Dizzy Reece: A Jazz Windrush Celebration - Interview with Trevor Watkis (Jazz Leeds Festival 2019)
Updated: Jul 24, 2019
Leading up to the Jazz Leeds Festival 2019, Ben managed to speak with Trevor Watkis, the internationally acclaimed pianist and bandleader of the project celebrating the Windrush musician Dizzy Reece, titled 'The Music of Dizzy Reece - Routes in Jazz Windrush Celebration'.
Reece is a prolific trumpet player who arrived in London from his native Kingston, Jamaica back in 1948 as he was one of the many people in the Windrush generation who came over in a new immigration policy to help alleviate labour shortages and to rebuild British society. He played with musicians in the London jazz scene such as Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott and Victor Feldman and his career progressed as he moved to New York and played on numerous Blue Note records and with more accomplished jazz musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, John Coltrane and Dexter Gordon.
How did the project come about to celebrate the music of Dizzy Reece and the Windrush generation?
"Dizzy Reece is one of the great trumpet icons from 1950's who made great strides in the UK, Europe and the USA. Having arrived in the UK from Jamaica on HMT Empire Windrush in 1948, and established himself on the London jazz scene. Myself, also being of Jamaican heritage, I naturally was very curious and interested in knowing more about such an important artist. While I had often heard the names of artists like of Victor Feldman, Ronnie Scott, Tubby Hayes and Phil Seamen, I'd never heard Dizzy Reece's name mentioned in the same context as being part of the prominent group of musicians in London's 1950's modern jazz scene. I am very much interested in history and a strong advocate for histories to be documented and be told as accurately as possible. A mutual friend, USA based Jamaican broadcaster, Dermot Hussey, brought it to my attention that Dizzy Reece is actually still with us and residing in the Bronx, New York, and has been off the radar for some years. He gave me Dizzy's number and intimated to me that maybe I could inspire him to get back out playing again, and at 88 years old he still practises. I gave Dizzy a call and we had a great rapport, struck up a friendship and discussed the possibility of him playing again. As well as being a performing musician, I'm also the curator of various legacy and educational projects in London and around the UK, so I naturally tagged this as a possible subject to investigate when the opportunity came. So, over time, as the project developed, then when I was able to put some things into action, with some support from the Arts Council, I contacted Dizzy and asked him about possibly making a guest appearance with the stellar group of musicians from both the UK and USA, which I assembled. We kicked off the tour at the end of January but unfortunately, Dizzy was unable to play due an ongoing dental issue, which is affecting his ability to play the trumpet. But we hope that he will be able to join us in the near future."
Has it been inspiring/refreshing getting to fully understand, study and play Dizzy Reece’s music?
"Yes, indeed, it has been very inspiring, As well as being a unique and creative improviser, Dizzy is a beautiful and original composer. He accomplished so much writing during his time in London and Europe, where he made his first recordings as a leader, under the supervision and support of the British producer and manager/promoter Tony Hall, who recently passed away at 91 years old. Dizzy's music is as original as his playing. I selected music from various time periods, going back to his London period, as well as material from his classic Blue Note recordings to a few from his 1980 recording Manhattan Projects, with the great saxophonist Clifford Jordan. During my research I also discovered that Dizzy had wrote the score for the British movie called Nowhere to Go."
Who joins you in the lineup for this project and how did they become involved?
"The group initially featured Byron Wallen (trumpet) , Ralph Moore (tenor sax), Dezron Douglas (bass), Willie Jones III (drums) as well as myself on piano. Due to budget, logistics and availability, on some shows I've changed up the personnel. Byron Wallen remains in the lineup, and is one of the best players on the London scene, with whom I have a long musical and personal association. Jean Toussaint (tenor sax), is one of the great saxophonists to come out of the 1980's New York scene, initially breaking out as part of drummer Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and also has Caribbean roots, being from the US Virgin Island of St Thomas. Bassist Adam King was recommended to me by a colleague, and then we have drummer Rod Youngs, who is originally from Washington D.C. and has been residing in London now for some years; he is one of the first call drummers on the London scene."
How has the tour for this project been so far, what’s the response been like?
"There has been great response from the project. Our tour kicked off in January with the original lineup, playing Birmingham, Colchester, Manchester, London and Nottingham. We were late for some of the international festivals this year but we will continue performing into 2020, when we will be booking more UK dates as well as European venues and festivals. The tour will make its US debut this coming October, performing at the Lincoln Center, New York, with additional US dates to be announced for 2020. The concept behind the title Routes in Jazz is a play on words, the Caribbean having a strong influence and has informed much of the rhythmic aspect of jazz. It should been noted here that some of the great musicians such as Oscar Peterson, Wynton Kelly, Sonny Rollins Roy Haynes, Elmo Hope and Curtis Fuller, to name but a few, who all have Caribbean roots. We will also be going back to Dizzy's roots, performing in Jamaica. So, the tour tracks Dizzy Reece's musical and historic journey. There has been some great press coverage of the project in UK's main publications including Jazzwise, and we also were featured on BBC's Radio 3 show J to Z in February."
Will there be a recording of this project released at all?
"We definitely plan to record this project with the original lineup, later in 2020 once we workout everyone’s schedules."
You’ve spent a lot of time in between the USA in New York and the UK in London throughout your career, how do you find each jazz scene? Are they vastly different or quite similar?
"That's an interesting question and not an easy one to answer. Let's see, so there are some similarities to the scenes of New York, USA and London, in that they are major large cities and a melting pot of diverse cultures, so naturally artists gravitate towards these larger cities, where they have lots of commerce, and a certain cultural energy. Over the years I've seen many changes in both places. I've always found London to be quite a trendy place, where fads come and go. This goes hand in hand with fashion and of course music. The positive side of that, is that the UK is more open to new things, although in my opinion, new doesn't necessarily mean great or good. Another positive side to this, is that it exposes younger audiences into the music, which I think is a good thing for the music and any music scene. But fads come and go and I think constancy and sincerity is important in this music, which is much more than just a genre. As trends come and go there are still those that remain unaffected stalwarts of the music and continue to do what they do. Jazz music is rooted in the black American experience, I think there is a difference in how serious this is taken in the USA compared to the UK, with a greater level of study and attention to this aspect and the culture. I'm not speaking of musical ability, as there are many musicians in the UK who of course play on a high instrumental level."
Being involved in the early stages of the Tomorrow’s Warriors organisation back in the early 1990s, have you been surprised at its recent success of producing some of the newest leaders in the re-emerging jazz scene in London?
"Funny that you should ask that because there aren't many people that know that I was one of the original members, along with Tony Kofi and Byron Wallen. I go back to what I said earlier about histories and how they're told and why for various reasons some details might be left out or untold. I'm not very surprised by its success as the organisation is run by ambitious and dedicated people who are and have been quite well supported by various funding bodies. I'm not sure the organisation is actually 'producing' but they are certainly doing a great job providing a good environment for young musicians. I wouldn't say there are 'new leaders' but there are certainly new names being supported. Media hype will always create a sense of perception of something new emerging. I don't see the London jazz scene as new and re-emerging, the scene has always been there and there has always being good musicians emerging from London's jazz scene, even when there has not been any media behind them, going back to the 1940's and 50's up to the present time."
Are there any artists in the UK jazz scene you’re excited about at the moment?
Which musicians have influenced how you approach playing the piano the most throughout your career, and did you manage to study under any greats whilst you were at Berklee in the 1980/1990s?
"I've always been drawn towards the musicians that have great sound and who play with great sense of swing. Some of the pianists I admire greatly are Hampton Hawes, Phineas Newborn Jr., Sonny Clark, Thelonious Monk, Hank Jones and Bill Evans. I was fortunate to have met fellow British pianist Julian Joseph, when I was very young, who was very inspirational because he was the very first pianist I met who played jazz, and we became friends. Julian had a lot of things together even at a young age. Then shortly afterwards I met the late great US pianist, Mulgrew Miller, who influenced me greatly and with whom I developed a close friendship for some 30 years. I also learned from and became friends with Benny Green and Cedar Walton. These are some of the musicians and experiences that have inspired and made a lasting impression."
Do you have any favourite venues you’ve played at throughout your career?
"There's been many, but the Barbican Centre is a nice hall, Ronnie Scott's, Kings Place, Pizza Express Jazz Club Soho, Porgy & Bess in Vienna. I recently played at the CBSO Centre in Birmingham, that's a nice room with great sound!"
Are there any particular performances or recordings with musicians you’ve played with that have stood out for your during your career?
"I've had some great times performing with Tony Kofi, Byron Wallen and Jean Toussaint. My debut recording Straight Ahead...Ride For Tone! was with a great New York band: Steve Wilson, Darren Barrett, Reuben Rogers and Lewis Nash. Working with Stanley Turrentine, Gary Bartz, sitting in with Betty Carter, having the great drummer Billy Higgins sit in on a gig I was doing, and more recently touring with the great Kenny Garrett's band in Europe."
How do you feel about playing in Leeds at the upcoming Jazz Leeds Festival?
"I am very much looking forward to playing in Leeds at the Jazz Leeds Festival, I haven't played there for a while. I performed at the Wardrobe many years ago and I look forward to playing there again."