Although the commercial ascendance of rock & roll virtually eradicated traditional jazz from British radio, bandleader Tommy Watt was the exception to the rule, with a mainstream profile elevated in large part due to the uniform brilliance of his crack supporting unit, highlighted by tenor saxophonist Tubby Hayes, baritone saxophonist Ronnie Ross, and trombonist Jackie Armstrong. Born in Glasgow, Scotland, on October 31, 1925, Watt left home at 17 to play piano behind clarinetist Carl Barriteau -- he was called to military duty in 1944, serving in the Royal Air Force alongside actor Brian Rix, and after World War II ended he relocated to London, playing West End clubs and sitting in with the big bands of Ambrose, Harry Roy, and Ken Mackintosh.
In 1955 Watt renewed his friendship with Rix, an avowed jazz fan, and the actor agreed to fund a demo session -- the resulting tape was instrumental in securing Watt a contract with the BBC, and he made dozens of lunchtime appearances in support of singer Matt Munro. The BBC stint also brought Watt to the attention of Parlophone Records, which hired him as a session pianist and arranger. He assembled the first incarnation of his big band in 1956, while enjoying a residency at the London restaurant Quaglino's. With a lineup featuring fledgling British jazz titans including Hayes, Ross, Armstrong, trumpeters Tommy McQuater and Bert Courtley, and drummer Phil Seaman, the group soon made its first recordings and immediately established itself as the first U.K. jazz group to convincingly rival the sound and creativity of its American counterparts, winning regular radio airplay despite the prevailing disdain for anything outside of the pop sphere.
After winning an Ivor Novello Award for their single "Overdrive," the Tommy Watt Big Band issued their first full-length LP, It Might as Well Be Swing, in 1958. Watt's arrangements drew heavily on the music of Count Basie, and his work so impressed Basie himself that he later integrated some of Watt's efforts into his own charts. When the Quaglino's residency ended, Watt nevertheless dissolved the group to write and arrange a series of Rix-headlined stage productions as well as a pair of films, the 1961 releases The Night We Got the Bird and Nothing Barred. He also briefly assumed the helm of the BBC Northern Dance Orchestra, but his combative approach quickly earned him the enmity of the BBC brass, and his tenure proved short-lived. Watt founded a new unit dubbed the Centre 42 Big Band in 1964, in addition to writing for the new London Weekend Television. During the remainder of the decade, he also served as musical director for the singers Tommy Cooper and Freddie Starr.
After agreeing in 1970 to assemble another big band for a residency at London's Dorchester Hotel, Watt discovered that his audience now consisted almost entirely of war widows -- he quit the gig not long after and turned to a career as an interior decorator, occasionally sitting in on piano at the West London club the Bull's Head. Watt also spent a number of years raising his family while his wife Romany worked as a magazine journalist -- their son Ben Watt later enjoyed considerable fame as one half of the pop duo Everything But the Girl. Tommy Watt died in Bristol on May 20, 2006.