Blue Notes: Derek Watkins remembered

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 April, 2013, 3:17pm

The deaths of jazz musicians often feature on the obituary pages of British newspapers, but the late trumpeter Derek Watkins could be the first to have made the obituary column in the satirical magazine Private Eye.

That column, which always begins with the words "So farewell then …" and is credited to the fictional E.J. Thribb (17½), offers a portentously banal reflection on a well-recognised aspect of the subject's life.

In the case of Watkins, it was to have played the lead trumpet part on the soundtrack for every James Bond film from Dr No in 1962 to last year's Skyfall. Perhaps the most prominent of his performances involved providing the ominous growls that set off Shirley Bassey's vocal on 1964's Goldfinger.

Watkins' career - sadly ended by sarcoma, a rare form of cancer at the age of 68 - was primarily that of a session player, performing on more than 40 film soundtracks and countless TV shows, as well as on pop, rock and classical recordings which included albums or singles for The Beatles, Eric Clapton and Elton John.

He was respected by leading figures in the jazz world and worked in big bands with Kenny Wheeler, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, John Dankworth, Stan Tracey, Phil Woods and many more.

Fellow trumpeters were particularly impressed. Gillespie called him "Mr Lead", Wheeler described him as "the finest of the best", and Chuck Findley said he was "the greatest trumpet player I ever met in my life, and I have played with them all".

Watkins made a couple of jazz albums in his own name - 1995's Over the Rainbow with the Brian Lemon Quartet, and 1996's Stardust, made with the same musicians augmented by Warren Vaché on cornet - but his soundtrack work set me thinking about how a featured instrument in the hands of the right musician can be a determining element in the whole atmosphere of a movie. Quite often that instrument is a trumpet.

Gillespie and his quintet provided the musical setting for Harlem street life in 1964's The Cool World, and Miles Davis' score for Louis Malle's Parisian film noir Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud includes some of the most emotively melancholy trumpet playing he ever recorded. Davis also wrote and performed the soundtrack for Jim Jacobs' 1970 film Jack Johnson, and collaborated with John Lee Hooker, Roy Rogers - the slide guitarist, not the cowboy - and Taj Mahal on the music for Dennis Hopper's The Hot Spot released in 1990, one of the finest of his late recordings.

Saxophones can be equally potent in a film noir context. Johnny Mandel's score for Robert Wise's 1958 death-row drama I Want to Live! makes prominent use of Gerry Mulligan's baritone saxophone, and Mulligan extended the Mandel themes used in the movie into an album. Gato Barbieri's tenor sax playing on the soundtrack of Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris won him a Grammy. And Plas Johnson's tenor sax on Henry Mancini's theme for The Pink Panther is unforgettable.

Clarinetist and film director Woody Allen made brilliantly counterintuitive use of traditional jazz in his 1973 science-fiction spoof, Sleeper, for which he composed the soundtrack and led the band.

He used Charles Yassky's clarinet playing on George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue to even more telling effect in Manhattan, his 1979 black-and-white masterpiece.

A number of notable jazz composers have turned their hands to movie soundtracks. Herbie Hancock's forays into the field include Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 swinging London movie Blow Up, and the late Michael Winner's first Death Wish. Duke Ellington scored Anatomy of a Murder, and although Count Basie did not score Blazing Saddles, his appearance with his orchestra playing April in Paris is one of the high points of the movie.

Bond soundtracks won't be quite the same without Derek Watkins. After being diagnosed with sarcoma, the musician founded a charity to help fight the disease

Take Three

Three classic jazz movie soundtracks.

  • Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud (1958, Fontana): Miles Davis with drummer Kenny Clarke, pianist Rene Urtreger, bassist Pierre Michelot and tenor saxophonist Barney Willen improvised the soundtrack to Louis Malle's tense story of adultery and murder.
  • Anatomy of a Murder (1959, Columbia): Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn scored Otto Preminger's courtroom drama, and the music stands up independently as a great Duke Ellington Orchestra album.
  • Round Midnight (1986, Columbia): perhaps the best cinematic account of the jazz life produced an Oscar-winning soundtrack. Herbie Hancock was musical director, with a shifting cast of musicians which included the star of the movie, tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon.