Obituary for Willie Watt written by Eric J. Brown
ON FRIDAY the 4th of November 2011 renowned Australian banjo player Willie Watt died. Born on the 18th of January 1935 Willie became a member of probably one of the best rhythm sections of Australian jazz, that of the Melbourne New Orleans Jazz Band.
Like many Australian jazzmen of the 1950s , Willie left for England with trumpeter Frank Turville. There they became hooked on the New Orleans style jazz played by bands such as the Ken Colyer Jazzmen.
Back in Melbourne Llew Hird’s New Orleans Jazz Band was playing once a week at the Blue Heaven Restaurant in St Kilda. Llew left that band to form another band featuring his wife Pamela Hird on trumpet. This was the beginning of the Melbourne New Orleans Jazz Band, with Frank Turville on trumpet and Willie Watt on banjo. At the same time German bass player Mookie Herman joined the band and they enjoyed great popularity taking part in Australia’s first real jazz church service put on at St Alban’s Church of England by the Reverend Peter Thompson, and even opened a cat show!
[This CD from the Victorian Jazz Archive of The Downbeat Concert No.55 at the Melbourne Town Hall, 27 June 1960 contains the Melbourne New Orleans Jazz Band playing “Dauphine Street Blues”. Click on the cover and be patient.]
From within the band their vocalist, Paul Marks, formed his folk singing group which was extremely popular. This had Willie, Mookie and drummer Graham Bennett backing Paul on vocals and guitar.
The Melbourne New Orleans Jazz Band obtained a contract in 1961 to play jazz clubs in England and Europe which were experiencing a jazz boom at the time. This boom was to hit Australia a couple of years later.
[Here’s a picture of the band with George Lewis taken in London in 1961. From left to right: Kevin Shannon, trombone, Willie Watt, banjo, George Lewis, Graham Bennett,drums, Mookie Herman, bass, Frank Turville, trumpet, Nick Polites, clarinet. (from “The Oxford Companion to Australian Jazz by Bruce Johnston)]
The band toured successfully and then broke up in England in early 1963 with some of the members returning to Melbourne to join local jazz bands. Willie and Frank Turville joined the Hot Sands Jazz Band led by drummer Graham Bennett. This band became very popular playing to large crowds at the Campus Club at the Glen Iris R.S.L. Unfortunately the Hot Sands Jazz Band made only one recording, a 7” E.P. which included the number Willie’s Weary Blues. Willie had always been known for his tiredness and I remember him playing and sleeping at the same time in Hamburg. Another time he fell asleep in the toilets at Heathrow Airport while waiting for Max Collie to arrive from Melbourne.
From the Hot Sands Willie joined the Yarra Yarra Jazz Band in the 1970s. This culminated in his being with the Yarra when they did three concerts backing New Orleans trumpeter Alvin Alcorn at the A.M.P. Theatrette. Two of these concerts were recorded by Paul Burke and are of studio quality. My ambition is that these concerts be issued on CD for all to hear instead of accumulating dust on my record shelves.
After a long lay off Willie “ rediscovered his banjo under the bed” ( his words) and joined Hugh De Rosayro’s New Orleans Nite Owls which played mainly at the Boundary Hotel in Centre Road, East Bentleigh. Unfortunately he never rediscovered that wonderful ringing tone of his early years. He acknowledged this when I played him one of Paul Burke’s A.M.P. recordings with the comment “ I don’t play like that now “. What a pity! After backing renowned English clarinet player Sammy Rimmington’s tour with the Nite Owls in 1997 he joined the Des Camm Band together with Hugh De Rosayro. They were sacked from that band for some obscure reason (?). Willie then retired to live in Elsternwick where he filled in his time with child minding, betting on horses etc etc – a model father!
A wake in Willie’s honour was held at the Louisiana Shakers’ regular gig at the Clyde Hotel in Carlton on Sunday the 13th of November 2011. The event was packed with many musicians and friends plus there were many sit ins. Willie’s former wife Wendy and his son and two daughters attended as did Doctor John Roberts. It was a fitting farewell to a much loved musician. Also noticed that day was Dave Rankin, who performed with Willie on the very first commercial recording of the Melbourne New Orleans Jazz Band for Swaggie in 1959. Dave travelled from his home in Lithgow in New South Wales for the occasion. It turns out that Willie and Dave had gone to primary school together starting a life long friendship.
I am sorry that all of the above is constructed from my memory as Willie rejected my request for an interview for the Australian Jazz Interviews Project. I am sure that he would have given us many more stories from over the years such as the “ Nude Banjo Band” he led at the Australian Jazz Convention held at Cootamundra.
[We don’t have any footage of the Nude Banjo Band, but here’s a short film of that great Convention].
Many thanks must go to Ashley Keating, Kevin Bolton and to Willie’s family for organising such a wonderful tribute to a great musician.
Farewell Good Friend,
Eric. J. Brown
The Melbourne New Orleans Band plays “The Saints”