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  • In Memoriam: Charlie Watts (June 2, 1941 – August 24, 2021) by Rick Mattingly

    by Rhythm Scene Staff | Aug 27, 2021

    Charlie Watts“There’s an undefinable thing about drummers,” Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards told me in 1989 during the band’s Steel Wheels tour. “A lot of cats have good hands, and might be making all the right moves, and playing incredible paradiddles and shit, but it’s like the playing keeps going down the runway and never, ever takes off. Whereas with Charlie, you suddenly realize that you’re floating a few inches off the ground. Yeah, Charlie. I just look at him and I relax.”

    Charlie Watts kept the beat for the Rolling Stones for over five decades, since joining the band in 1963. He was not part of the band’s “bad boy” image, however. He never participated in the band’s more outrageous behavior, was married to the same woman since 1964, preferred jazz to rock ’n’ roll, and had such a flair for traditional fashion that he was elected to Vanity Fair magazine’s International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame.

    But on stage and in the recording studio, his sense of groove and swing melded with Richards’ distinctive guitar style to create the deep rhythmic pocket that characterized the Stones’ music, from the driving toms of “Paint it Black” to the swing of “19th Nervous Breakdown” to the unrelenting pulse of “Satisfaction” to the disco groove of “Miss You” and to songs with a reggae feel, a laid-back blues shuffle, a Motown groove, a funk beat, or a slow ballad. Watts held it all together with a simple style that didn’t call attention to itself but provided a solid foundation for the rest of the band. And he was one of the few rock drummers who used brushes for certain songs.

    In fact, he had no stories to tell about banging on pots and pans when he was a kid. “I was never one of those guys,” he told me. “My love was rhythm brushes — wire brushes. The first thing I heard that I wanted to emulate was Chico Hamilton playing brushes on ‘Walkin’ Shoes’ by Gerry Mulligan. For years I just played with brushes on a banjo head. It’s amazing how many people don’t like wire brushes. I love them.”

    One thing Charlie became noted for when playing an eighth-note groove was his habit of coming off the hi-hat on the backbeats as he struck the snare drum. “I was never conscious of doing it until Jim Keltner mentioned it,” Watts said. “But I do it a lot. It really comes, I think, from coming down heavy on the backbeat. I don’t use that [matched grip] that Ringo uses. I did it for a few years, because I thought it was popular. But then I was told to go back to the other way by [longtime Stones road manager/pianist] Ian Stewart, who virtually ordered me to go back to what he called the ‘proper’ way of playing. So I went back to the military grip, and I really do prefer it. But because of the amount you ride on the hi-hat, I suppose I got in the habit of pulling the stick out of the way to get a louder sound.”

    Throughout his time with the Stones, Watts stayed with a simple four-piece setup — usually a Gretsch set, which was what the jazz drummers of the 1950s and ’60s that he admired typically used. Watts never played a drum solo with the Stones. “I don’t like drum solos,” he once said. “I admire some people who do them, but generally I prefer drummers playing with the band. The challenge with rock ’n’ roll is the regularity of it. My thing is to make it a dance sound; it should swing and bounce.”

    Watts kept solid time, but he was not a human metronome. Richards told me about a recording studio engineer suggesting that the Stones cut to a click track. “We did a couple of run-throughs with this little machine,” Richards recalled. “Charlie and I are looking at each other, because we know, but Charlie had to beat the machine. So he said, ‘You want it like that? Here goes,’ and he duplicated the click track tempo from the beginning of the song to the end of it. Then he said, ‘Now, what it should do is come up a little bit in tempo here, and then it should pull back there,’ which is what drumming is all about. It’s a bit of expression, instead of people looking at numbers and readouts. That doesn’t constitute rhythm; that’s just timing. That’s what Charlie knows innately, and that’s why I love him.”

    Charles Robert Watts was born in London on June 2, 1941. He became a jazz fan in his early teens, and after graduating from the Harrow School of Art, he took a job as a graphic artist for a London advertising firm. At night, he played drums with various London jazz bands. He also wrote and illustrated a children’s book, Ode to a High Flying Bird, which was a tribute to jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker.

    Watts moved to Scandinavia briefly to work as a graphic designer. When he came back, he joined Alexis Korner’s R&B band, Blues Incorporated. Fans of that band included future Rolling Stones Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Brian Jones, who often sat in with the group. Once the Rolling Stones were formed, they pleaded with Watts to be their drummer, but he held off until they started working enough to guarantee him a steady salary.

    The Stones quickly achieved phenomenal success, rivaling the Beatles. But as Charlie said in the 2003 book According to the Rolling Stones, “I wasn’t interested in being a pop idol sitting there with girls screaming. It’s not what I wanted to be, and I think it’s silly.”

    But he stayed with the Stones through countless tours, 30 studio albums, and several live albums. His graphic arts background came into play when he helped design the group’s album covers, merchandise, and stage sets.

    Watts said he enjoyed playing with the Stones all those years, but he couldn’t have imagined the kind of success they would have. He said that when he was working in the London clubs early in his career, “Success meant being good enough that you would get to play every night.” He added that, ironically, the Stones ultimately became so successful that they often went for long stretches of time without being able to play at all.

    So Watts indulged in his first love: jazz. He led a variety of groups during his off-times with the Stones, from a large group called Rocket 88 to a 33-piece big band (The Charlie Watts Orchestra) to a quintet and a tentet. In 1992, a box set titled From One Charlie was released that contained his book, Ode to a High Flying Bird and a CD of Charlie Parker tunes performed by Charlie’s quintet, augmented with a string section. In 2000, the Charlie Watts Jim Keltner Project was released, featuring tributes to such jazz drumming icons as Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Tony Williams, Max Roach, Elvin Jones, and others. In 2009, the live album The A, B, C, and D of Boogie Woogie was released, featuring Charlie on drums with a bassist and two pianists. (The title came from the first names of the four musicians.)

    In 2004, Watts was diagnosed with throat cancer, but he fully recovered and continued touring and recording with the Stones. 

    The Stones’ 2020 U.S. tour was cancelled due to COVID. It was rescheduled for the fall of 2021, but a couple of weeks before rehearsals were to begin, it was announced that Watts would not be participating due to a recent medical procedure. Although the procedure was successful, it was said that Charlie needed some time to rest and recuperate. Steve Jordan, who had worked extensively with Keith Richards, was chosen to replace Watts on the tour.

    But just a couple of weeks later, on August 24, it was announced that Charlie Watts had died.

  • In Memoriam: Morris “Arnie” Lang

    by Rhythm Scene Staff | Jul 09, 2021

    Morris “Arnie” Lang, a longtime New York Philharmonic percussionist and Professor of Percussion at Brooklyn College, died on July 5, 2021.

    Morris Arnold Lang was born on February 2, 1932 in New York City. He grew up in the Bronx section of New York, and while in high school he played drum set for club dates and shows in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. After a friend suggested that he look into studying at The Juilliard School, Arnie began studying at Juilliard with Morris Goldenberg while still in high school. One day, while playing duets with a fellow student, New York Philharmonic timpanist and Juilliard teacher Saul Goodman heard him, asked Lang who he was and who he was studying with, and said that starting immediately, Arnie would be studying with Goodman.

    After graduating from high school, Lang enrolled as a full-time student at Juilliard, where he continued to study with Goodman and also studied with Radio City Music Hall snare drummer Billy Gladstone. Arnie was soon freelancing at Radio City Music Hall, the New York City Ballet Orchestra, and the American Opera Society Orchestra. Eventually he started playing extra percussion with the New York Philharmonic.

    Upon his graduation from Juilliard, he was offered a full-time position with the New York Philharmonic as assistant timpanist and primary cymbal player — even though Lang had never played cymbals! Lang credited Leopold Stokowski (frequent guest conductor with the New York Philharmonic) with opening his ears and imagination to the colors cymbals could produce through the creative similes, metaphors, and adjectives Stokowski used to describe the sounds he wanted. 

    At that time, Philharmonic conducting duties were being shared by Dimitri Mitropoulis and Leonard Bernstein. Over the years, Lang also worked with such conductors as Pierre Boulez, Kurt Mazur, and Zubin Mehta. Along with Goodman on timpani, the other members of the percussion section when Lang joined were Walter Rosenberger and Eldon “Buster” Bailey.

    Lang played with the New York Philharmonic from 1955–1995. Tours with the Philharmonic included Western Europe, Japan, Thailand, Singapore, Korea, India, South America, the former Soviet Union, Poland, Romania, and Hungary. Arnie appeared on hundreds of recordings and on television with the Philharmonic, including Bernstein’s famous Young People’s Concerts and Live from Lincoln Center. Lang was the percussionist on a recording of Stravinsky’s “l’Histoire du Soldat,”and Lang was the first person to have recorded all “Eight Pieces for Timpani” by Elliot Carter.

    As a teacher, Lang taught at the Manhattan School of Music, the New York College of Music, and Kingsborough Community College, but his longest association began in 1971 when he was offered a teaching position at Brooklyn College. He started a percussion department from scratch, with only four timpani, an old snare drum, and a xylophone. Later he took charge of the Doctoral Percussion Program at City University of New York (CUNY).

    In 1976, after a publishing company rejected a snare drum book he had written, Lang bought his own printing press and started Lang Publishing Company, which published his own material along with compositions by friends. Among the books Lang wrote were the Dictionary of Percussion Terms (written with Larry Spivack), Timpani Tuning, The New Conception (a book for drumset), 14 Etudes for Mallet Instruments, The Beginning Snare Drummer, and 15 Bach Inventions (transcribed for mallet instruments in duet form). In 2014, Hudson Music released Lang's instructional DVD The Gladstone Technique — a historical documentation of Billy Gladstone and his contribution to modern drum technique.

    Lang was also a manufacturer of percussion products. When cane- and rattan-handled mallets became a scarcity in the 1970s, Arnie bought a truckload of cane and rattan and, from his basement, began making mallets for himself, his students, and others in the percussion community. He later started Lang Percussion, which manufactured Goodman timpani (in partnership with Goodman) and Gladstone snare drums and drum sets.

    At the 2000 Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC), Lang was inducted into the PAS Hall of Fame. Writing about Lang at the time, percussionist Gordon Gottlieb said, “Arnie Lang is one of the 'youngest' people I know. Consistently living in the present, possessing a ripe sense of humor, a keen mind, an open fascination and curiosity about so many things, a man who tells you the truth — this is the stuff you want in a best friend.”

    Upon the news of Lang’s death, Peter Erskine posted, “Arnie was a cool guy. Funny. A great percussionist. Wonderful instrument maker. Teacher. An example for so many years of that place where artistry meets professionalism. Thank you, Arnie.”

    See Morris “Arnie” Lang’s PAS Hall of Fame profile.

  • In Memoriam: Ralph Peterson, Jr.

    by Rhythm Scene Staff | Mar 04, 2021

    Jazz drummer and bandleader Ralph Peterson Jr. died March 1, 2021, of complications from cancer. He was 58.

    Peterson was born on May 20, 1962 in New Jersey. His father and uncles were drummers, and Ralph started playing at age 3. He also played trumpet in his high school band. He first played drums in funk bands, but began playing in jazz bands when he was 18.

    In 1983, Peterson was hand-picked by Art Blakey as the second drummer in The Jazz Messenger Big Band, in which Peterson played until Blakey’s death in 1990. During a nearly four-decade long career, Peterson played on over 150 albums as a sideman with such musicians as Terence Blanchard, Branford Marsalis, David Murray, Roy Hargrove, Michael Brecker, Regina Belle, Betty Carter, Ron Carter, and The Roots. 

    Peterson was also active as a leader. He led the quintet V (also known as Volition), and in 1989 he established his group the Fo’tet, and then led a group called Triangular Too. He also had a group called Hip Pocket, in which he played trumpet.

    Peterson was an instructor of percussion at Berklee College of Music in Boston. His list of students includes such drummers as Ari Honig, E.J Strickland, Tyshawn Sorey, Jonathon Blake, Mark Whitfield Jr., Kush Abadey, Justin Faulkner and many more. 

    In recent years he released two big band CDs, a live album with his quintet Aggregate Prime, and a recording with an all-star group called The Messenger Legacy. His most recent album, Onward & Upward, was released in May 2020 on his own Onyx Productions Music Label.

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