This year’s London Jazz Festival is going to be huge. With an amazing selection of gigs, workshops and events held all over the city, none are set to be bigger than Cleveland Watkiss’ celebratory concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on November 19th.
Watkiss’ illustrious career in music has seen him working in jazz, reggae, rock, drum ‘n’ bass, garage and soul, as well as performing and collaborating with a large array of musicians, including; Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Art Blakey, Stevie Wonder, Joe Cocker, Robbie Williams, The Who, Maxi Priest, Pete Townsend, and many more.
To most people, he is perhaps most notable for co-founding the influential Jazz Warriors, which has seen him dubbed one of the most exciting male jazz singers in Britain. As well as being voted for best male vocalist for three consecutive years, Watkiss is also a highly influential Music Educator, working as a voice coach and consultant for many colleges and Universities around the country.
Your interest in music started at a very young age and you have enjoyed a long career spanning many genres of music. What first inspired you about music and who really turned you on to music?
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t singing! I can recall times where I’d be (in my cot) singing along with the radio. I must have been around 3 or 4 years old. My Father (who died when I was nine) was a lover of great music and was a big fan of the great Jazz Pianist Oscar Peterson. He was also a regular atRonnie Scott’s jazz club. Since both my parents were from Jamaica, we heard all the new sounds coming out of the island around that time such as Ska and Bluebeat. So my dad was the spark that first inspired me in music.
You started your career on the reggae scene, but soon found a passion for jazz. What is it about jazz which so appealed to you and what is it that makes jazz such an enjoyable medium to work in?
Jazz, as with classical music, requires that you become a virtuoso master performer on your chosen instrument, but with Jazz you are also required to become a master improviser. Great Jazz is also about giving to a situation i.e. what can I do, play or sing to make the others sound good.
Jazz is a great fusion of two cultures African/Blues and European/Classical Music, and is a strong statement to the idea of democracy. It acts as a melting pot where I can put all my influences such as Reggae, Indian, Pop, Opera, Drum and Bass or folk music from all around the world, stew them together and tell my own stories.
Music does so much to inspire and motivate kids. Do you think music is catered for enough in schools and taken seriously enough by the government?
I don’t think that school’s or the government really see or understand the real power of music, or appreciate its role alongside Maths, English or Geography.
As well as the parent’s, I think it’s also a school’s responsibility to develop the natural skills that each and every child possesses. Sure, that’s gonna take a lot of resources, but to me that’s what is really required so each child gets a fair start.
I heard you talking about your understanding of the communal and spiritual purpose of music. How do you see music’s relationship to politics and society and what purpose do you think it plays?
I’ve often heard that music and politics don’t mix; well now I know that is just a BIG lie!
Music has always had a way of being informative or story-telling, and can sooth the heart and mind (as it did for Saul when David played the harp). A lot of the music coming out of Jamaica in the 70’s had very strong political and historical messages. Historically music was always communal and spiritual; something that was just part of the daily activities like eating and talking. I think it’s time we get back to that.
You’ll be running vocal workshops at your old school as part of the festival. What’s the philosophy behind your teaching? Do you really believe that anyone has potential in music?
Singing is a natural ability that ALL can do, albeit to varying degrees. I don’t believe in this nonsense of a person being tone deaf. I always find it’s usually some block that a person has, and they just need motivation and encouragement in the right direction so their voice can be freed. Children need affirmation and to be inspired by greatness, not mediocrity. Jazz as an art form, with improvisation at its centre, is the perfect music for kids to learn and study. As children, we are all natural improviser’s but this gift is not always understood so it gets lost.
During my first year of secondary school (Brooke House in Hackney), we had a fantastic music department with, pianos, brass, drums, percussion. Sadly, from our second year onwards it vanished with government cutback’s being the cause. This was a massive mistake as I believe a musical education is as important if not more than, Maths, English, and Science.
It’s taken a real long time but I think the educational bodies are tuning into this truth more so these days.
Are there any other projects in the pipeline or other things you really aspire to achieve?
I would like to explore Jazz Opera! In 2007 the great pianist and composer/broadcaster Julian Joseph along with Mike Philips wrote ‘BRIDGETOWER’! It was a fantastic opera in which I played the lead. I would really love to explore this area some more.
Finally, what are you most looking forward to about the festival this year, and if you get the chance who are you most looking forward to seeing yourself?
I will be performing at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the 19th November! It’s a special birthday concert with various special guest musicians I’ve been working with for many years, so I’m looking forward to catching up with them all.
This interview was originally conducted for Spoonfed.co.uk here: http://www.spoonfed.co.uk/spooners/samgould-5043/interview-cleveland-watkiss-1666/