Trevor Watts, long-time Hastings resident and globally renowned pioneer of improvised music, turns 80 this year. Andrew Myers caught up with him for a couple of pints at the Jenny Lind.

Part 1 of 3

PICTURE: Bob Mazzer

AM: You came to prominence in the 1960s as a founder member of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. The Sixties now seems like a golden age when it was genuinely possible to do new things. Is that just legend?

TW: I’m not romantic or nostalgic and prefer to look forward rather than back. I’ve always been that way. 

But yes, it did seem like everything was possible. 

The SME originally came from jazz. I met (drummer) John Stevens and trombonist Paul Rutherford when we were doing National Service at the RAF School of Music in 1960. We started experimenting with all kinds of musical ideas, but it was still obviously jazz. 

We left the RAF in 1963 and went to London and got the chance to play every night at a place called The Little Theatre Club in St Martin’s Lane. We used it from 10pm until 1 am. We could do anything we liked. It became one of the laboratories for the new music. We had ideas like, ‘What would happen if we played for 24 hours?’

AM: Did you do it?

TW: Yes! There was a lot of experimentation at that point. 

The scene wasn’t so divided then. John and I played as a duo at the Marquee in Wardour Street on a regular basis. There’d be
a rock band on stage, then they’d point a spotlight to where we were within the audience and
say ‘and now for something completely different!’ And we’d play our thing.

People would come and check us out then go and check something else out that was completely at the other end of the spectrum. We played opposite Pink Floyd at their UFO club in Tottenham Court Road. Audience lying on the floor stoned but checking it ALL out.

Yoko Ono came to sing with us when first in London before she met John Lennon. She used to have a house opposite Regent’s Park Mosque. All painted white inside. 

She brought John Lennon to a ‘happening’ in Cambridge organized by Anthony Barnett that we were playing at. It was called Cambridge 69 ‘Natural Music’. There were about thirty musicians all improvising at once for hours.

Then John and Yoko arrived and brought a whole load of recording equipment. They said, “Is it OK if we play for 20 minutes and then you join us?” We said OK, but I felt it wasn’t really in the spirit of the event.

That recording came out on the Apple label as Unfinished Music No 2: Life with the Lions. 

Lennon said as he swept through the dressing room after the gig: “See you on top of the pops then lads!” and went out the door. 

AM: Speaking of recording – I was reading Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and he talks about eternal recurrence – this idea that your whole life happens again – forever. 

It made me think of recorded music versus live performance. Live happens once, but recordings happen again – forever! Is there a lightness to playing live?

TW: As Eric Dolphy says: “It’s in the air – then it’s gone!” 

We had a quartet with John Stevens on drums, and two South African musicians who came over with Chris McGregor’s Blue Notes, bassist Johnny Dyani and trumpeter Mongezi Feza. 

We played together for a year and a half. And not one note was ever recorded. 

I regret that because it seemed very special at the time. 

Conversely, there are some recordings in the Polydor vaults somewhere of me and John playing in a trio with Steve Swallow, and also another
with Dave Holland, Kenny Wheeler, Rashied Ali, John Stevens, Evan Parker, Peter Kowald and I.

AM: The Rashied Ali? Coltrane’s drummer?

TW: Yes…John had been trying to get Alan Bates [producer] to release them for years. But he wouldn’t do it.

AM: Why ever not?

TW: He said they’d be worth more when John was dead! Sadly, John died in 1994, and there’s still no sign of a release. More music lost in the air.

• Next time: Trevor discusses the creative processes of improvised music. And having things thrown at him in Palermo.

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