Tommy Watt

Revered leader of big bands


Thomas Mitchell Watt, pianist, bandleader, arranger and composer: born Glasgow 31 October 1925; twice married (one son); died Bristol 20 May 2006.

These days, some long-playing records of the Fifties made by British jazz musicians can fetch as much as £300 (I discovered this with great pain after selling a couple of thousand of mine to dealers for £3 each). It's a good bet that the only two LPs that Tommy Watt made with his big band for Parlophone in 1958 and 1959 are today in this high-value category.

They came at us out of nowhere at the time. No one had heard of Watt and then suddenly here he was leading a big band made up from the cream of the very best jazz players in the country. An exaggeration? Not when you say Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Ross, Tommy McQuater, Bert Courtley, Jackie Armstrong, Phil Seamen and the others. And they didn't just play for Watt on his records; they appeared under his leadership in broadcasts, clubs and concerts. Amazingly, gigs with the Tommy Watt band seemed to take precedence over all their other work and if they ever did have to send in deps, then the deps were top-liners too.

At a time when rock'n'roll permeated everything Watt managed to get his band before the audiences. Jazz had taken its worst battering ever and big bands had virtually disappeared. And yet Pete Murray, the top BBC radio pop presenter and no friend to jazz, played Watt's record of Charlie Parker's "Billie's Bounce" to the massive audience of his Sunday-afternoon programme. Over the years, Watt was revered by musicians in many fields, although he remained pretty well obscure to the general public.

In 1942 he had left his home in Glasgow when he got the job of pianist in the touring band of the clarinettist Carl Barriteau. This lasted until he was called up into the RAF in 1944. Here he met the actor Brian Rix and learned to fly Tiger Moths. On his discharge, he moved to London and worked in the West End, playing with bands led by Ambrose, Kathy Stobart, Harry Roy and Ken Mackintosh amongst others.

In 1955 he encountered Brian Rix again, when Rix was at the Whitehall Theatre starring in Reluctant Heroes, a comedy about National Servicemen in the RAF. Rix, a keen jazz fan, arranged and paid for a demo disc recording session for Watt, and this led eventually to a contract with the BBC to make 36 lunchtime broadcasts with the singer Matt Munro. The broadcasts in turn resulted in the contracts with Parlophone, where George Martin was the A&R man (Watt was later to turn down an invitation from Martin to help work with a young new band from Liverpool who had just signed for the company, called the Beatles).

Watt first formed the big band in 1955, when he also began a two-year stay at Quaglino's, the London restaurant, with a quintet. The recordings by Watt's big band began in 1956 with a series of 45s - four-track, seven-inch records - that sold extremely well despite the plethora of rock issues. One of the tracks, Watt's "Overdrive", won an Ivor Novello award. The 45s led, in 1958, to the first LP, It Might As Well Be Swing.

This brought on Hayes, Ross, Seamen and the rest of the giants and Watt's name was associated with them ever after. The music reflected Watt's great love of the music of Count Basie and, perhaps for the first time, a British big band sounded convincingly like an American one. (Basie was so impressed with Watt's writing that he took some of the Scotsman's arrangements back with him after a British tour.)

After the job at Quaglino's finished, Rix again emerged with work for Watt in writing the music for six Whitehall farces and for two of Rix's films, The Night We Got the Bird (1961) and Nothing Barred (1961).

In 1960 Watt became leader of the Manchester-based BBC Northern Dance Orchestra, a band much respected by jazz enthusiasts. However he was an opinionated and argumentative man and, making enemies in BBC management, he lost the job the following year.

Previously divorced, in 1962 he married his second wife, Romany Bain, the daughter of the Rev George Bramwell Evens, better known as "Romany of the BBC", who had captured a generation of children with his broadcasts on Children's Hour and books on nature.

Watt's life was in the big bands, and he soon returned in 1964, leading another one which drew plaudits, the London-based Centre 42 Big Band. He also began writing for the BBC again and now also for the newly formed London Weekend Television. In the late Sixties he worked summer seasons as musical director for Tommy Cooper and Freddie Starr and in 1970 wrote a new library for the big band he was asked to form to play at the Dorchester Hotel in London. Unhappily he found his audiences were made up of old ladies who'd come for a tea dance.

Finally disillusioned, he left and took up interior decorating in Barnes, west London, occasionally playing piano in a trio at the Bull's Head, Barnes's celebrated jazz headquarters. He injured his elbow and gave up decorating, becoming a house-husband while his wife Romany, a magazine journalist, was the breadwinner.

In the Eighties they moved to Oxford and Watt moved out of music. His son Ben enjoyed success as half of the pop duo Everything But the Girl and Watt was glad to be able to recommend jazz musicians such as Peter King and Dick Pearce to play on the duo's early recordings.

Steve Voce

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