Siblings in the City

Trevor Watkis

Award-winning vocalist Cleveland Watkiss MBE still remembers the day he discovered his younger sibling, acclaimed pianist and composer Trevor, had been bitten by the music bug. The brothers spoke to Dave Freak, ahead of performing in Birmingham within days of each other. 

"I caught him in my room," recalls Cleveland, now 59, on coming home unexpectedly to discover Trevor rifling through his prized jazz funk records. 

"He’d been listening to the stuff I was playing, and would sneak into my room and try and tape it. He was nine-years-old," says Cleveland, who was then 19-20. "At that time, when you’re kids, you’re like eons away from your younger brother: He’s not into Freddie Hubbard and stuff? But he was! For me I was really shocked." 

Today, Cleveland and Trevor are two of the UK's most respected musical adventurers, but back in the late-70s/ early-80s, they were just a couple of East London lads with a growing music obsession. 

Alongside Cleveland’s vinyl collection, Trevor recalls middle brother Anthony as another early inspiration. 

“He influenced us both,” says Trevor, the second youngest of nine children. “He played guitar and keyboards. He played soul music, I guess he liked jazz chords … chords, harmony, he played reggae and in the church as well." 

Says Cleveland: "[Anthony] had this great natural ability to just pick things up and just play. I remember seeing him at the piano, just playing, and saying ‘How’d you do that?’ He just … played! Played tunes. He was really the natural of the three of us, but never pursed it." 

The second eldest in a family of nine, Cleveland recollects music filling the family home - the radio, rhythm and blues records, the latest sounds from Jamaica, and more. "My dad passed away when I was nine years old," he says, "and I found out that he loved a lot of jazz stuff, so maybe it slinked into the DNA that way." 

Cleveland had started "tinkering" on piano at school and picked up a guitar, but it was winning a leading reggae sound system talent contest that really showed him he not only had the skill, but also the passion, for creating music. "That was really the spark for me to pursue music and singing. I was 14-15 at the time." 

Forming a band and gaining a Covent Garden wine bar residency, Cleveland mastered his craft playing live 3-4 nights a week: "It was a place where we learned how to play tunes, played the tunes we liked. We weren’t concerned with how difficult tunes were, it didn’t compute that way for us, for me at least. [John Coltrane’s milestone] Giant Steps? Just play it! Learn the chord progression, learn the melody, and then just do it! We didn’t think about it as being this complicated tune that’s got all these chords in it, we didn’t think like that… 

"A young mind is always searching and is inquisitive, it doesn’t know any boundaries,” he adds. “As soon as someone says, ‘that’s a difficult chord … you can’t do that … that’s so difficult to do!’ you can go two ways: Well, okay, I’m going to prove you wrong - which is the way I did; or you can bottle it up, ‘this tune is so difficult, I’m not going to do it!’" 

Meanwhile, Trevor was also teaching himself to play guitar and piano, and was regularly checking out his brother's wine bar shows: "I used to go down there, as my curious self, to where he was playing … and want to play! I used to play fills ... he wanted to sing more, to be free of the piano, and eventually I got to play the piano in that group. Which was very inspiring and encouraging, to be put in that situation." 

"The piano really stuck for him," notes Cleveland. "I noticed Trevor was getting really into it, studying, and getting to a place where he could really come and play with us. It was really from there … it was like ‘oh wow!’ … watching him grow, it was fascinating." 

Relentlessly inquisitive, and with very different career paths, both musicians shared a can-do/ DIY approach, yet both also acknowledge the significance of formal music classes. 

Trevor: "Once you’re on the path to achieve what you want to do, to accomplish a certain level you can do it yourself, but having some kind of direction and guidance is quite important. It was for me. I think it’s important to get some direction in your instrumental studies."  

Though initially told music college wasn’t for him, Cleveland found himself at Guildhall School of Music and Drama. "A lot of the stuff I was learning there at the time I felt I learnt by just doing – listening to the records and being in bands. But what was really handy was getting your [music] reading together, getting some singing lessons with some of the teachers who were there, extra piano lessons." 


Cleveland Watkiss

Cleveland found their approach to jazz "stale and sterile" and from a limited perspective. "I felt that it was an old boys club, these musicians who got these gigs teaching in these universities and schools - you hardly ever see any black musicians teaching in these places, which is really strange as the music is from our culture." However, that's something he's now rectifying. As a Professor (Jazz Voice) at Trinity Laban, Cleveland brings with him over 30 years of experience as a “vocal explorer” and a successful international musician. "If you’re sharing knowledge it’s got to be better coming from the people who are actually doing it." 

Following those formative wine bar days, vocalist Cleveland co-founded the legendary Jazz Warriors and performed with artists as varied as Stevie Wonder, The Who, Goldie, Björk, Bob Dylan, Soul II Soul and Keith Richards, and was appointed an MBE for his services to music last year. His latest projects include reforming his ’90s drum'n'bass act Project 23, defining The Great Jamaican Songbook, and helming the Cleveland Watkiss Allstars - who visit Midlands Arts Centre on 24 January 2019. 

"It's largely based on spontaneous composition, on improvisation, and just having really loose structures, and utlising that to create music in the moment," explains Cleveland of the Allstars. "I love the idea that improvisation is composition sped up … and composition is improvisation slowed down. When I think about the music in that way, it really makes a lot of sense. 

"You can create something really beautiful and interesting in the moment, on the fly, in that instant,” he continues. “And it’s only in that moment. Sometimes when things happen, they just happen … I love that. It’s a deep reflection on life, everything’s about the moment, when you get down to the real nitty gritty, the minutiae ... everything is all about right now - for me, anyway."

A MOBO nominated artist (as part of jazz band Lineage) who studied at famed US college Berklee and has has played with such artists as Kenny Garrett and Natalie Cole, Trevor recorded his debut solo album in New York and was involved in the Jazz Sounds of WWI pop-up performances around Birmingham in 2014. His recent projects have included musical settings for Edward P Jones stories (Scoreys) and the Southbank's centenary celebrations for Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. He visits Birmingham's CBSO Centre on 26 January 2019, leading a stellar band of UK and US musicians (Byron Wallen, Ralph Moore, Willie Jones III and Dezron Douglas) to celebrate the work of forgotten jazz pioneer Alphonso ‘Dizzy’ Reece. 

"He’s a really important musician in the history of jazz," states Trevor of Reece. A graduate of Jamaica’s legendary Alpha Boys School who arrived aged 17 in London in 1948 on the HMT Empire Windrush, Reece later relocated to New York after Miles Davis recommended him to the iconic Blue Note label. Now 88, the trumpeter went on to perform with Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane and many others greats. 

"The influence he had and the level of musicianship he had … he was one of the best musicians to come out of England, if not THE best, in my opinion," Trevor enthuses. "He’s a stand-out player, he’s quite fearless. He’s a genius! But a lot of people don’t know of him."


Cleveland Watkiss

TDE Promotions Presents: Cleveland Watkiss Allstars