Interview with the rockinest piano player Diz Watson - a quintessential exponent of New Orleans style

"Blues will survive anything, that is exactly what it is."

Diz Watson: The Keys of New Orleans 

Diz "Honeybear" Watson is a quintessential exponent of New Orleans style piano ­ an exuberant mix of Barrel House, Rhythm and Blues, Rock 'n' Roll and Boogie Woogie - influenced by Fats Domino, Huey "Piano" Smith, Dr. John, James Booker and Professor Longhair. Recordings include critically acclaimed Bluecoat Man (Ace Records, London) with Fats Domino sidemen Walter Kimble, Roger Lewis and influential saxophonist Lee Allen; live album recorded with Dr. John, Such a Night (Spindrift Records).

Photo by Arne Rasmussen

Diz was born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa in l948, and at the age of 12 the family moved back to Yorkshire, England. Diz formed a friendship with the legendary "Champion" Jack Dupree, who had settled in Halifax a town not far away. "Jack really inspired me to the more prehistoric rolling sound of the piano and also the way to phrase the blues poetry." ln November 1981 Diz and the Doormen recorded Bluecoat Man for Ace Records, London. This record received rave reviews from both sides of the Atlantic and the session included Fats Domino sideman Walter Kimble, Roger Lewis and King of them all Lee Allen, who after the session said Diz is one of the 'rockinest piano players in the world'.

Throughout the early 80's the band performed with many artists such as Alexis Korner, Clarence "Frogman" Henry, Big Jay McNeely, Chas and Dave and opened for the Rolling Stones at the request of Ian Stuart (piano man and road manager for The Stones). In 1983 the band became temporarily 'Dr John and the night trippers" when they toured the UK and headlined the Glastonbury C.N.D. Festival with Dr. John culminating in a live album called Such a Night, recorded at the Albany Empire, London, for Spindrift Records. Before disappearing to Europe in 1985, another album Rhumbalero was recorded for Ace Records. Diz Watson will be in Athens, July 24 at BLUES FESTIVAL 2014 (Stage Volume 1).  

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

Whatever I play is blues, whether it be a waltz, rock n roll, a ballad or an African hymn, it’s my stamp, I live the blues to the extreme.

How do you describe Diz Watson’s sound and song book?  What characterizes your music philosophy?

I try to mix everything up, because I like variety. Obviously, I was interested in all that came out of New Orleans, especially the emphasis on Rhythm. What you hear on my records is an extension of that, with a salute to all my mentors.

"Barrelhouse and boogie woogie grew up side by side, barrelhouse came more from ragtime and jazz, with a heavy blues base. Boogie Woogie pushed boundaries with the left hand rhythm featured very strongly in a basic 12 bar format. The basis of rock n roll and rhythm and blues."

Why did you think that the New Orleans music continues to generate such a devote following?

It continues because it’s the roots of all kinds of music. The internet and You Tube have just made it much more accessible to the general populous. Back in my day we had to go out into the world to find these guys and ask them to show us a few ‘licks’, my hero was the Champ (Dupree) – we sat down and played together.

What is the best jam you have ever played in?  What are some of the most memorable gigs you’ve had?

I don’t tend to do jam sessions that much, one of the best was in London 1982 and Lee Allen, Walter Kimble, and Roger Lewis walked in from the Fats Domino band and played up a storm. One particular gig that we are remembered for was on Clapham Common 1984 with the Balham Alligators, Diz and the Doormen, with Dr John, the Nitetripper.  I was hanging out back stage, also hanging out was Eddie C. Campbell from Chicago – great day.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?  What is the best advice ever given to you?

One meeting in particular (there are so many) with Abdullah Ibrahim.

“With music,” he said, “try to be yourself, then find yourself, once you have then you don’t have to compete, just play.”

"Whatever I play is blues, whether it be a waltz, rock n roll, a ballad or an African hymn, it’s my stamp, I live the blues to the extreme." (Photo: Diz with Big Jay McNeely and the band)

Which memory from Alexis Korner, Dr. John, Big Jay McNeely, and Rolling Stones make you smile?

It was Alexis that introduced me to Dr. John when he played The Marquee with Chris Barber’s band. Alexis was a lovely man, spiritually intact, and he said to me “Diz, don’t worry about anything, the blues will be your pension,” and Dr John (the Master) said “you may be a character but you might not have a character.”  Ha-ha!  Yeah, opened for the Stones once in London, I was opening for Chas and Dave at the time and Big Jay rocked the house all the time, a true legend. Recorded an album with him – “Tonky Honk” on Ace Records.

Are there any memories from Champion Jack Dupree and Lee Allen that you would like to share with us?

I did hang out with both of them in New Orleans, round about 1988 and 1990. Spent three days with Lee Allen doing the bars, it was like walking around with Zeus. Lee Allen told me once “the music is best when the money is right,” and the Champ told me “take your time but don’t take mine.” These two quotes I like!

What do you miss nowadays from blues of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Music changes all the time, so you have to keep abreast of the situation. I don’t have “fears.” Blues will survive anything, that is exactly what it is.

What are lines that connect the legacy of the British blues book of the 60s with current local scene?

I don’t know much about that because I spent years in Europe and also a little bit in the USA. Don’t know much about the current blues scene, I tend to avoid scenes!

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it became a reality, what would that be?

I would make sure that all bars should have a great authentic real piano.

"I try to mix everything up, because I like variety. Obviously, I was interested in all that came out of New Orleans, especially the emphasis on Rhythm. What you hear on my records is an extension of that, with a salute to all my mentors." (Photo: Diz & Little Willie Littlefield)

What are the differences between Barrelhouse and Boogie Woogie?

Barrelhouse and boogie woogie grew up side by side, barrelhouse came more from ragtime and jazz, with a heavy blues base. Boogie Woogie pushed boundaries with the left hand rhythm featured very strongly in a basic 12 bar format. The basis of rock n roll and rhythm and blues.

Let’s take a trip with the time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

Probably New Orleans in 1948, in a bar listening to Archibald, also Fess, with Smiley Lewis dropping in. Also George Lewis and Slow Drag doing “Just a closer walk with thee,” and then maybe Kid Thomas Valentine doing a version of “Hindustan.” Rockin.

Diz Watson - official website

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