San Diego Saxman, a Touring Member of Stones, Says Charlie Watts Was Best He's Ever Seen

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The news that legendary Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts had died saddened music fans around the globe and throughout San Diego, but for one local man, it hit harder than for most.

Watts, the self-effacing and unshakeable Rolling Stones drummer who helped anchor one of rock’s greatest rhythm sections and used his “day job” to support his enduring love of jazz, died on Tuesday, according to his publicist. He was 80 years old.

Watts’ publicist Bernard Doherty said in a statement that the musician passed away peacefully in a London hospital.

Karl Denson, an extraordinary local saxophone player and bandleader who fronts the Greyboy Allstars and Karl Denson's Tiny Universe, has been a touring member of the Rolling Stones since 2014.

The saxman has played with other big names, notably Lenny Kravitz, who, Denson said, is friends with Mick Jagger and made the recommendation to the Stones back in the early teens. On Tuesday, Denson was out in Flagstaff, Arizona, helping his daughter Sadie move back home after graduating from college.

Denson's a self-professed "drummer freak -- I'm all about drummers." so it's no surprise he connected with Watts.

"Charlie would play something that I literally would just stop mid-sentence and just go, 'Come on! Give me a break!' " Denson told NBC 7. "Like it’s so genius the way he would do it. And it would always be something so simple, but just the way he did it was so profound."

Denson said Watts was the best he's ever seen.

"It's about being a jazz guy, and it's about just being a drum freak," Denson said when asked about his relationship with Watts. "I love the drums, and Charlie is a real jazz guy, and so, one day we're at rehearsal in London, and, you know, we're playing songs, and in between songs, he's sitting there at his drums and he starts playing the 'Sidewinder' beat from [jazz trumpeter] Lee Morgan 'Sidewinder.' And the way he played it was so simple that I immediately recognized it as 'Sidewinder.' You know, I could hear the bass going boom ba boom boom boom boom boom."

Denson said that he turned to Watts as soon as he finished and asked if he had been playing "Sidewinder," only to be sharpened on the point by Watts, who replied, "Billy Higgins," the musician who was, in fact, Morgan's drummer.

Denson said another memory that stood out was getting to play the blues with Watts once at a Mexico City show.

A couple shows that stand out for Denson, of course, are the nights in 2015 when the Stones played Petco Park and a much-more intimate appearance at the Belly Up in Solana Beach.

"Having it be at home and having my family see it, my friends here in San Diego was amazing," Denson said, adding later, "and then to go to the Belly Up, it was like my little backyard place where I play, but the Stones, when they took it over, it was like a compound. It was really incredible."

The Rolling Stones No Filter tour, which had a stop in San Diego scheduled in the stadium in Mision Valley before the pandemic stepped in, is set to begin next month in St. Louis. There is no word yet on whether the tour will go on as planned, but Denson thinks the Rolling Stones will be back.

"Next year is their 60th, so I expect that they're going to continue," Denson said. "This is what they do, and they've got this incredible catalog of music, and I don't see any reason why would stop. I think Charlie would want them to continue, and I just think this is what they're built for."

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