In 1982, saxophonist Trevor Watts and his partner were bringing up an infant and a newly born baby in a flat on the busy Great North Road, London. Seeking a healthier lifestyle, the family uprooted and moved to a much roomier house in Hastings.
“It was a big risk for me in terms of eventually losing all my contacts in London, as I played there regularly in various venues,” says Trevor.
He was a pioneer of what came to be known as free jazz and improvised music. In the mid-1960s, he and the drummer John Stevens formed the Spontaneous Music Ensemble alongside trombonist Paul Rutherford, playing regular sessions at London’s Little Theatre Club. Originally taking inspiration from American jazz innovators such as Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler and Eric Dolphy – but also from earlier jazz traditions and from modern composers such as Webern and traditional musics of Africa, India and the Far East – they started to produce an exciting, totally improvised music based on listening and instant response, the like of which had not been heard before.
Born in York but brought up in Halifax, he’d left school at 15 without a clear idea of what he wanted to do. At 16 he got his first saxophone. “My father had lived in North America in the 1930s and brought back records by Duke Ellington and other jazz musicians,” he explains. “You couldn’t find music anywhere in Halifax then.” He taught himself to play, emulating players like Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins and Stan Getz. But his main first influence was an alto sax player called Ernie Henry who only made three recordings under his own name before he died. He played lead alto with the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band.
Then he was called up to do national service in 1959. And it was an opportunity to get into a band! In the RAF, based mainly in Germany, he met John Stevens and Paul Rutherford. “We had lots of time to practise – it was a very creative period,” he says.
The music they went on to produce during the 60s and 70s was sharp, angular, pointillistic, largely eschewing conventional rhythm and melody. The new school of European free improvisation began to cut its ties to American jazz – something that slightly troubled Trevor, who still loves many of the old traditions. And so he started to experiment with different kinds of fusion, such as Amalgam, a band he formed in the late 60s, which used elements of rock and funk. He was introduced by guitarist Steve Hayton to Liam Genockey, who had previously played drums with John Martyn and others, and invited him to join the band.
The move to Hastings coincided with Trevor’s formation of another band, Moiré Music (and its later variant, the Moiré Music Drum Orchestra). He reminisces: “I did most of the writing [for the band] here in Hastings in an ice-cold room (a lot needed doing to the house when we moved in). First two concerts were at the Roundhouse and Bracknell Jazz Festival, both in 1982. That gig was opposite Pigbag with Neneh Cherry as a young singer. They went wild for our music.”
Trevor mourns the loss of opportunities to play such music in Hastings today, compared with the 1980s and early 90s: “There was an outlet for that music here, and even more radical music, at the Pig in Paradise and George Street Hall, as it was known then. I even played The White Rock Theatre with a 14-piece Moiré. The ‘Pig’ was a great venue run by people who’d just give all types of music a go. And we’d always get a large audience. The most frustrating thing was when that ended, the pub got sold, they ripped the place to shreds and tried to make it into a ‘young people’s’ place, whereas everybody had enjoyed it before.”
At that time, there was a lot of music that was “further out to the edges than most music in this town or anywhere” he says. “Jamie Harris [Hastings-based percussionist, with whom Trevor had a duet] stuck his neck out and organised a first Hastings Improvised Music Festival at St Mary in the Castle with people like myself and Veryan, but also the radical vocalist Phil Minton, the soprano sax player Lol Coxhill, drummer Roger Turner and others.
“But that’s all gone out of the window now. It’s all gone back to safe and well trodden territory I feel, a kind of default position. So I applaud Respond Academy for giving Veryan Weston [the pianist with whom Trevor plays as a duo] and me a go on more than one occasion recently.”
I ask whether Trevor connected with any pre-existing local music scenes when he moved to Hastings. “Not really, because of the way I played. But I think we had a hand in shaking things up for a while. I did sit in with bands like Eric Money and Buick 6, and I always had the philosophy that music was really interesting if things joined together musically that were not normally there in the tradition of that music. It’s the coming together of different ideas that makes those traditions in the first place.
“I did hear Liane Carroll as a young singer here, loved her voice and playing and asked her to be in my second version of Moiré in around 1988. She took up the challenge with enthusiasm and skill. Liam Genockey I’d known since 1972 in London and he visited me here, liked it and stayed. I used to rehearse at my house with the Drum Orchestra, and the percussionist Nana Tsiboe liked Hastings and stayed. I first connected with Nana in 1979 as part of a group led by South African drummer Louis Moholo. We found we had a lot of common interests and I asked Nana if he knew more African musicians, and that’s how the Drum Orchestra was formed, originally with Liam and [violinist and member of Steeleye Span] Peter Knight.
“I’d known Pete since about 1968, as we both worked at Boosey & Hawkes music publishers in Regent Street, London. When I came to Hastings the first person I met was Pete, whom I hadn’t seen for years, sitting in the corner in the Standard pub, with his dad Frank who also played violin. Pete said to his dad ‘I want to know what he knows’, pointing to me. I said ‘What do I know, Pete?’ And he said about improvisation in music, and that’s how we got together.
“We needed a bass guitarist for a BBC broadcast one time. And Liam knew Colin Gibson. Colin also came down eventually to live here. He knew Kenny Craddock, the pianist, and he came to live here. So it wasn’t so much tapping into the scene here as the word getting round that this was a good place to live for a musician or artist.
“Later on, around 2000, I created the Celebration Band from a workshop I was doing here and I used a younger set of musicians: Amy and Rob Leake, Marcus Cummins, Roger Carey, Geoff Sapsford and Jamie Harris. By the end I was able to put a tour together in the USA and Canada for that band. They worked hard on the music and eventually got it to a good standard.”
Trevor has toured the world with his various groups. I ask him what have been the highlights. As you may imagine, this would need a book rather than a feature article; but one he recalls is a collaboration between Teatro Negro de Barlovento (Venezuela) and the Moiré Music Drum Orchestra: “They were a black theatre and music group. Originally freed slaves who kept their African culture and lived in a small village in the North of Venezuela on the Caribbean coast. We were originally introduced and performed together when we were touring Mexico and Venezuela in 1990 with the Drum Orchestra and I thought how great it would be to do more. So I was sent by the British Council to Venezuela. I requested that Nana Tsiboe come with me, and they agreed. We went to the village to study their music and show some of what we were doing. They also one night took us to the beach and performed a voodoo ceremony for us including the slaughter of chickens. Which we ate later. I then managed to set up a short tour in the UK and Europe and a BBC broadcast. That was a nice combination.”
Trevor Watts has made over 100 albums both under his own name and in other settings. For more information visit: www.trevorwatts.co.uk