Category Archives: Obituaries

Bobby Wellins Obituary

Bobby_Wellins 2

Bobby Wellins (c) Trio Records

Bobby Wellins, who has died at the age of 80, was not only Scotland’s first great jazz tenor saxophonist but also an icon of British jazz whose influence would have lived on even if he had never played again after 1965, when he featured on the iconic album of Stan Tracey’s Under Milk Wood suite. 

 
His gorgeous and evocative solo on the track Starless and Bible Black has regularly been named as the single most memorable British jazz solo ever recorded – and his haunting, Celtic-tinged sound was undoubtedly a huge inspiration on generations of young musicians, among them fellow tenor saxophonist, composer and educator Tommy Smith who was responsible for bringing Wellins’s own Culloden Moor Suite, to life five years ago when the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and Wellins recorded it and performed it to considerable acclaim. Its concert performance at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland exactly five years ago was electrifying and Wellins, and the band, gave a tour-de-force performance which brought the house down. 
 
Smith, who was just 13 years old when he first heard Wellins on record, says: “Bobby was a grandmaster of the saxophone, a composer of profound integrity and a beautiful guy who will be greatly missed.” Indeed, Wellins was one of the best-loved musicians on the scene; a huge talent who was extremely self-effacing and likable and still very much, as he put it, “a Glasgow boy” at heart.
 
Jill Rodger, the longstanding director of the Glasgow Jazz Festival which most recently booked Wellins in 2013, says: “Bobby was an absolute pleasure to work with and to know. He was a very humble person who made no demands – as some do – other than a packet of potato scones to take back to Bognor Regis after his Scottish gigs!”
 
Clark Tracey, the son of the late piano giant Stan, says:  “Bobby was legendary, influencing goodness knows how many saxophonists and inspiring so many young musicians over the years with his generous nature.  He had time for anyone.  His sound was unique – a commodity sought by many but achieved by a few.  His groove was innate and he had limitless invention.”
 
Robert Coull Wellins was born into a showbiz family living in the Gorbals; he later lived in Carnwadric and attended Shawlands Academy. His singer mother and alto saxophonist father – the son of a Russian Jew who had emigrated from Minsch – worked in a show band which played in a local cinema before establishing their own double act which they took on the road around Scotland.
 
In an interview with me in 2011, Wellins explained: “They did sketches and she sang. My father played everything – musical saw, a bit of guitar, saxophone.” 
 
It wasn’t long after he returned from the war that Wellins’s father began to teach him to play alto sax. “My dad taught me and my sister to read music, we had to be what they called consummate musicians before they let us play for their showbiz friends at one of their Sunday get-togethers.”
 
Round about the same time, he bought the family a second-hand radiogramme which came with a jazz record collection which was almost a complete musical education.
 
That education continued with a couple of years at the RAF School of Music during his National Service – where Wellins switched to tenor sax – followed by stints with numerous big bands. 
 
By the time he began gigging on the London jazz scene in his mid twenties, Wellins already had what Clark Tracey describes as “a highly personalised sound.” Wellins befriended saxophonist playing club owner Ronnie Scott and later credited him with helping to launch his career. 
 
Wellins said: “Ronnie was a professional gambler and there was a place across the road from his club where a lot of heavy gambling went on. If Ronnie was on a roll then I’d be called in to dep for him, and that’s really where the quartet with Stan grew from.” Wellins twigged early on that he and Tracey had a unique intuition about each other’s playing. It shines through Under Milk Wood, which was recorded in just two days, and yet they never made a big deal about how much they enjoyed playing together.
 
“Stan and I never ever discussed what it was that we felt about each other but I do remember that it really struck hard when we were down at Ronnie’s one night and I said: ‘You know it’s a wonderful piece’ . And he said: ‘Well, I did write it with you in mind.’ That was quite a while after we had recorded it. But being the kind of people we were, we weren’t carried away with ourselves. I just felt it was such a wonderful vehicle for me. I felt it was just like me.”
 
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of that recording. Not only was it Tracey’s best-selling album, reissued five times after its initial release, but it put British jazz on the world map. It was, as Clark Tracey says, “something that stood up to an American release”. And that was significant during the period when British musicians were frustrated by the restrictions on them working in America and getting a chance to make their names there.
 
However, frustration and boredom for Wellins and Tracey partly led to drug habits which marred their lives for years. Clark Tracey says: “They were soon messed up pretty badly from the cheap, top quality, narcotics widely available in Soho.” Both eventually recovered, and Wellins, who moved to Bognor Regis with his family, worked with his own quartet of local musicians while recording a string of albums and writing prolifically during the 1980s and 1990s. He and Tracey always wanted to play together again, however, and they spent the last 15 years of Tracey’s life (he died in 2013) doing just that – on record and in concerts.
 
In 2011, Tommy Smith commissioned arranger Florian Ross to arrange Wellins’s Culloden Moor Suite, originally written back in 1964, for the SNJO. The resulting concerts and CD were a triumph and Wellins was thrilled with the whole experience. Smith says: “It meant a great deal to him – he couldn’t stop thanking me.”
 
Following a mild stroke a year ago, Wellins stopped playing to recoup. His death from leukaemia, however, was sudden and a shock to his family.  He passed away in hospital in Bognor and is survived by his wife Isobel and daughters Fiona and Elizabeth.
 
* Bobby Wellins, jazz saxophonist and composer, born January 24, 1936; died October 27, 2016
* An edited version of this obituary was published in The Herald on Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Leave a comment

Filed under Obituaries

Sandy Taylor Obituary

Sandy Taylor picSandy Taylor, who has died at the age of 92, was a popular and elegant Scottish jazz pianist and the music director for singer Carol Kidd’s first three albums. A familiar face to anyone who attended jazz concerts at the Glasgow Society of Musicians in the 1980s, and the resident pianist in various west of Scotland hotels over the decades, he was also something of a mentor to such younger musicians as the saxophonist Laura Macdonald and the singer/pianist and BBC radio presenter Stephen Duffy.

Born at the family home, Dumfin Sawmill, Glenfruin in 1922, Alexander Wilson Taylor attended the Vale of Leven Academy in Alexandria before serving in the RAF as a radio operator on a Halifax bomber during the war. His family operated Dumfin Sawmill, and Taylor followed in his father’s footsteps by taking over the mill, while also working as a self—employed joiner and playing piano gigs. He married Marjorie in 1958, and they had two children, Sanders and Joyce.

In 1968, after two storms in quick succession both devastated the dam, lade and waterwheel on the Fruin which powered the machinery in the Taylor premises, the mill stopped operating as a sawmill but Taylor continued to live at Dumfin until he went into sheltered housing in 2012, two years after Marjorie’s death.

In the mid-1970s, Taylor joined the band led by saxophonist/vibraphonist Jimmy Feighan which had a long-standing Saturday afternoon gig at Glasgow’s Lorne Hotel. The band’s singer was Carol Kidd, newly returned to singing after a decade-long absence. She and Taylor hit it off immediately, and their musical rapport soon began to inspire enquiries from promoters who wanted to book Kidd plus Taylor, and the rest of the rhythm section – Alex Moore on bass guitar and Murray Smith on drums. Before long they were regulars at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival and playing three fortnights a year at Ronnie Scott’s in London.

For Kidd, working with Taylor was the closest musical relationship she had had. “He knew exactly the kind of songs that would suit my voice and he knew how to accompany a singer – which is an art form in itself.” David Newton, the then up-and-coming pianist who succeeded Taylor as Kidd’s accompanist, credits the older player with providing him with a Eureka moment about the art of accompaniment.

“In the late 1970s I played piano in a club called Aphrodite in London. The singer Karen Kay, who had been on a talent show like Opportunity Knocks, came and I was her accompanist for six weeks. At the end of it she said: ‘Thanks very much, but you’re the worst accompanist a singer could have.’

“So, bearing this in mind, when I came up to Scotland and started working with singers I watched Sandy Taylor in action. He knew when to play and when not to play – when to leave space for the singer to do what she or he does. None of this footling about.”

Kidd describes Taylor’s style as minimalist, adding: “Another thing I loved about him was that his sense of humour came through in his playing – and that’s not often the case with musicians. He had a lovely way of making things light and quite funny and then very serious –
and that’s what his personality was all about too. He had a wonderful personality.”

Indeed, Taylor was known in the Scottish jazz scene as a raconteur par excellence, who would tell long-winded tales and reel his listener in before walloping them in the face with a devastating punchline. Drummer and bandleader Ken Mathieson, who played regularly with Taylor at the Duck Bay Marina, recalls: “Sandy was a genuine one-off: he could be a prickly character who wouldn’t tolerate fools at all, but if he decided you were a friend, you were a friend for life with no reprieves or paroles. He was fantastically entertaining company.”

For Laura Macdonald, the renowned alto saxophonist who, in her late teens and early twenties, played a weekly duo gig with Taylor at the Inn on the Green in Glasgow for a few years before she went to study in the USA, the age difference between her and the then septuagenarian pianist didn’t get in the way of their instant friendship.

She says: “He had the spirit of a young man and we just clicked. He was always totally mischievous and would crack me up on the bandstand and off. Musically, he was a soulmate – we couldn’t believe how often we both played the same thing at the same moment in an improvisation. We’d come off the bandstand and sit and stare at each other and and say ‘How did that happen?!’. He gave me confidence, and freed me up musically.”

Sandy Taylor is survived by his younger twin brothers Bill and Joe, his son Sanders, his daughter Joyce as well as two grand-daughters and a great-grandson.

Sandy Taylor, pianist, born November 28 1922; died April 21 2015

* First published in The Herald, Saturday May 11Nice Work cover

Leave a comment

Filed under Obituaries

Jim Galloway Obituary

Jim Galloway (& Duke Heitger), Norwich Jazz Party, 2011

(c) Alison Kerr, 2011

Jim Galloway, who has died at the age of 78, was one of the leading exponents of the soprano saxophone in jazz. Not only was he a wonderful musician and organiser; he was also one of the warmest, friendliest and least egocentric of talents. A kind, witty character with a mischievous twinkle in his eye and gentle west coast accent which he never lost, despite having spent more of his life in Canada than in his native Scotland, he loved the music, loved other people who loved the music, and seemed to represent what’s best about the jazz community – its spirit of camaraderie.

Any time his name came up in conversation – whether with American, Scottish or French musicians – eyes would light up, and somebody would tell a story and want to be remembered to him. It’s impossible to separate the man from the music: both were full of infectious, often gleeful, enthusiasm and irrepressible joie-de-vivre.

Jim Galloway, Bruce Turner, Warren Vache, Edinburgh Jazz Fest, 1988

Jim Galloway, Bruce Turner, Warren Vache, Edinburgh Jazz Festival, 1988 (c) Donnie Kerr

American cornettist Warren Vaché says: “He was a caring and honest musician whose sense of fun and humour were always present, and whose love of puns in speech seemed to translate into a love of quotes in his solos.” Glaswegian clarinettist Forrie Cairns – who first met “Jimmy” at the Evening Times’ annual Jazz Band Championships at the St Andrew’s Halls, when Galloway was with the Esquire Jazz Band and he was with the Jim McHarg Jazz Band – remembers him as “one of the few true gentlemen of jazz”.

James Braidie Galloway was born in Kilwinning, Ayrshire, in 1936, and raised in Dalry. During his teens he taught himself to play the clarinet (the only music lessons he had as a child were on the chanter for the bagpipes), and spent all his pocket money on jazz records. In a 1992 interview with Jazz Journal, he said that hearing a chorus by Frank Teschemacher on the Eddie Condon Quartet recording of Indiana was a defining moment. “I’ve never copied a chorus played by another musician. But I do remember that I sat there and laboriously wrote out Teschemacher’s chorus on that recording. It really made an impression.”

An avid radio listener, the teenage Galloway soaked up inspiration from many instrumentalists, notably trumpeter Louis Armstrong, trombonist Vic Dickenson and saxophonists Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster. But, as was evident in later life when he was at home in any jazz context, he also grew up listening to the emerging bop players. His late teens coincided with the trad jazz revival, when there were plenty of opportunities for a young jazz clarinettist to play every weekend in Scotland’s major cities, and the unlikely mecca for trad enthusiasts in Glasgow was Whitecraigs Tennis Club, on the southside.

Jim Galloway, Norwich Jazz Party, 2011

(c) Alison Kerr

By 1964, the scene had changed. Gigs were fewer and further between and Galloway’s “itchy feet” took him to Canada. He arrived in Toronto on Saturday, July 4, 1964 and, decades later, said: “I still remember the first evening. I went in to this place called the Colonial Tavern and literally stopped dead in my tracks. My first night in North America, and there’s a bandstand and on it are Herman Autrey, Vic Dickenson and Buster Bailey.. I thought “Jesus Christ! This is heaven!”

Due to union rules, Galloway couldn’t operate immediately as a full-time musician so he took on design work, but he involved himself in the Toronto jazz scene right from day one, sitting in on jam sessions and playing with several local bands. In 1967, he joined the Metro Stompers, led by the afore-mentioned fellow Scot Jim McHarg. Two years later, McHarg asked him to take over – and this indirectly gave birth to the other major strand of his jazz career: as an organiser. Within months, Galloway had brought in his first guest star – the legendary stride pianist Willie “the Lion” Smith. This led to Galloway booking such other ageing greats as pianist Teddy Wilson into the club Bourbon Street.

A fallow period for musicians in the early 1970s led to Galloway breaking up the band, and taking a high school teaching job. But in 1975, his international jazz career was launched when his drummer friend Paul Rimstead put together a band that included Galloway and Buddy Tate on saxes and Buck Clayton on trumpet, and took it to jazz festivals in France. “It changed my life,” Galloway later said. “I quit teaching on the strength of five weeks’ work. I remember going to the principal’s office to resign. He thought I was crazy.”

By now, he was playing saxophone – mostly soprano, but he had also mastered alto, tenor and baritone. (Indeed, the last time I heard Jim Galloway, at the 2012 Norwich Jazz Party, he surprised everyone by playing a duo set on a baritone borrowed from Karen Sharp five minutes before kick-off. It was the highlight of the weekend.) He played the straight soprano sax from 1967, until three years later, when a drummer pal gave him a shot of a curved one and “it was love at first blow.” His sound on soprano was utterly distinctive and owed nothing to anyone, especially not to its most famous exponent, Sidney Bechet.

In 1985, Galloway and his then-wife Rosemary, were commissioned to write a major composition, entitled Hot & Suite, to be performed by the Scottish National Orchestra plus jazz ensemble at the Edinburgh International Festival. The hour-long piece featured a host of jazz musicians (including Warren Vaché) who had performed at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival that week.

jimgalloway11

Jim Galloway (in characteristic pose) & Spanky Davis, Edinburgh Jazz Festival, 1988 (c) Donnie Kerr

In 2002, Galloway received the most prestigious arts award in France when the government made him a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres for enriching French culture.

In Toronto, the tireless Galloway kept a 17-piece group, the Wee Big Band, going from 1978 until his death, recorded a string of albums for Sackville Records, hosted a radio show through the 1980s, and went on to co-found what became the Toronto Jazz Festival in 1987. He was its artistic director until he retired from the post in 2009, by which point he was also a columnist for The Whole Note magazine. In the Toronto Star’s obituary of Galloway, Fay Olson – one of the team which produced the festival– said: “Toronto wouldn’t have a jazz festival if it wasn’t for Jim. He was a lovely guy, one of those who sees the good in everyone and always finds a reason to laugh.”

Indeed, the worst anybody could say about him is that he couldn’t keep his puns to himself.

He died after several months’ illness, and is survived by his second wife, Anne.

* James Braidie Galloway, born July 28, 1936; died December 30, 2014.

First published in The Herald, Saturday January 17

 

1 Comment

Filed under Obituaries

John Bunch obituary

John Bunch, photographed at Nola Studios by Alan Nahigian, in October 2009, for Arbors Records

The death of the American jazz pianist John Bunch, at the age of 88, has triggered an outpouring of warmth from fellow musicians, festival organisers, promoters and the many friends and fans he made during his 38-year freelance career.

He may have been in his late eighties, but Bunch – who had been battling melanoma, and only played his last gig a month ago – was still a vital part of the jazz scene, and remained young at heart right up to his death. Even as his health was deteriorating in the last few months, he was finding new ways to stay in touch with his younger friends – beating many of them on to such social networking sites as Facebook and Twitter.

A quiet and thoughtful character who was known in the jazz world as “Gentleman John”, Bunch was renowned for his supremely tasteful and innately swinging style of playing as well as for his extremely modest and self-effacing personality. During a career which spanned over five decades, he was the first-call pianist for several generations of bandleaders, among them Benny Goodman, Woody Herman and Scott Hamilton whose career he helped to launch. And in the late 1960s, he was hired by jazz-loving Tony Bennett to be his musical director and right-hand man.

Born in the small Indiana town of Tipton in 1921, Bunch didn’t show any interest in music until a man he later described as “a wonderful piano player” moved into the area and began to teach children what was known as “popular piano” – the popular songs of the day. All the children took lessons but it was  11-year-old Bunch who emerged as the town’s top piano student. His teacher, who played in jazz bands and was very influenced by the great Fats Waller, asked Bunch’s mother if he could take him along to his gigs – and soon Bunch was sitting in with professional players.

Bunch’s mother initially rented a piano for him to practise on, and when his talent began to shine through, one was bought – though this being the Depression, it involved a great deal of sacrifice. His parents split up around this time, and his mother took a job as cook in a restaurant, which was one of the first places to have a jukebox.  The man who came to service it loved jazz and, having heard about the teenage Bunch’s talent, asked Mrs Bunch if he could take John to Indianapolis to hear the Count Basie band.

Bunch later recalled: “It was a great experience. They let us sit up on the bandstand because it was so crowded. Imagine,  a kid 14 years old sitting in front of Basie’s most famous band – with Lester Young, Jo Jones, Buck Clayton and all those guys.”

After leaving school, Bunch played piano locally and worked in a factory before serving in the Second World War as a bombardier in the 91st Bomb Group, flying B-17s – “Flying Fortresses” – over Germany.  On their 17th mission, they were shot down over Germany and two of the crew were killed. Bunch was the only one to emerge without any injuries, despite having had to bail out.

He and his crew were taken prisoner and held in Stalag Luft 13, a camp for captured airmen. He later said: “I couldn’t believe it. They had a band, and I became its piano player.” It was for this band that he wrote his first arrangement.

Bunch’s propensity for survival didn’t just extend to emerging physically unscathed from a burning plane; he also survived the infamous “death march” from his camp to another, in January 1945.

“The Russians were starting their drive towards Berlin,” he recalled in 2002. “Since our camp was on the way, we felt sure they’d liberate us, but the Germans wouldn’t let them have us. Things were desperate and they wanted us as bargaining tools. They made us walk through a terrible blizzard which lasted several days. A lot of us died or were killed trying to escape. It was a desperate, terrible thing. We ended up in another camp for the last few months of the war.”

After the war, Bunch took advantage of the GI bill for veterans to get a free college education. He studied speech rather than music because his sight-reading skills weren’t up to scratch, and he chose the University of Indiana because it had a band.

He later admitted that his natural insecurity held him back from taking up opportunities in jazz that would have meant leaving Indianapolis earlier than he did. Playing with the celebrated guitarist Wes Montgomery changed his outlook. “I thought it guys like Wes liked me, then I must be okay.”

Bunch worked with the Woody Herman band in Los Angeles before settling in New York in the late 1950s. There, he played occasionally with saxophonists Zoot Sims and Al Cohn and, as he put it, “lucked out” by landing a job in the last full-time band that “King of Swing” Benny Goodman led.

Indeed, Bunch helped Goodman put together the band for the historic, government-sponsored, tour of Russia in 1962. During this tour, he became good friends with his hero, fellow pianist Teddy Wilson whom he had “idolised” when he was growing up.

Bunch’s only stint in a full-time, non-freelance job was as Tony Bennett’s musical director between 1966 and 1972. While he enjoyed the challenges of the role, he missed jazz and took to organising jam sessions in his apartment to work off the frustration of having to turn down gigs. By the time he stopped working for Bennett, the jazz scene was picking up, thanks to the influx of such younger musicians as Scott Hamilton, who remembers how in-demand Bunch was.

“John’s manner of playing was unique. Nobody ever played as simply and as  clearly as he did, but he had a kind of rhythmic sophistication, a rhythmic ability which meant that he could do something that others couldn’t do – and that was to really play in tempo. No-one could compete with him on that, and there was never a pianist at any time who was more wanted by more different kinds of musicians because of that – he was popular with everyone, and he was a particular favourite of mine and of people like Ruby Braff, Roy Eldridge and Benny Goodman.”

Bunch helped launch Hamilton’s career and secured the younger man his first recording date but it was the fact that he joined Hamilton’s band – the quintet which put him on the map in the 1980s – that was the greatest source of pride to the saxophonist. “He loved being freelance, and he didn’t join a lot of groups so to have joined mine – well, he must have enjoyed it. He meant a lot in my life, and he did a lot for a lot of musicians.”

Scott Hamilton also points out that “John was probably the best accompanist in jazz. He knew exactly what to do. You know, Tony Bennett was trying to get John back to join him in the last ten years – Tony phoned him and asked him to join his group again – but although John had loved doing it before, he wanted to remain freelance.”

As a freelance musician, Bunch travelled the world making new friends and fans wherever he went. Throughout his career, younger musicians and admirers were drawn to him – which Hamilton puts down to the fact that “he didn’t act like there was any age difference, so you didn’t feel it. I’m sure that’s why young musicians were always part of his social circle. He wasn’t lost in the past at all – far from it. He took things as they came, and he was very open to new ideas. He understood music in a kind of universal way.”

Bunch is survived by his second wife, Chips Gemmell.

* John Bunch, pianist, born December 1, 1921; died March 30, 2010.

1 Comment

Filed under Obituaries