When I heard the news that Charlie Watts had died, my mind flashed back to the night we went to hear tango in Buenos Aires.
I remember watching him listening. He was taking in the whole scene – the place, the orchestra, the young singer, looking like a 40s crooner, dapper, his hair slicked back, and of course, the dancers. It was 2006, and La Ideal, a grand, beautiful, run-down belle epoque café, was still open then, and it was a favorite of local tangueros.
Now and then, he would ask a question, very specific, about the music or the rituals of tango dancing and fade back in his chair. There was no chit-chat. He wanted to know.
Some in the group, my girlfriend for one, didn’t know who he was. They knew his little band by name, of course, but if he had sat next to some of them in the bus, they wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow — and that clearly was fine with Mr. Watts.
This was a low-key, last-minute, hanging-out-with-friends affair.
The concert at River Plate Stadium was a couple of days away, and I had taken Tim Ries — the Stones’ saxophonist and a friend of a friend — to buy records and see a bit of the city. I was in Buenos Aires, my hometown, visiting my family, and I believe it was Tim’s first time there. So, of course, we talked about tango and jazz, had a leisurely lunch, decided that we would go out that night and check a couple of places with live music, and went our separate ways.
About an hour later, I got a call from Tim: “Listen, is it OK if Charlie comes with us?”
“Sure, of course,” was my automatic response. I didn’t know who “Charlie” was. It could’ve been one of the band’s techies for all I knew. It didn’t matter. It was fine.
Then the light bulb went on: Oh, wait. That Charlie?
When my friend and I went by the hotel to pick up Tim and Charlie we got a taste of life of the Rolling Stones-on-tour – a commando-style operation, side door, two vans, bodyguards with earpieces, two way radios, the works.
Even as a Stones fan, Watts had always been a curious character for me. Old-style elegant, discreet, self-effacing, I remember thinking that he looked like someone who had wandered into the wrong movie but had been asked to stay until a real rock drummer, say, a wild, Keith Moon look and soundalike could be found.
Every time I watched him play, on film or videos, he seemed amused with the whole Stones act.
It took me years — until watching in person a Stones’s show in San Antonio, Texas, in 1994, while reporting on the band’s tour as the music critic for The Miami Herald — to realize how crucial he was to the sound of the band. As a jazz snob, I had once dismissed Watts as a primitive. Ah, the sins of youth. Never mind that he was, in fact, a strong jazz drummer; his impeccable time keeping and his economic but muscular drumming anchored the music and allowed the rest of the band to do their thing.
I remember at one point in that San Antonio show watching Mick Jagger out front, Keith Richards, just behind him, and Charlie Watts behind both of them, the three in line, and thinking that there it was for all to see: the spine of the Stones — and the foundation was Watts.
When I met him in person that night in Buenos Aires, he was a perfect English gentleman, as I expected. Courteous, slightly distant, with a soft handshake, and not particularly talkative.
At La Ideal, the tango place, we snuck in unannounced, found a couple of tables near the front, next to the dancefloor, and stayed for a whole set. We joined a couple of small tables; he sat at one end and I don’t think he ever moved.
The Charlie Watts amused smile I had seen so many times was gone.
He looked awed.
At the break, we left as discreetly as possible and went off to a jazz club where, as it turns out, a drummer friend was leading his band. I had given him a heads up so as not to freak him out.
Again, our group sat as inconspicuously as possible (this audience did know who Charlie Watts was), then Tim went up and joined the band on a couple of tunes. I sat next to Watts, and for the rest of our time at the club, we listened and talked about jazz. He spoke about Max Roach, Art Blakey, and Charlie Parker, reminisced about the jazz and blues scene in London in the 60s, and, after I asked him, talked about his own Big Band and his quintet. He asked about jazz in Buenos Aires and for recommendations of young Argentine musicians.
I didn’t ask, and he never said anything, about the Stones.
About two weeks later, the tour stopped at what was then called the BankAtlantic Center, now BB&T Center, in Sunrise, FL.
On the day of the show, I went by their hotel to catch up with Tim and take him to lunch. As we were getting ready to leave, the phone rang. I sat back down to read the paper, not wanting to eavesdrop.Then Tim turns and says, “Charlie says hi.”
“Listen, are you doing anything tonight?” he asks. “Charlie wants to invite you.”
So that night, before the show, I’m chatting with Tim backstage, and Mr. Watts drifts in with a big smile.
He was loose and warm. We made small talk, and I had to ask, “So, you’ve been a couple of days in South Florida, did you go out to hear any music?”
It was a fraction of a fraction of a second, but he smiled mischievously, tilted his head, and said
“Nah, I don’t go out at night, only to tango.”
I imagine you will look for Bird and Max Roach and Miles first, but wherever you are, I hope that you can find a good tango place, Mr. Watts.
A version of this essay appeared in JAZZIZ.com