It has a decidedly peculiar ring to it: The Charlie Watts Orchestra. As in jazz, swing, big bands.

What in the world is Watts, drummer for the Rolling Stones, doing leading a 34-piece juggernaut of a band across the country? Why, having the time of his life, thank you.

"It was great last time," he said in a telephone conversation from his home outside London before embarking on the tour. Last year the band played in New York, Boston and Canada. "I just hope it's as good this time around. The reception's been wonderful."

Making its Washington debut at the Bayou tonight, Watts' all-star ensemble began life modestly enough. He merely wanted to play alongside two of his favorite British jazz musicians: bassists Dave Green and Ron Mathewson.

"I always wanted to play in a group with just the two of them," Watts said somewhat sheepishly, as if he's not quite sure just how the band ballooned to double-digit size. "As things went on, I was invited to play with {drummer} John Stevens, and John helped me put this band together. So it grew."

And grew.

The band became so big, in fact, that it barely fit into Ronnie Scott's jazz club in London, where the group premiered in November 1985 to encouraging reviews. "It was so crowded," Watts recalled, "the vibraphone players were seated with people at a table. It was ridiculous."

How does it feel to be one of three drummers in a group that also includes seven trumpeters, four trombonists and 10 saxophonists? A sheer joy, Watts said, even if he considers himself the least talented jazz musician of the lot.

The idea, he said, was to surround himself with the best British musicians he could find, to create a dream band, if only for a night. Before he knew it, a stellar lineup had taken shape. The band's recent debut album -- "Live: Fulham Town Hall" -- boasts a surprisingly diverse array of talent, ranging from well-seasoned mainstream players like drummers Stevens and Bill Eyden to brash newcomers like saxophonist Courtney Pine to avant-gardist Evan Parker to the doggedly eclectic Jack Bruce. And though the personnel is likely to change considerably from tour to tour, for Watts every performance has been exhilarating.

"It's not intimidating for me to be up there," he said. "It's more admiration, really. It's great to be sitting up there with John and Bill, just to see them work. It's beautiful. I just follow them and when the groove settles in, it's a great time."

And no, he's not especially partial to British musicians. "If I was in America when I was putting the band together," he insisted, "I would have asked {drummers} Tony Williams and Mel Lewis or {saxophonist} Anthony Braxton ... But I'm not that familiar with what's going there. The musicians in the orchestra are all people I've gotten to know."

Born in 1941, when the swing era was giving way to Charlie Parker's and Dizzy Gillespie's innovations in bop, Watts was first drawn to jazz a decade later through hits like Earl Bostic's "Flamingo." (Not surprisingly, "Flamingo" is now part of the orchestra's repertoire.)

However, it was a Gerry Mulligan Quartet recording of "Walkin' Shoes," featuring drummer Chico Hamilton, that changed Watts' life. So impressed was he by Hamilton's brush technique, Watts actually cut the neck off his banjo and converted it into a drum.

"Have you ever seen a banjo or guitar chord book with bloody little dots everywhere?" he asked, quizzically. "I couldn't get that together at all. So the minute I heard Chico Hamilton, I thought I'd do that."

His interest in rhythm and blues and the burgeoning folk and blues revival in Britain would eventually lead Watts to the Stones, but all along he listened to jazz. And not just to drummers, either (though he greatly admired Buddy Rich, Kenny Clarke and Max Roach).

"I loved {trumpeter} Chet Baker," he recalled. "I loved that band they {Baker and Mulligan} had after the quartet folded. There was this quintet. The sound was so beautiful."

When the Stones first arrived in New York in the early '60s, Watts took in as much jazz as he could find. Fortunately, two of the great venues, Birdland and the Metropole, were still open. He recalls a Gene Krupa performance at the Metropole that was a bit too flashy for his taste (the late Rich was more to his liking), but he still cherishes the memory of hearing tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins in a club for the first time. (Years later, Rollins would record with the Stones.) Witnessing firsthand the fierce power of Charlie Mingus' 13-piece band left another indelible impression.

"The big-band album {Mingus} did at Carnegie Hall is the mixture I'd like my band to sound like," Watts mused. "The arrangement is down and soloists have such a great, distinctive sound. They really carry the whole record. It's that sort of thing I love with Mingus."

In the '70s, when he performed briefly with Ian Stewart's band Rocket 88, Watts got accustomed to playing with a horn section. He credits Stewart, the Stones' longtime aide and pianist who died recently, with helping assemble the orchestra (the "Fulham Hall" album is dedicated to Stewart).

"We took the nucleus of Rocket 88, added it to what we had, and then added some more. I guess you could say {Ian's} first love was jazz and R&B, in that order ... He was a big influence on all of us."

As long as it's fun, as long as everyone gets a kick out of performing in the orchestra, Watts promises to keep it together. But he regards the group as a band for special occasions. "Instead of just another gig, {the incentive} would be, you know, some place different to go, something fresh."

Before leaving London, the orchestra was preparing to rehearse several new tunes written by band members Bobby Wellins and Jimmy Duke. Some of the shows in America will be recorded for potential release. Thus far, the band has recorded rousing but relatively conservative swing and bop arrangements of standards like "Stomping at the Savoy" and "Scrapple From the Apple." If you call it mainstream jazz, that's fine by Watts.

"I hope it's that, because I'm pretty mainstream," he said. "It's such a big band, the idea is to have a mixture of styles ... but I don't want to get hung up on some clever little arrangement just for the sake of it and mess up somebody's solo. I'd just as soon have a straight-ahead arrangement and have the guy play wonderful on it.

"Records are something else, aren't they?" he continued, pondering the difficulties of recording a big band. "It'd be nice to get some tunes {recorded} live, and we'll probably go into the studio when we get back. But one of the things we see in this orchestra is the size of it -- the sheer sound of it. You're never going to get that sound on a record."

In the meantime, Watts probably will spend a lot of time either answering or dodging the same question over and over again: Are the Stones through as a band?

"I don't know," he said. "Really. I spoke to them last week, Mick {Jagger} and Bill {Wyman}, but we talked about other things. I'd be the last to hear anyway."