Interview: British jazz legend on why he accepted the MBE and his love of 70s reggae

Harrogate’s small but knowledgable group of jazz fans may be excited by the new explosion of exciting young British bands but a musical great of a previous generation says it’s more of a rebirth than a revolution.

Thursday, 21st November 2019, 12:40 pm
Updated Thursday, 21st November 2019, 12:51 pm
The multi-talented British jazz vocalist Cleveland Watkiss who is bringing classic 70s reggae to York soon.

The inspirational Cleveland Watkiss, one of the UK’s greatest jazz vocalists and still musically adventurous as ever as a 60-year-old, was a co-founder of the Jazz Warriors which set the scene alight in the 1980s.

The legendary outfit also boasted Courtney Pine in their ranks, another brilliant British jazz man who’s impressed in recent years on the Harrogate stage.

The multi-talented and open-minded Watkiss has done it all since those days; pop, rock, soul, drum n bass, classical and opera, working with Stevie Wonder, The Who and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as receiving the MBE in 2018.

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His list of awards is simply too long to list them all - but here's just a few:

Best Jazz Act Nominee, MOBO Awards 2017, Vocalist of the Year, Parliamentary Jazz Awards 2017, Guardian Jazz Awards Best Vocalist, Best Vocalist, London Jazz Awards 2010 and more.

Talking on the phone, Cleveland said: “It’s great to see the next generation like The Comet Is Coming taking up the baton and running with it.

“Britain has such a wide culture, especially in London. We are such a broad society.

“There’s a 100 years of American jazz history to draw on then’s there’s all the British scenes – pop, reggae, punk, acid jazz, trip hop, dance.

“Musicians in this country have so many colours to paint from.”

Cleveland Watkiss: My reggae roots

For his latest tour which coincides with his 60th birthday celebrations, which Harrogate fans can catch in York at the NCEM next Thursday, November 28, Watkiss will be returning to his childhood roots – the Great Jamaican Songbook.

Cleveland said: “Before I got into jazz, I was listening to reggae and those 70s greats Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown, Delroy Wilson. That’s what made me want to be a singer.

“With this show, I’m going back to the music I grew up with.

“It’s a lot of fun and I want to see people up and dancing!”

What it was like to get the MBE and meet The Queen

Born in Hackney of Jamaican parents, Cleveland admits he was a little conflicted about getting the MBE in 2018.

He said: “It was quite surreal at first. Initially, I wasn’t really interested in it.

“Then I spoke to people and I had a think again.

“I decided it was an honour for jazz itself, rather than anything else.

“I went to Buckingham Palace. The Queen and me talked together for about 90 seconds.

“She sounded like she genuinely liked jazz.”

Cleveland Watkiss: What fans can expect at York show

Next week's York show is part of a UK tour which sees Cleveland joined by an array of musical guests on stage, drawing from his collaborators old and new – a who’s who list of the British-Caribbean musical legends including Orphy Robinson, Byron Wallen and more.

Still pushing forward, Cleveland retains the pioneering spirit and youthful vigour of his Jazz Warriors days, the sort of sheer freshness now being shown by today’s scene-shaking names of the new wave of jazz.

Cleveland said: “It’s a good time for music and for jazz. I love it all.

“I’m very fortunate that I can flip around and do all these different things.

“Music can act as a tonic and a medicine. People can always be inspired by the power of music.”