Cleveland Watkiss and Django Bates: The Art and Craft of Song

Kevin Le Gendre
Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Two of the most critically acclaimed musicians from these shores, singer Cleveland Watkiss and pianist Django Bates, are about to collaborate, performing a duo concert as part of this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival. Kevin Le Gendre discovers how this meeting came about, and the strands that link these venerable musicians

Metropolitan and provincial Britain have often been seen as two separate entities, sometimes mutually antagonistic [think of terms such as ‘metroplitan elite’ or ‘country bumpkin’]. That said, many residents of the capital do not look at the countryside with any sense of superiority; indeed, most urbanites feel they have much to learn from it and those who live there.

Cleveland Watkiss has an interesting and deeply moving tale to tell on the subject: “When I was nine years old, my father passed away, my teacher took a bunch of us to Somerset, where I spent six weeks’ holiday,” he recalls in one square of a Zoom call. “I was travelling around Devon and Cornwall, and we stayed in a pub, her [the teacher’s] parents owned a pub in Bridgewater. For a nine year-old kid from Hackney it was life-changing.”

The singer – of Jamaican heritage – also had his first ever gig there, doing “that gravelly Louis Armstrong voice” that charmed all and sundry, and he learned folk songs such as ‘Blackbird’, which he can still quote line for line in a convincing West Country burr.

It turns out that this part of the world was not unknown to pianist Django Bates either.

“Cleveland called me out of the blue and said I believe we have a connection to the West Country,” he reveals in the other Zoom square. “The first time I went there my parents attached a side car to a bicycle and cycled with two kids to Cornwall.

“That place has been a thread throughout my life. My mother went to Mevagissy, a little town where they fish mackerel in the morning and you can buy them for 26 pence or something later in the day,” he continues. “That became a place where me and my kids could escape from London, and the chaos I brought into our lives at some point. It really was an oasis. You need something to balance the crazy chaos of London.”

These stories are significant because both Watkiss and Bates largely epitomise the eclecticism and creative possibilities of the capital, and they are also international artists with well-thumbed passports (Bates currently lives and works in Switzerland). Yet their affection for the West Country [they are pictured above, as children – Cleveland with the paintbrush, Django at the sewing machine – in a composite photo created by Nick White] is one of many bonds they can explore during their forthcoming concert at King’s Place as part of this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival.

“You get into your senior years and you trust the idea that the music will take care of itself. You don’t need to force anything, to not be afraid to allow things to just happen”

Watkiss has made a dazzling art of wordless vocal, cast against all manner of rhythm and texture, be it Caribbean, Asian or Brazilian while Bates has brought his unique lateral thinking to anything from bebop-inspired trios to multi-faceted orchestras.

Each man is known for excellent recordings made between the 1980s and the present day – think Watkiss’ Blessing In Disguise and Victory’s Happy Songbook and Bates’ You Live And Learn (Apparently) and The Study Of Touch – as well as a wide range of activity that has included anything from work in opera (Watkiss in Julian Joseph’s Bridgetower) to dance (Bates’ scores for the British choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh).

Membership of big bands such as Jazz Warriors (Watkiss) and Loose Tubes (Bates) was instrumental in their development, and now, decades on each artist has become a highly respected educator committed to nurturing new generations of musicians.

Watkiss is professor of voice studies at Trinity Laban and Bates professor of jazz at HKB, Bern in Switzerland. They are passing on years of invaluable experience.

Connected as they are by classroom duties, Bates and Watkiss also shared a stage together almost 10 years ago. In 2013 the latter and his longstanding collaborator Orphy Robinson hosted an event at St. George’s church in Bloomsbury and Bates made a guest appearance.

“We realised it was Louis Armstrong’s birthday… it must have been the 4 July, so we thought we’ve gotta sing ‘What A Wonderful World.’ It was very spontaneous in the midst of chaotic times... we had one rehearsal. We agreed to do, by way of contrast, Terence Trent D’Arby’s ‘I Have Faith In These Desolate Times’.”

The sprightly sexagenarians shake their heads at how prophetic the song would be for the current state of the world, but they also agree that looking too far ahead, certainly for the purposes of control, is something to perhaps sidestep in a creative context, or as Bates explains: “People want to know what is being delivered. Well, I quite like that feeling of not forcing the plan... just letting it take its time.” Watkiss adds: ”You get into your senior years and you trust the idea that the music will take care of itself. You don’t need to force anything… not be afraid to allow things to just happen.”

With spontaneity and a spirit of adventure being crucial to both artists it stands to reason that they aren’t overly precise about the setlist for the concert. Yet one thing they are more than happy to discuss is the particular richness of the piano-voice format, which is a model that has been used to great effect in myriad genres, be it pop, soul, classical or jazz. The sonic gamut offered by the keyboard, with options for chords, melody and countermelody, coupled with the expressivity and subtleties of the human voice can create music of great depth, and each man can attest to as much, having had the opportunity to work with gifted exponents of the other’s instrument – think Watkiss and pianist Nikki Yeoh, and Bates and vocalist Sidsel Endresen.

“When you’re sitting at a piano and a singer sings a word and you’ve got the sound of their voice, their emotion, which is much clearer than when it’s filtered through an instrument. It’s straight, if there’s a pain there you feel it because it’s a totally physical instrument,” says Bates. “And there are so many different ways that you can respond to that. And then you’ve also got the text, the words that they’re singing.

“You’ve got the Nina Simone orchestral classical accompaniment of voice, and then how do you accompany Sidsel Endresen? You just make sure that nothing’s ever cluttered because her voice is so vulnerable. And then you’ve got Randy Newman accompanying himself in a way that I really love…. very sarcastic, ironic very heavy lyrics lightened by this groovy piano playing. To me it’s just listen to the singer and listen to the words and just colour that picture. When you put the sustain pedal down on the piano the voice is already going into the piano and resonating. (It’s music)”

Watkiss has also paid close attention to the mechanics of the instrument in his career.

“The keyboard is something that I studied for many years,” he says before flashing a smile. “And I’ve always just thought about it in terms of writing and understanding harmony. It’s a tool, just to navigate my way around composition and working things out. I’ve just always had a love for piano. It’s so naked and open and organic and pure in the sense that the voice is naked alongside the piano. There is this intimacy, a thing that pulls you in when it’s those two particular instruments (brought together).”

There are also attitudes to consider. The mindset of the artist counts a great deal.

“I do like the idea of play with music, we’re always trying to find that joy spot in the music,” he says before I decide to mention another stellar piano-voice duo. “Yes, I think Chick Corea and Bobby McFerrin… the way they play, they’re not afraid to be silly, if you like, just be vulnerable in the moment.

“I like it when it’s not all locked in and there’s a serious, intense atmosphere. Which it is anyway because as musicians we’re serious about what we do, But I do like that balance of humour. I always thought Thelonious Monk was extremely humourous. His compositions, sometimes I listen to them and I just burst out laughing. Wow! How did he get to that rhythm? How did he get to that piece ‘Nutty’?

"So yeah, we bring ourselves to the table and then lay out all our wares as clearly as possible.”

Bates shares the memory of seeing Corea on stage and indulging in some of the boisterous audience participation for which McFerrin is known. He invited whoever dared on stage to play piano even though some could clearly not do so and Bates was unsure about the fact that a master of sophisticated music had ‘gone a bit circus.’

Yet there was a far bigger picture of mortality of which nobody was at all aware.

“Chick suddenly died unexpectedly and I thought ‘wow’ in his last few years he got to meet as many people as he possibly could, now it all makes sense,” says Bates with a voice tinged with sadness. “It was about reaching out to other people that you don’t know. Maybe the generosity is even more important than the quality of the music.”

As are the drive and determination to overcome the challenges all artists face at various points in their career, despite the high regard in which they may be held in some quarters. Bates points out that he has not had a gig at the London Jazz Festival for over two decades and now as the world attempts to establish some sense of ‘a new normal’ he has the chance to appear with one of his equally esteemed peers.

There is a distinct sense that he wants to enjoy the moment as much from a human as musical point of view.

“Why try to do something complicated when you can just sing songs with one other person? What do you need? A piano and a microphone? If you can’t get a piano, if you can’t get that then we’ll both sing. There’s something about making it, as Cleveland just says, 'vulnerable'. I love that… beautiful word.”

And it might apply to us all given that we’re not quite in a post-pandemic world. Thinking about the place of culture – as well as health and jobs– is not unwelcome. Bates expresses great disappointment that there has been very little fanfare for 2021 as the 75th anniversary of Arts Council England, an institution that can be, and has been many times over the years, a force for good.

“No one is talking about it,” he says sarcastically. “Who cares? Oh, it’s only art.”

Watkiss picks up the baton quite seamlessly and makes the argument for both his duo partner and anybody else who believes that the creative act is about much more than drawing an audience to a venue. “It’s our lifeblood,” he says. “It’s what we cling to in these times. We trust in the arts. It’s not gonna save the world... it would have done so a long time ago if it could. But it’s a respite, it just gives us hope, it allows us all to keep going.”

Cleveland Watkiss and Django Bates' Arts and Crafts is at Kings Place (Hall One), 14 November, as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival. Find out more:

This article originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of Jazzwise magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

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