Cleveland Watkiss @50

Three times winner of best vocalist at the Wire / Guardian jazz awards, Cleveland Watkiss is a frequent collaborator of mine. In 2009 he turned 50. To commemorate live music promoter Serious agreed to host a celebration as part of that year’s London Jazz Festival at the South Bank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. I was to produce and direct the mixed media event.

Cleveland’s musical journey has encompassed the spectrum of late 20th century Black British music at some of the most significant moments in its history. From Lovers’ Rock and Reggae, the reclamation of jazz by Black youth in the 80s to electronica and Drum ’n Bass in the 90s, Cleveland is recognised as a key figure in all of these sub-cultures and has opus’s within the canons of every genre.

The concert would chronicle Cleveland’s journey through that landscape, pretty much in chronological order. We set ourselves the ambition of bringing together as many of the musicians he collaborated with over a 30 year career to perform musical pieces from each stage in that career. This ultimately meant that we were to have 34 of Britain’s finest musicians involved in one show.

One of the biggest challenges would be how to manage the complex change-overs between bands that this would involve while keeping the audience captivated. The challenge presented an opportunity to enhance the show and take it beyond being a mere concert – albeit a concert of epic proportions. I decided the approach would be to create film sequences to provide commentary on each ‘episode’ and give the concert a narrative. Reducing the stage lighting to semi-darkness in order to play the film sequences would provide the necessary cover for the change-overs while maintaining a narrative momentum.

The first sequence used archive stills from Cleveland’s time at the primary school he attended in Hackney combined with footage we filmed of him delivering workshops there in the weeks running up to the concert. These workshops prepared a group of children to perform a jazz acapella composition initially in darkness as the film played to open the show before revealing the Cleveland seated on the floor surrounded by children.

Other films included interviews with Cleveland combined with archive rehearsal, backstage and studio footage. For one sequence we brought members of his alma mater together at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama where Cleveland was part of a unique cohort of young mainly Black musicians that were responsible for the renaissance in British jazz that occurred during the late ’80s.

The band change-overs were one of the challenges another was that I featured as a musician in two ‘episodes’ and so had to play on two numbers while directing a show featuring 34 musicians, with a crew of 8 technicians and a multi-camera video crew filming the event.

The 23minute video above includes edited extracts from a show that ran to just over 2 hours culminating in one of the longest and loudest standing ovations of that year’s festival.

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