex genre where improvisation played a major role. In the 1930s, he made commercial songs as well and became extremely popular throughout the country and abroad. When bop arrived in the mid-1940s Armstrong's influential days were over, but he continued performing until his death.

Keith and Charlie in particular have expressed great admiration for Armstrong's music.

I could've done with being one of Elvis' original band, being one of the Crickets, being one of the Blue Cats. I could've used being in Little Richard's band in the '50s, a million others. I would've loved to have been in Muddy (Waters') band in the early '50s. Would've loved to be in Louis Armstrong's band in the '20s. I mean, I can go back further than that.

                                                  - Keith Richards, 1983

(I'd loved to have seen) Louis Armstrong, probably at the Roseland Ballroom in Chicago.. 1930, with a big band behind him. Yeah. I like Armstrong with a big band. I mean, I like the Hot Seven and all those, but I like him with a big band.

                                                  - Charlie Watts, 1994

Charlie covered Armstrong's Someday (You'll Be Sorry) on his 1996 Long Ago and Far Away album.

COUNT BASIE  (1904-1984)

Along with Ellington, New Jersey-born pianist Count Basie fronted the best and most celebrated swing band of his era. Arriving in Kansas City in 1927, he joined Walter Page's Blue Devils, then other bands before forming his own outfit in the 1930s. His 30s band, featuring guitarist Freddie Green, bassist Walter Page and drummer Jo Jones, was a solid, extremely talented, groundbreaking band that paved the way for the innovations that would lead to the creation of bop.

Basie continued moving on. In the late 30s, his big band, which featured tenor saxophonist Lester Young, created many swing classics like Jumpin' at the Woodside. The great performances and records continued through the 1940s. Though the swing craze passed, from the 1950s to the '70s Basie continued fronting talented swing and jazz bands.

Though Charlie's true love was modern jazz or bop, he also always had a great fondness for the swing and big band era, including Ellington and Basie. When the Stones held a party in New York in July 1972 to celebrate Mick's birthday and the end of the Stones' North American tour, they hired Basie to entertain, along with Muddy Waters.

The first album I ever bought was a Count Basie.

                                                  - Ron Wood, 1994


DUKE ELLINGTON  (1899-1974)

The king of swing and big band jazz, Duke Ellington reigned supreme atop the jazz world in the 1930s and 1940s, and remained influential and revered thereafter as a pianist, bandleader and composer.

Born in Washington D.C., Ellington got his start in 1927 and by the '30s his orchestra was creating swing classics like Mood Indigo and It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing. During the war and through the 1940s Ellington's band gained even greater stature, creating more classics like I Got It Bad, Cotton Tail and Jump for Joy. By the 50s the swing era had passed yet, like Basie, Ellington's Orchestra remained in demand for decades. Ellington died of cancer.

In 1981-82, the Stones used Ellington's performance of Take the A-Train as an intro to their appearing onto the stage. The Charlie Watts Orchestra covered Ellington's Prelude to a Kiss in the mid-1980s. Charlie also covered Ellington's In a Sentimental Mood for his 1996 Long Ago and Far Away album.

I'd LOVED to have seen Ellington at Cotton Club and have dressed up for the occasion.

                                                  - Charlie Watts, 1994


BENNY GOODMAN  (1909-1986)

Born in Chicago, clarinetist Benny Goodman played in various bands in the 1920s. Big band jazz and swing were already well developed when Goodman started up an orchestra in the mid-1930s. Though never an innovator or musical genius in the sense that Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington were, Goodman's orchestra helped popularize swing and his band became the world's best known in the late 1930s. In the early 1940s, though his star was becoming eclipsed by that of Glenn Miller, he remained extremely popular. The end of World War II and the rise of bop or bebop meant swing was past its prime, however. Goodman's signature songs included Let's Dance and Stompin' at the Savoy.

The Charlie Watts Orchestra covered many Goodman songs in the 1980s, including Stompin' at the Savoy.

LIONEL HAMPTON  (1909-     )

Born in Kentucky, Lionel Hampton played the drums in various jazz bands in the 1920s before discovering a talent on the then unusual instrument of the vibraphone in the 1930s. Benny Goodman hired him in his orchestra in the mid-1930s and Hampton shined. In the early 1940s, he left to form his own orchestra, which achieved its own tremendous success and became one of the most innovative and up-with-the-times swing bands. Hampton is still performing today.

The Charlie Watts Orchestra closed out its 1986 album with a cover of Hampton's most celebrated piece, Flying Home.

JO JONES  (1911-1985)

Born in Chicago, drummer Jo Jones is one of the most celebrated early drummers in jazz. He is the drummer who decided to use the hi-hat cymbal instead of the bass drum to keep the time, therefore laying the ground for the development of swing.

Growing up in Alabama, he moved to Oklahoma City in the 1920s where he joined Walter Page's Blue Devils. In the 1930s, he moved to Kansas City where he joined Count Basie's band, with whom he played until 1948. He continued performing until the 1970s.

The following is an excerpt from Stanley Booth's The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, set during the Stones' tour rehearsals in Los Angeles in October 1969. Author Stanley Booth is conversing with Bill and Charlie and their wives.

Great bass sound, ennit? A portable phonograph in a corner of the room was playing 1930s records by the Kansas City Six. Yeah, Walter Page, really good, Charlie said... Never get a sound like that with an electric bass, said Wyman, a bass player whose hands were too small to play the acoustic bass. The electric bass is more flexible, I said, trying to help divert the conversations. You can do more things with it.
You can't do THAT, Wyman said. Can you, Charlie?
Never, Charlie said as Page's bass and Jo Jones' brushes blended with Freddie Green's guitar, their rhythm steady as a healthy heartbeat...

There are so many. Dream rhythm section, there was one. Count Basie, Freddy Greene, and Jo Jones.
                                                  - Charlie Watts, 1998, asked about his dream rhythm section

DAVE TOUGH  (1907-1948)

Tough is another drummer frequently cited by Charlie as one of his favorites of the swing era. Tough began playing in the 1920s, with artists like Sid Meyers and Art Kassel. Traveling to Europe and back, Tough played with various swing big bands in the 1930s, including Benny Goodman's and Tommy Dorsey's. During the war years, he played mostly on the dixieland circuit, before joining Woody Herman's outfit in the mid-40s, where Tough started playing the new bop music. An alcoholic, he died of injuries related to his drinking problem.

One of my favorite drummers is Davy Tough - nobody knows anything about him, really. He's one of the Austin High School Gang, out of Chicago in the '30s. Played with ALL the big bands, and he played with the famous first Herd, Woody Herman's. He's the drummer on Caledonia and Northwest Passage and all that. He's a legend. Every band leader wanted him in the '30s. Skinny guy... Davy Tough was a skinny white man, really skinny, and was a really loud player, apparently, from what I've gathered asking people like Mel Lewis about him.

                                                  - Charlie Watts, 1994


LESTER YOUNG  (1909-1959)

Born in Mississippi, Lester Young is considered one of the all time greatest jazz saxophonists. He played in various bands in the 1920s and '30s, before arriving into Count Basie's band, where his radically new way of playing separated him from the rest. Young joined the military in the 1940s, where racist experiences left him psychologically scarred and an alcoholic for the rest of his life. Nevertheless he continued making important recordings, adapting his style to the new bop in ways that many other swing musicians would not or could not do. He died of alcohol related disease.

The Charlie Watts Orchestra featured a version of Young's Lester Leaps In on their 1986 Live at Fulham Town Hall record.

Written by Ian McPherson, 2000.
Like all files on Time Is On Our Side, it is the exclusive intellectual property
of Ian McPherson and cannot be duplicated, in any form, without his authorization.

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