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In Writing

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

October 2018

Marzette Watts at 27 Cooper Square, New York City. 3 July 1974. Photo by Thierry Trombert

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Read an unpublished interview with the late US saxophonist and synth player Marzette Watts, conducted at his home in New York City on 3 July 1974.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

Thierry Trombert: It was only a 45?

Just a 45, yeah. That’s what we wanted it to be. I’ve started on an album, now. I’m writing the music. I don’t know who I’m going to use, I know I’m going to send for Byard to come to do it. I’m going to start to paint again, I’ve got a show in December in New York, and I’d like to paint and do the music too with it. Maybe I’ll do the show down in SoHo, maybe at Ornette [Coleman]’s [Artist House], and we’ll do a music thing with it. What I’m doing here [at 36 Cooper Square] is we’re building a 16-track studio and we’re going to try to produce, in the sense of really producing an album. That means recording it properly, and doing the whole thing, and presenting it to a company who will buy it, who can distribute it as opposed to having musicians having an album that they’re walking around trying to sell. I think it makes more sense to produce the whole package as a finished product, a master tape, and say, ‘Columbia or RCA, are you interested in buying this?’ and getting a good price for the musicians. A lot of companies don’t have the imagination to realise that, say, some of the musicians playing at Studio Rivbea now... For instance a musician like Sam [Rivers] three years ago, none of us could get any good record companies to be interested. But if you walk into them with a master tape, and the music is already here, they don’t have to do any work. They would be more interested, they would spend the same amount of money to buy that as a package as they would to record it. But they don’t have the imagination to see, they say it’s not saleable, but when they hear it, as a finished product and all they have to do is buy it, I think there are better chances to get the music out. Even in rock music now, that’s being done quite a bit, you know.

Chris Flicker: You think that they can buy a finished product?

That’s what being done now. Most of the industry in America now – take people like Gamble and Huff and all – it’s done that way, what producers call... Independent producers are coming into the fore now, producing independently and presenting it to a company.

Flicker: Just for the distribution?

No no, to buy it. Some of them, like Warner Brothers has a thing that you can... They can distribute it for you, which is another way if you’re going to produce it. OK: I have a company that’s called LeDoux Sound. Say we produce our record, we can either sell it outright to a company, as a product, we can lease it to them, or we can get them a percentage of it for good distribution. I mean putting it in all of these shops and things like that. I don’t know whether you’re involved with rock ’n’ roll, but even some jazz players like Herbie Hancock or Freddie Hubbard, all those people move west. They move there because the music is becoming a mass thing, television, that’s where the studios are, that’s where everything is, and they’re able to get it on television. So it seems to me kind of ridiculous for me to go... I’ll take you over to the studio and show you, I’ve got everything it takes to make a record, but it’s ridiculous to me to try to distribute it. You know, you just can’t. You take an album, say for instance like Rashied [Ali], the album I did for him [Duo Exchange]. It’s almost two years old. And, in two years you sell 3000 copies, what does that mean? It doesn’t mean anything. 3000 copies of a record just doesn’t mean anything.

[tape break]

Dollars, in France it’s 15…

Trombert: No.

The tax they put on it?

Trombert: No, the record shop owner.

Flicker: That’s the benefit the shop owner keeps for himself, because it’s a rare record, you know. As there are so few records, he puts a very high price for people who are looking for very special records.

OK, then that’s another thing that you’re working against, which means that the record shop owners are not interested in helping. That makes the product twice as hard to get, whereas if he would lease it, or if they all got together, with all their little record companies – each one of them that own a record company – and put it together as one company, then RCA would be glad to distribute the record. But they’re not going to come in with me putting 1500 and you putting 1500. But if they were all one company, like Strata-East is getting off the ground... There are too many little ones, they work the musicians too hard, you know. If you’re going to do that, you don’t have a chance to really play. For instance, once I get this started, I don’t intend to work on running the studio. I don’t want to do that. I want to get it started. I want to play music, I don’t want to be sitting around a studio. That’s ridiculous. I didn’t know it was that expensive. What do you pay for, like, Impulse records in Paris? Seven dollars?

Trombert: Yeah.

Well, seven dollars is reasonable. I know in Stockholm, when I was living there in 67, the records were like ten dollars a piece, and that’s ridiculous, because that’s a lot of money. Even here, Europeans don’t spend money like that. The job that Impulse does on the record, the cover, the whole thing, they print in such quantity that the records just do not cost more a dollar and a half, at the most, to produce. And what you get out of it is just... It shouldn’t be so hard to get. I’ve been thinking about cassettes, you know, of Rashied [Ali] and I suggested to the people I’m producing to do cassettes. It’d be a lot easier for shipping weight and things like that, but you’d have to do some research to see how much they use cassettes in Europe. Most of the market for the independent guys I think is in Europe, not here. I know the two records I’ve got sell more in Europe than they sell here. I had a statement from ESP [Marzette Watts And Company] and from Savoy [The Marzette Watts Ensemble], it shows you how much you sold, and you sold a lot more in Europe. I don’t have much faith in the avant garde music now that’s being played. I don’t think it’s avant garde, first of all.

Flicker: Where?

In America, now. That is not avant garde. Except for maybe Sam Rivers, Cecil Taylor… I’m talking about here, of course. You got Frank Wright and the guys in Paris, but Cecil... Sam I think is adventurous with his playing. But a lot of the younger horn players, they sound to me like... When I say avant garde, I mean this is nothing new, and Albert Ayler did it so much better. I haven’t heard any players around, that I thought... I’d rather listen to Miles Davis than listen to most of the music going on around here. Because it is a new dimension for me, it takes me in a place, music I haven’t heard before. It’s much more interesting to me than most of the so-called avant garde music.

[tape break]

Flicker: What do you think about electricity, this use of new instruments? Using electronics or electricity. Some people say that you have to use the instruments of your time. And as we’re in a time of computers, of electronics, of electricity, we cannot continue to use instruments which are from the Middle Ages, or from the 18th century.

That’s a very fine point. You can take it back to this, when I said I’m against avant garde. If you take a saxophone that plays three octaves, then you take that saxophone and you explore the overtones of it: you can add on to it, then that makes it have more range. But when you just put the overtones and you abandon all of that, then you’ve limited the instrument again. This is the time of electronics. Basically, I’m using synthesizers. All of my horns are electric. I can control five to seven voices with one horn. It’s a tool that you use if you want to. I don’t think it’s necessary to use it if you’re not involved with that problem, but to resist it is ridiculous. That was one of the things that the jazz players have been accused of, being purists. Too pure to use that. Anything that will allow you to get more than you are getting from an instrument, I think should be used. For instance, for the last two years, I wouldn’t use a trap set. Because the range of it is too limited. I would rather have somebody that had a whole thing that they made to play. I use electronically synthesized rhythms in my music. I use digital to analogue computers. I’ve got two computers that I use to play with. And I don’t use the classic studio method. I don’t make tapes and then bring the tapes and put them on. I can do it in real time, in a performance. Set it up and use it. It can be preprogrammed completely. Most synthesizers are controlled from a keyboard, mine are controlled from my horn. And it’s certainly very exciting, you know. If I get a chance, I’ll play some, put the 45 on. You won’t believe it’s just Tony Williams and myself. It sounds like an orchestra. And that was all real time, with no overdubs or anything. None whatsoever. Are they doing a lot of that in Europe as well?

Flicker: I don’t know, it’s a problem, because in each music there are fakers, people who use electronics just as a gadget, you know?

That’s one of the things, they’re not treating it as an instrument. I’m the best synthesizer player in America aside from Roger Powell. You see, Stevie Wonder does not play a synthesizer, I don’t give a shit what they say. First of all you can’t play a synthesizer if you’re blind. You’ve got to be able to see. Eli [Watts’s young son] plays the synthesizer, I program the synthesizer, the program is what’s important. Sun Ra cannot play the synthesizer, he makes weird sounds with it, he’s not playing it. But Sun Ra can do more with the piano and organ than you can imagine. You have to have complete control over the synthesizer, just like you got control of a saxophone, or bass, and that’s when you’re using it. A synthesizer has the ability... For instance, this, right here... It just takes some time to warm up, I’ll show you. This is a [Yamaha] YC-30, which is a half-synthesizer, half-organ. This has some of the same things that the synthesizers that I’m using have. [Plays three notes] That’s three notes, but with the synthesizer, except for the trombone, in Western music, no other instrument has the ability to do this [plays glissando]. See, that’s every tone in between. [Plays a few more sounds.] If you got all that to choose from, as opposed to just choosing from half tones or quarter tones, then why not use that? Coltrane was doing it without the electronics, right? I mean, in term of stretching notes, and gliding, and playing quarter tones. Just the ability to play a quarter tone alone... Microtones alone should mean that anybody interested in... I don’t use the term music no more, I say sound production. Because the definition of music is that it’s pleasant, you know. Pleasant and harmonious sounds. I use a lot of noise, just playing noise, which is what you hear with your ears. I think the synthesizers are here to stay, they’re going to play a very very important part. It’s at a stage now that musicians have just gotten them. In the past, engineers got them. And now, someone like Roger Powell comes to mind. Carlos, Walter Carlos [Wendy Carlos] certainly knows what [s]he’s doing, but for our area of music... I’m talking about rhythm and blues, and jazz, and things like that. I don’t hear Billy Preston now... Herbie [Hancock] does nice effects with it, but there can be much more done than is being done with it. You can do a lot more than Sun Ra’s doing with it, and I predict, like in three or four years you’re going to have some kids from around here that’s going to turn it around. A whole band with two people. Two people, like I’ve been able to... If you noticed, my records they’ve always had like nine, ten people, and that’s the sound I wanted. There were three people on this album. And the bass player just played one line. All of the percussion, bass lines, and everything can be done by the synthesizer controlled from a horn, so I think it’s really incredible.

Marzette Watts (right) with Howard Johnson. Cooper Square on 3 July 1974. Photo by Thierry Trombert

Trombert: You don’t think that with this kind of instrument, the human side of...

Oh, that’s... The saxophone is a machine.

Trombert: You think so?

I know it is a machine. It is a machine. The only thing that’s not a machine, in terms of playing music, is the voice. If I play a saxophone, then there’s already something between me and that thing. Now, they argue that this is inhuman. It’s not. And I’ll have to let you hear what I’m doing because you wouldn’t know. I’m not trying to disguise the sound of the synthesizer, but you wouldn’t know that this is not a full orchestra that I’m using. Now, some musicians would know, because of the overtone series. It’s absolutely accurate. It can go out of tune, you know, but like... Rhythms and things like this, absolutely accurate. I don’t think that does anything for the human element. One of the things that has been important to me, is that any sound that I produce from it, that I could do it as a real time thing, instead of putting it on tapes and just overdubbing. I demand for myself that I’m able to produce that for an audience, even though I’m not playing. But anything that I’m doing, I’m ready to do it with people sitting there, to walk up and just do that. Now, that’s not something that’s important to maybe some other musicians, but it was something that I’ve set for myself. Once you put it on record, it’s already electronic, I think it’s an old attitude to have, that attitude about the lack of anything human about it. It’s not true. I have a digital to analogue computer that responds not only to what I play on it, but it has a touch-sensitive keyboard. And because of your body chemistry, it’s going to sound a little different. That’s something that’s incredible. It’s a touch-sensitive contact, the keys don’t move. What other instrument does that? They’re not to take the place of acoustic instruments, it’s just to add on. You know, there shouldn’t be an argument between these two things. I got an electronic saxophone in 1967 [a Selmer Varitone], and Rashied [Ali] and I had a loft together [at 107–109 Broadway, Brooklyn, a building where at times Don Cherry, Marion Brown, Clifford Thornton, Ric Colbeck and Roger Blank also resided], and I took it there and was almost attacked by everybody except Albert Ayler, who really really could hear it, and really dug it, you know. I finally abandoned it, because it sounded too much like an organ and you couldn’t get the saxophone sound out of it. Once, Milt Jackson – he was playing at the old Black Hawk in San Francisco – and after the break he walked down and a guy said, ‘You sure sound good.’ He said ‘You couldn’t see me because of the piano.’ The guy said, ‘Man, I don’t need to see you, I just need to hear you.’ That’s important to me. Rock ’n’ roll and all that, there was theatre involved. They say, ‘I’m going to see this man,’ they’re not going to hear. I’d like to get to the point that where I play music, they’d never have to see me, I just want them to hear the music. I wouldn’t care if I never played another concert in my life. I just want the records out. I would like to be heard. Like if I was producing films, I’d like them to be seen. The whole thing with rock ’n’ roll, it had nothing to do with sound, it had to do more with happenings, it got very physical. The Fillmore [East] was right around the corner, did you ever go there?

Flicker: No.

You could walk in there, the music would be so loud, it’d be physical, it’d shake you. That’s something else. The theatre, to me, is perfectly legitimate. There’s so much to say for a live performance: the relationship between audience and musicians, the warmth, the whole number, right? Now, on television, you don’t ever get that, right? I understand that, I enjoy and appreciate that myself. But most of the people now, even in jazz clubs, like, say, Yusef Lateef playing in Slugs’ [in the Far East]... There’s no reason for them to be there, except as a service to the people that bought your records. That part, I would have to be more sympathetic to. I’d be much more interested in coming in a situation where I could show them how I produce the sounds, where they could come up and do it, instead of having them isolated. I’d like that, like a teaching situation. But for most of the playing situations, like at Studio Rivbea, I wouldn’t be interested. It’s just not something that I’m going to do anymore. There’s no reason to do it. It would have to be a huge hall, and a different arrangement, where people wouldn’t have to sit down. I think it’s unnatural to be sitting down. Like if they hear it at home, they can be doing whatever they’re doing, and hearing the music. That’s where I really appreciate music, I don’t have to sit and listen. I can really hear Coltrane by moving around and playing one track over and over, and doing something else and really participating in the music. I’d like to play outside if I could. But I really don’t have a need for myself to ever play a concert again. I would do it – I’ve got two producers now – and that’s one of the things, you have to put a band together... I’ll do it if I have to do it, but I don’t have a need to be travelling to California, to be travelling in Europe, you know.

Trombert: We were talking about electronics, do you know the music of John Cage, of Steve Reich, of Terry Riley?

Oh sure! Sure. I worked at a school where John Cage worked in electronic music. Wesleyan University. And I want this printed: John Cage is the biggest fraud there is. He’s beautiful in terms of being innovative and teaching people to think, then that makes him a great artist, he stimulated other artists. But so far as John Cage being a producer of art, that’s a farce. Those kids at this school, Wesleyan, it was the richest school in America. They had more electronic equipment in this school than I’ve seen. When I went there to work, they had 2600 ARP synthesizers like Stevie Wonder is playing. They had those synthesizers, they have a $100,000 computer. I walked into the studio, the kids were using the synthesizers, and the keyboards were locked away in a closet. I said, ‘Why aren’t you using the keyboards with them?’ Alvin Lucier – who is the head of the department there – says to me, ‘Ah, they don’t need the keyboard.’ I said, ‘They don’t need the keyboard because you can’t play the keyboard.’ He can’t play, so then the students are getting a very narrow education. I think that whole thing of John Cage and all of those people are big, big publicity. People you don’t hear of, like Roger Powell... Terry Riley certainly is good, I like what Terry does. I like what John thinks, you know? He certainly turned everybody on, he’s the father of the music, but for him, so far as his creativity, it’s in his thought. I’d rather read his writings than to listen to his music, you know. Or to see his drawings... There’s somebody in Argentina that I like a lot too, I can never remember his name...

Trombert: In Argentina? [tape cuts]

[…] I can’t remember. He’s programming Stevie Wonder’s new album. He’s going to do the synthesizer programming for it. I think he’s very very good. To me, personally, Boulez is more important to new music than John Cage is. John can make you think about things, but I can hear more in Boulez than I can hear in Cage, you know. Even Bartók, or hundreds of other people.


Paul Bley can’t play synthesizer. Paul Bley cannot play, please print this. I told him this. He can’t play. He doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing. He’s had a synthesizer... But he’s a brilliant musician, brilliant.

Flicker: Yeah, his piano...

Brilliant, but his imagination... I think it’s a handicap for piano players to play synthesizer because they take that piano thing... Not being a keyboard player, I think, would help. If more drummers played synthesizer, horn players. First of all, that keyboard can confuse you if you’re thinking in terms of the piano. They say, ‘OK, it’s monophonic.’ It does not have to be. Instead of playing a chord with three notes, like this [demonstrates], on the synthesizer you can play it like this, and they never got into doing that, programming oscillators to play three notes at once with one note. They can be programmed right through, the amount of chords you would get out of this would be infinitely more. Paul, I heard him about two months ago, he was playing at Richie Havens’s Cafe Wha?, and he’s got a young band, from Florida, and it sounded great, you know. They sounded great. But the synthesizer playing... I think Sun Ra is more adventurous than Paul. I think Roger Powell, who has one record out [Cosmic Furnace] – that’s not that great a record, in terms of what the material is – but in terms of being a musician that knows the possibility of the synthesizer, I would say Roger is the one here that would use it as we know it, in the sense of setting it up and playing interesting things. Stevie [Wonder] has his synthesizer programmed. Whoever is doing it for him is doing a very limited thing. I hope I get a chance to program a synthesizer for Stevie soon, you know, I’ve spoken with some people. He was at Electric Lady when we were recording. But he had already gotten somebody, one English guy, Malcolm somebody [Malcolm Cecil]. They moved to California too. I think you will hear, like on the album that I’m doing, I would want to, aside from just playing some of the music that I’ve been interested to play, to just let people see what’s possible with the use of the synthesizer. Maybe before you go, I’ll give you a cassette of the thing that we did and you can take it with you.


Flicker: Tomorrow?

Yeah, tomorrow morning.

Flicker: Sure?


Flicker: OK.

12 o’clock, what about 12 o’clock? 131 Prince Street.

[tape ends]

Subscribers to The Wire can read Howard Mandel's feature on ESP-Disk’ – in which he speaks to Marzette Watts, among other musicians – in issue 157 on Exact Editions


I knew Marzette well, having recorded with him as one of the bass players on the Savoy LP produced by Bill Dixon and recorded by Jerry Newman. Several of the selections were later included on the Arista double LP set “New Music: Second Waves” although the musician credits were incorrect as related to the included tracks. A highlight track was “Lonely Woman” sung by Patty Waters with her own lyrics to the Ornette Coleman classic. Marzette had a painterly theatrical approach to the tenor saxophone from the beginning. Thanks,
Steve Tintweiss

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