An interview with Marzette Watts. By Chris Flicker and Thierry Trombert

By Pierre Crépon – Wire Magazine

“I want this printed: John Cage is the biggest fraud there is.”

Read an unpublished interview with the late US saxophonist and synth player Marzette Watts, conducted at his home in New York City on 3 July 1974. Transcribed, edited and introduced by Pierre Crépon

This never before published interview took place on 3 July 1974, when avant garde jazz musician and painter Marzette Watts (1938–1998) was in the process of constructing a recording studio across the street from his 27 Cooper Square home in New York City. Both addresses have a history: in addition to Watts, number 27 was home to LeRoi Jones (before he became Amiri Baraka), Hettie Jones, Archie Shepp and, occasionally, Marion Brown. Number 36 later became the offices of The Village Voice.

After being expelled from Alabama State College in 1960 for taking part in the first Deep South sit-in in a segregated Montgomery courthouse, Watts studied painting at the Sorbonne in Paris. He took up the saxophone and, as he did with painting, gravitated toward “abstract expressionism”. In 1962, he moved into the 27 Cooper Square building, where his loft became an important space for early sessions featuring a who’s who of major players such as Don Cherry, Albert Ayler or Cecil Taylor.

Watts decided to focus on music in 1965 and, after a studying for awhile in Denmark, recorded Marzette Watts And Company for ESP-Disk’ in December 1966. This first album came together under the supervision of Clifford Thornton and also featured Byard Lancaster and Sonny Sharrock. After more time in Europe, The Marzette Watts Ensemble was recorded in 1969. Produced by Bill Dixon for Savoy, it turned out to be the saxophonist’s final release. Watts then progressively retreated from performing, doing sound engineering, forays in experimental film-making and – through Thornton again – teaching at Wesleyan University in Connecticut during the 1972–73 academic year.

By 1974, the small musician owned labels begun in the 60s had already reached their limits, and Watts’s reflections on production models constitute an important part of the present conversation (he later undertook groovier production work in Atlanta). The other main topic is the music Watts was then making on synthesizers controlled in real time by his horn, a part of his work that remains unheard.

The interviewers, French writer Chris Flicker and photographer Thierry Trombert, were covering the Newport Jazz Festival-New York, and activities at Sam Rivers’ Studio Rivbea for Jazz Magazine. Their feature was published in its September 1974 issue, but the magazine showed no interest in their Watts interview.

This informal conversation – only one of a handful of known interviews with Watts – took place in a large empty room at number 36, where Watts’s instrument was the only furniture on which they could place their tape recorder. Watts was keeping an eye on his young children, who can be heard playing in the background, and the recording sometimes had to be paused. Cuts are not always clear on the tape, but best efforts have been made to determine where they occurred. Unfortunately, the cassette mentioned at the end of the conversation did not materialise.

The accompanying pictures were taken the same day by Thierry Trombert.

Marzette Watts, his wife and children. 27 Cooper Square on 3 July 1974. By Thierry Trombert

Marzette Watts: Basically, what’s important to me is that I don’t play music outside of my studio, because there’s no point in playing. There’s no point, the money is not right, there’s really no market. There hasn’t been any market created for the music since Coltrane died. I think Coltrane was instrumental in keeping some kind of interest in avant garde music in America. It was never really accepted, but John playing it, somehow they accepted it a little more. But after John passed, there hasn’t been any opportunity to play in any kind of dignified conditions, where going to play music means that you come home with something for your children. To play in a situation where the sound system is decent, and not play five sets a night to an audience that just drinks the beer and they ring the cash register… That’s not the kind of life that I want for myself. I was a painter before I was a musician, and I had very good conditions. I had shows where you presented your work and whether the people liked it or not, you were treated good, you know. Money is not that important, money is not the most important factor in playing music. I would play music, I think, for free. I have played music for free. I won’t be involved with the festivals, and I won’t play in a basement at Sam [Rivers]’s [Studio Rivbea] and things like that, because it’s ridiculous. I play synthesizers and horns, all the instruments that Mick Jagger and all of them play, and it costs me the same amount of money to buy those instruments. So why should I take a truckload of instruments over there for no point, you know? No point. They could make better conditions to play, here in America, and it’s just not. That’s why you have so many musicians in Paris. Byard [Lancaster] left here for the same reason. A year ago, last November, we were doing a rhythm and blues thing, an album that he was doing [possibly The Back Streets Of Heaven, with the Sounds of Liberation, a Muse album which remained unreleased], and right in the middle of the album he just got so discouraged that he said, ‘I wanna go.’ So I said, ‘Maybe you should go to Paris,’ and he just left. I’ve lived in Europe for about seven years, I’ve lived mostly in Spain, so I’ve already done that. I don’t want to move away right now. I just did a 45 for Epic – which is part of Columbia – with Tony Williams and myself. We did all of the music. He does the percussion parts, I do all of the horn parts and the synthesizer parts. It was under the conditions that I like, we recorded at Electric Lady, which is Jimi Hendrix’s studio, a very good studio, and everything really good, you know. The conditions to work were good, I like that kind of situation.

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