Charlie Watts, jazz lover: ‘In a conversation about jazz he just lit up. And he was a complete walking encyclopedia’

The Rolling Stones drummer’s reverence for the legends of jazz — among them Charlie Parker, Billy Eckstine, Billie Holiday and Miles Davis — drove him to collect rare recordings and memorabilia that will strike a chord with all music fans

Charlie Watts at a Rolling Stones concert in Muenster, Germany, in 1965. Photo: Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy Stock Photo

Charlie Watts at a Rolling Stones concert in Muenster, Germany, in 1965. Photo: Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy Stock Photo

A drum kit, unlike any other musical instrument, is a curated collection, a group of related objects selected and arranged by the person who cherishes and uses them. And a drum kit, like all collections, is an expression of the personality of the owner, a self-portrait of sorts. It follows that drummers are natural-born collectors, whether they know it or not.

Charlie Watts, for almost 60 years the ‘heartbeat of the Rolling Stones’, as his bandmates called him, was both a world-class drummer and a lifelong, unstoppable accumulator of wonderful artefacts. ‘I think he was addicted to collectability,’ says Paul Sexton, author of a fine biography of Watts entitled Charlie’s Good Tonight. ‘Anything that fitted the general definition of a collectable — Charlie was in. He had a real instinctive inquisitiveness about everything.’

The result of that obsessive curiosity was a kind of collection of collections, much of it unrelated to his day job: Georgian silver, antique glass, first editions, classic cars (though he never learned to drive), militaria from the American Civil War, and one-offs such as a full-size Victorian replica of the Bayeux Tapestry.

But the most extensive of Charlie Watts’s collections revolved around the art form that lay closest to his heart. He loved jazz, and his archive of jazz memorabilia was enormous. Now, hundreds of the items that Watts amassed are to be sold in a two-part sale, Charlie Watts: Gentleman, Collector, Rolling Stone. On 28 September 2023, Charlie Watts: Literature and Jazz Part I takes place at Christie’s in London, while an online auction runs from 15 to 29 September.

Stage photograph of Billie Holiday by Nat Singerman, signed ‘Billie Holiday’, early 1950s. Gelatin silver print. 254 x 203 mm. Sold for £4,410 on 28 September 2023 at Christie’s in London

‘Charlie was a man of many passions, and he approached all of them as a fan,’ says Sexton. ‘That certainly applies to the jazz. A conversation with Charlie about jazz was completely unlike a conversation about the Stones, because playing in the band was just doing his duty, and he was always diffident about it. But in a conversation about jazz he just lit up. And he was a complete walking encyclopedia of the subject.’

A remarkable archive of manuscript arrangements from the founding years of Count Basie’s ‘New Testament’ band. In the hands of Neal Hefti, Ernie Wilkins, Frank Foster, Benny Golson, Charles Thompson and others, 1940s-1950s

As for the collection itself, it is one man’s musical museum — and there are many strands within it: recordings in various extinct formats; signed publicity photographs of jazz greats such as Billie Holiday; hastily printed flyers and handbills for gigs long past; personal items that were once the property of Watts’s revered jazz heroes — such as two 1952 Down Beat awards presented to Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, both engraved with the legendary saxophonist’s name.

Two Down Beat awards presented to Charlie Parker for ‘Favorite Soloist: First Place’ and ‘Alto Sax: First Place’, 1952. The mahogany plaques with brass quaver motifs and engraved plates, each 254 x 166 mm. Sold for £37,800 on 28 September 2023 at Christie’s in London

Charlie Parker represents a kind of special subset within the wider collection. Clearly, Watts revered his namesake with an intensity that remained undimmed from his teens to his death. ‘He would talk about players such as Parker with complete awe,’ says Sexton. ‘Even when he was the most famous drummer in the world, the most celebrated, he never thought of himself as their equal.’

Charlie Parker and Miles Davis by William Gottlieb, New York, 1947. Gelatin silver print, printed 1979. Sheet: 280 x 355 mm. Sold for £5,292 on 28 September 2023 at Christie’s in London

Among numerous Parker-related items in the auction is a 1950s menu card from Birdland, the Manhattan jazz club that borrowed Parker’s nickname. The card is signed by Parker himself, and by various other musicians who played there: Dizzy Gillespie, Joe ‘Be-Bop’ Carroll — and Billy Eckstine, who was a childhood favourite of Watts’s because his parents liked the bandleader’s music too.

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Charlie Parker’s 1950 union membership card for the Associated Musicians of Greater New York. Printed in red and black on pale green medium card stock. 219 x 254 mm. Sold for £10,080 on 28 September 2023 at Christie’s in London

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Menu card for New York jazz club Birdland, signed and inscribed ‘To Beverly, Good Luck, Charlie Parker’, circa 1950. Single-fold menu card, printed in blue on pale yellow stock. 281 x 216 mm. Sold for £7,560 on 28 September 2023 at Christie’s in London

Watts once spoke to Modern Drummer  magazine about his fascination with Charlie Parker. ‘[In] New York, all I wanted to do was go to Birdland,’ he told the magazine in 1982. ‘I was lucky enough to get there before it closed. I still walk down 52nd Street. It’s just something that meant something to me as a kid, listening to Charlie Parker, and to think that he lived there and walked down that street and played there.’

Six original acetate recordings of live performances by Charlie Parker, recorded by Dean Benedetti in Los Angeles, 1947. Used in the production of the Mosaic Records box set The Complete Dean Benedetti Recordings of Charlie Parker, released in 1990

Watts owned numerous rare studio recordings by Parker and others on ‘acetates’ — which look at first glance like vinyl LPs, but are actually aluminium plates coated with nitrocellulose lacquer. They were used before the advent of magnetic tape to make master recordings — and they were expensive, so sound engineers of the time would often squeeze as many takes as possible onto the same disc.

The result is musical buried treasure: a live studio recording complete with false starts, out-takes, one-off solos and discarded experiments. Many of Watts’s Parker acetates have all these revelatory ephemeral elements. Some also feature the performances of collaborators such as Ella Fitzgerald and Buddy Rich.

Programme for the Thelonius Monk Quartet’s 1965 tour of Japan, signed and inscribed by Thelonius Monk. Wire-stitched in original wrappers printed in red, yellow, black and white. 285 x 285 mm. Sold for £2,772 on 28 September 2023 at Christie’s in London

But we can say for certain that Watts never listened to any of them. Sexton says that he would not have dreamed of it: these recordings are too fragile and too precious to be played. What, then, was the point of owning them? Charlie’s oldest friend and schoolmate, musician Dave Green, gave Sexton a vital clue: ‘What Charlie said was, with a record you are getting something that was made at the same time as the music was being made. He was very sensitive to that, and loved it… He was in contact with these lost worlds.’

In other words, Watts’s jazz collection was linked to his almost painfully keen sense of history. He once told Sexton that he would have liked to have been born an English landowner around 1810. But a birthdate of 1910 in Manhattan might have suited him just as well, because that would have allowed him to hang out at the jazz joints of Harlem in their 1930s heyday.

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That golden age of jazz was not long past when Watts was born in 1942. It was still within reach. Watts not only walked the streets that Charlie Parker walked, he even met some of his American idols.

‘One of the first records Charlie ever bought was Walkin’ Shoes, a hit for the Gerry Mulligan Quartet in 1952,’ says Sexton. ‘The drummer on that recording was Chico Hamilton — whom Charlie eventually met in the 1990s. They even played together, and Charlie couldn’t believe his luck. In his own mind he was always just a jazz-crazy lad from a north London prefab.’

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