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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

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Songs for Soppy Cynics (and Swinging Lovers)

CurtisCurtis Stigers wears his heart on his record sleeve. The versatile American singer who, two years ago, released his darkest album to date – a collection, as he put it, “of sad songs or songs about sex” – has gone to the other extreme with his new CD Hooray for Love, an all-out, old-fashioned celebration of romance. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking “Ooh, Curtis must be happy” as soon as I saw the the title of the new album – so is the Stigers who comes to Edinburgh indeed as happy and loved-up as the record suggests?

“Well, yeah,” say Stigers who, for all his drawl speaks ten to the dozen. “That was the whole idea. I set out to make an album that mirrored where I am as a person as well as the last record mirrored where I was when I made it. And that record was obviously f***ing depressed.  And so I felt like it was time both for me and my fans for the antidote so I went looking for ten beautiful love songs. I really wanted to make an album of love songs; an album that was just unabashedly, unapologetically romantic.

Whereas Let’s Go Out, the previous CD, featured contemporary singer-songwriter material, this new album comprises swinging, jazz takes of classics from the Great American Songbook alongside some original songs which sound as if they might also have been written in the same era. “I threw out a lot of the rules I had made for myself, like ‘Don’t record songs that have been recorded a million times’ and ‘Never record a song that Sinatra is known for’.”

Stigers’s joyful experiences singing with the John Wilson Orchestra in the landmark 2010 MGM prom and subsequent movie-themed concerts inspired the inclusion of the a couple of the songs – Jerome Kern’s The Way You Look Tonight (“the sweetest and, I think, one of the smartest love songs ever written”) and the Gershwins’ Love is Here To Stay.  Performed in a catchy, loose, simple arrangement reminiscent of small-group, 1950s jazz recordings featuring the likes of Harry “Sweets” Edison and Ben Webster, it’s the opening track, and it sets the intimate, laid-back mood of the album. “Ah,” agrees Stigers, “that era is definitely what we were going for, and one of the two or three albums that we really looked at and I kept at the back of my mind was the After Midnight sessions with Nat ‘King’ Cole – that has Sweets on it. It was Nat basically coming back to the small group, swinging sort of thing that he had stepped away from to become a pop star.”

“It seemed like the thing to do – to take a step back towards happy and towards a little more, I guess, of a mainstream jazz approach. As well as the King Cole album, I was thinking about those early Doris Day records before she got too pop, too cute and smarmy; those great pop records from the 1950s where it was fantastic jazz musicians playing great songs with a great singer, and there were solos but they weren’t long solos. That was the other thing: I really wanted to pay attention to the song first, and whilst there are some solos, I really stood on my musicians; I was grinding my heel into them as they were playing, saying: ‘No – simpler!’, ‘No – closer to the melody!’, ‘Let the song do the work!’ ”

It’s not only the mood and material of Hooray for Love which are reminiscent of those earlier albums; the sound evokes that era as well. Stigers explains: “When I mixed the record I really tried to not go for modern hi fidelity but go for more of an old-fashioned fidelity. There’s a difference between the way jazz records sounded in the 1950s to the way they sound now. I didn’t want it to sound retro; I just wanted it to sound cosier and more intimate. Jazz records these days you can hear the drums so well. You can hear every texture of the drums… I don’t really give-a-damn what the drums sound like – I want them to keep the beat; that’s what drums do. And I could be thrown in jazz guy prison for saying that but the truth is that’s not the issue with an album with a singer and great songs. The issue is the great songs and the voicings – and everything else is there to support that. So that’s what we were really going for.”

The mood really couldn’t be more of a contrast to the last record or the repertoire we’ve heard in Stigers concerts in recent years: he’s gone from the cynical to the soppy. He’s come out of a painful divorce and found a new love, and he can’t hide his delight. Even the title Hooray for Love came from the sign-off on an email from a friend congratulating him on his new romance. Thankfully, his performance at Ronnie Scott’s earlier this year showed he hasn’t completely sold out on his fellow cynics – he still sang Dylan’s Things Have Changed and other songs from the last album.

Chuckling, Stigers points out: “I’m still cynical. The fact that I’m a romantic is the reason that my cynicsm is so thick. Let me explain that. I think because I open my heart – as the song says ‘I fall in love too easily, I fall in love too fast’. And that’s who I am. I believe in love, I believe in romance. And when you get your heart stomped on, as an open-hearted romantic, it’s pretty easy to take on a defensive edge. But underneath it all, I love love songs and I love love. So this was my chance to show the non-cynical side.”

And just to highlight the fact that the sad cynic is still there, he has concluded the album with You Don’t Know What Love Is, the bleak, Chet Baker-associated ballad which has been a bit of a showstopper at Stigers gigs in recent years.  “I just couldn’t help myself! It’s a love song but it’s a dark song. It’s a song about love that one way or another can’t be fulfilled. It’s a sad song. It also seemed like that sort of cautionary tale at the end, you know? Love, love, love, love, love – but don’t forget what might happen!”

* Curtis Stigers plays the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh on October 9. Hooray for Love (Concord Records) is out now. For tour dates visit www.curtisstigers.com

First published in The Herald, Friday October 3, 2014

 

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Book Review: All This and Slowly Deteriorating Fast – The Memoirs of a Geriatric Jazz Buff, by Jim Godbolt (Proper Music Publishing)

GodboltWell, this was supposed to be a jolly book review; timed to usher in jazz festival season. Of course, it is still timely in that respect, but jolly? Nae chance. This is a bitter biography which highlights the fact that fierce divisiveness is not a new thing in jazz – it’s been going since the music first began to evolve. It also reminds us that one man’s jazz pleasure can often be another’s poison.

Jim Godbolt was (he died last year, aged 90) a well-known jazz expert who managed one of the biggest bands in the trad revival of the late 1940s, worked as an agent for rock groups in the 1960s, and spent years editing the house magazines for two leading London jazz venues – Ronnie Scott’s and the 100 Club.

He was also the author of several books – two volumes of memoirs (the second incorporating the first), plus the History of Jazz in Britain 1919-1950. This final book, assembled by friends to whom he dictated new passages while he was bedridden and cursed by problems with his vision, covers his declining health (cue rants against the NHS in particular) and revisits parts of the earlier autobiography. At times, he seems to go round in circles, repeating himself (occasionally word for word); his heyday of the late 1940s proving a favourite stop-off point in the circles of memories.

Tellingly, Godbolt wrote in his opening chapter of All This and Slowly Deteriorating Fast that he was including characters from the earlier books again in this new one, “but viewed from different angles”. It’s soon clear that what he really meant was “now they’re dead, I’ll say what I really thought of them” – since there is actually a fair bit of bitchiness in his comments, notably about the otherwise universally loved Humphrey Lyttelton.

Indeed, it was while reading the fourth chapter, entitled The Gentlemen of Jazz, of this dinky, CD-square shaped book (which comes with a compilation disc of relevant tracks) that I realized that I was not warming to Godbolt one iota. His gripe against Lyttelton, about whom he wrote at length as if the quantity of words alone suggested at least that he acknowledged his importance in British jazz, was – according to the book at any rate – not personal. He blames it on Humph’s “most memorable volte-face” when Godbolt says he first abandoned then publicly condemned the principles of the post-war Revivalism movement  – during which young jazz musicians, including Humph himself, had revived the style and format of the original American jazz bands of the early 1920s.

But one senses that there’s more to it than Godbolt’s outrage at the popular Lyttelton’s decision to distance himself from trad purists. Perhaps it was his natural charisma, or his privileged background and Eton education that made the author – who emerges as someone who could find something to take exception to in any situation – seethe with polite venom?

Godbolt does seem to have a chip on his shoulder about class. Indeed, he comes across as someone weighed down by shoulder chips: the chapter on his years working as an agent contains much that is fascinating about the day-to-day – apparently thankless – business of being an agent, but it is also an opportunity for Godbolt to reel off a series of gripes about misconceptions about agents, and about what agents had to put up with.

In another section, he appears to be providing a potted biog and career overview of the great maverick clarinettist and composer Sandy Brown, but it soon morphs into an ill-judged moan about the fact that musicians at the bar drowned out his speech at Brown’s 100 Club memorial. He quotes one of the musicians’ well-meaning attempt at an apology and adds that it “was not a great comfort for this disgruntled speaker who had spent hours working on the speech.” Brown died in 1975. It seems that Godbolt’s “huff” – as he himself described it – continued until his own passing.

Never mind the “Mouldy Figs” – the term used in the British scene to describe the jazz purists who waged battle with the beboppers in the postwar years – this memoir reeks of sour grapes. It’s a damn shame. In the name of background research, I texted a musician friend who’s been on the London scene since the 1980s and dealt with all the jazz “characters”. Unprompted, he volunteered that Godbolt had long been known as a “grudge-bearer” and a “misanthrope”.  In which case, he certainly gives an accurate portrayal of himself in his final book.

* First published in the Sunday Herald on June 22nd

 

 

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Review: Madeleine Peyroux, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Madeleine Peyroux, Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Wednesday November 27th ****

What a difference a decade makes. The first time American singer Madeleine Peyroux appeared in Edinburgh following the success of her breakthrough album, Careless Love, she stood awkwardly in front of the audience with apologetic body language and the embarrassed expression of a little girl who’s been forced to perform.

The Peyroux who stood before the packed Usher Hall on Wednesday was almost unrecognisable as the same person. She held her own onstage, and cracked jokes with the audience – mostly on the same, drinking, theme as the many of her songs. Accompanied by her trio, plus a string quartet, she dished up a mix of numbers from her current CD, The Blue Room, plus that first album and its follow-up.

A grand concert hall is not the ideal setting for a singer whose style is so intimate and whose appeal is very personal and direct. Yes, she filled the Usher Hall with her wonderfully characterful and imperfect voice on Wednesday and was well appreciated, but in a smaller venue (such as Ronnie Scott’s, where she played a similar programme in the spring), she was able to mesmerise the punters, lock eyes with them, draw them in – very much a la Piaf – and to leave them emotionally destroyed.

On Wednesday night’s Desperados Under the Eaves, she came close – we were hungry for it – but there was just too much distance between her, the dot on stage, and us. Those elements which made her Ronnie Scott’s performance a five-star, unforgettable, experience got lost in the translation to a big hall – though she (and the lighting designer) did an impressive job of creating as intimate an atmosphere as the venue would allow.

First published in The Herald, Friday November 29th

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Review: Madeleine Peyroux, Ronnie Scott’s, London

Madeleine Peyroux, Ronnie Scott’s, London, Monday April 29th

She made us laugh; she made us cry …  and she made us all sit up and hang on her every word. Madeleine Peyroux’s opening night at Ronnie Scott’s was a knock-out – a brilliant blend of the hybrid sounds of her new album, The Blue Room, and songs from her earlier records.

Standing self-consciously in the middle of a half-circle of musicians – a string quartet, a rhythm section plus guitarist Jon Herington – Peyroux looked, initially, a little overawed and nervous as she launched into the opening track from The Blue Room, Take These Chains. But the strange and seductive combination of her throaty, note-bending vocals and the ethereal sound of the strings arrangement was an instant winner – and she seemed to relax as the song went on; even going so far as to tell stories and crack jokes between numbers – and clearly having fun as she visited rock ‘n’ roll territory on Bye Bye Love.

It was certainly a far cry from the Peyroux many of us experienced in her earlier years, when she would stand apologetically in front of an audience and look distinctly sheepish as she sang – as if she might get found out at any minute.

Mind you, back then the voice was a lot less assured sounding. One thing that was particularly striking on Monday was how commanding a musical presence Peyroux can have; especially when she plumbs the depths of her vocal range as she did on a magnificent (and simply sung) You Don’t Know Me, a powerful and gutsy I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You –  and on Bird on the Wire, one of the songs which was much more affecting in a live performance than on the album.

On all of those stand-out numbers, Peyroux held the adoring capacity crowd in her sway as she gently swivelled on the spot, working the room, locking eyes with punters and wringing her hands in a Piaf-like manner. Her attention to lyrics, and the emotion she invested in them, had listeners hanging on her every word – especially on the glorious Guilty (which brought out the Bessie Smith in her), You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go and Desperados Under the Eaves, all poetic and all a joy to hear as they were channelled through the Peyroux prism…

There were the inevitable moments of un-easy listening – Dance Me to the End of Love (which I caught at the end of the first show of the evening) had a nightmarish quality thanks to Peyroux’s slightly tortured vocals, while Don’t Wait Too Long’s melody was almost distorted beyond recognition, leaving only the lyrics as clues to what the song was. But these uncomfortable, unsettling moments didn’t spoil the overall effect – of a night well worth remembering.

Madeleine Peyroux, Ronnie Scott’s – Monday April 29th, second show

Take These Chains

Don’t Wait Too Long

Bye Bye Love

You Don’t Know Me

Guilty

Changin’ All Those Changes

Half the Perfect World

La Javanaise

You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go

Bird on the Wire

I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You

Dance Me to the End of Love

I Hear Music

Desperados Under the Eaves

Instead

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Soho Swings

Backstage at Ronnie Scott's with Houston Person (left) and British jazz star Alan Barnes

A trip to London was the only way to ensure that my new year got off on the right foot. Why? Because two of my favourite US tenor saxophonists were playing there, to full houses – a couple of nights apart.

The majestic Houston Person, whose music I’ve only become acquainted with in the last handful of years, wowed a packed Ronnie Scott’s on Monday with his soulful take on such numbers as Who Can I Turn To, Sweet Sucker and Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me.

In, er, person the charismatic Houston P is a man of few words – and it’s the same story when he plays: on the gorgeous ballads Maybe You’ll Be There (which I associate with one of my – and, I suspect, his – favourite singers, Lee Wiley), Too Late Now and Why Did I Choose You? (something of a signature tune for this tenor man), his playing was spare yet eloquent, and always with that soulful streak which often manifested itself in a trademark bluesy phrase. He was accompanied by the house trio, led by pianist James Pierce, and they all seemed to be having a ball in each other’s company.

On Saturday, Scott Hamilton – one of my very first musical loves, back when I got hooked on jazz in my teens – had played the final night of his New Year’s residency at the Pizza Express.

Accompanied by his regular, top-drawer, trio of John Pearce (piano), Dave Green (bass) and Steve Brown (drums), Hamilton – whose conversational drawl offstage is now so endearingly drawn-out that you sometimes wonder if he’ll fall asleep before he finishes his sentence – was in especially relaxed mode during the first set which featured the gorgeous ballad Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most and the most laidback uptempo blues imaginable.

Bizarrely, Hamilton seemed to receive and respond to my telepathic request for the lovely Cole Porter number Dream Dancing, one of my favourite tracks on the  first Scott Hamilton album (Plays Ballads, 1989) I ever owned – and one which I had been humming all day…

I decided not to risk a telepathic communications breakdown in the second set and verbally requested another ballad, If I Love Again, which had been a highlight of the penultimate night of Hamilton’s summer residency. It turned out to be every bit as exquisite second time around.

There seemed to have been a gear change for the second set which was downright sensational; another stand-out being the super-funky Mary Lou Williams number Lonesome Moments which, Hamilton explained, they had “tried out” for the first time a couple of nights previously and had been requested to revisit. Turning to his ace drummer, the laconic tenor man said: “Some misterioso drumming, please” and launched into this catchy and atmospheric new addition to his repertoire.

The icing on an already delightful cake was the reinstatement to the Hamilton programme of another ballad with which he used to end sets: the Duke Ellington tune Tonight I Shall Sleep With a Smile on My Face. He wasn’t the only one…

HOUSTON PERSON, with James Pierce (piano), Sam Burgess (bass) & Shanee Forbes (drums); Ronnie Scott’s, Monday January 9, 2012

I.

Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me

Maybe You’ll Be There

Juicy Lucy

Too Late Now

Only Trust Your Heart

Lester Leaps In

Since I Fell For You

II.

Sweet Sucker

Who Can I Turn To?

Don’t Get Around Much Anymore

Why Did I Choose You?

Sunny

On the Sunny Side of the Street

SCOTT HAMILTON QUARTET, Pizza Express, London, Saturday January 7, 2012

I.

I Just Found Out About Love

Dream Dancing

blues

Jitterbug Waltz

Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most

Sweet Georgia Brown

II.

?

Lonesome Moments

If I Love Again – The Man I Love

Tonight I Shall Sleep With a Smile on My Face

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Houston Person, Soulful Sentimentalist

It’s the most unexpected shared interests that people tend to bond over – and that was certainly the case when I had my first proper conversation with Houston Person, the saxophonist and record producer who headlines this year’s Lockerbie Jazz Festival.

A big, imposing figure who made his name in the 1960s as a purveyor of hard bop, this 77-year-old African-American has a stately presence on stage and plays tenor in a bluesy, soulful style. He tends to keep himself to himself at jazz jamborees – and when he’s performing he doesn’t waste time with idle chit-chat between numbers. But when I found myself in his company, sharing a lift with him during the Norwich Jazz Party in May, a hunch (based on his choice of the song Why Did I Choose You, from the 1938 movie The Yearling) led me to bring up the subject of old films. Was he a fan? And which films were his favourites?

It turned out he is a serious movie buff whose favourite films are the timeless romance Casablanca and the classic Alan Ladd western, Shane. But what really ignited the conversation was the revelation that Mr Person is a major fan of Doris Day. “I love all her films,” he said, “but NOT Pillow Talk!” Suddenly, his exquisite performance of the ballad Fools Rush In made sense, and the knowledge of his secret love for Doris made his interpretation of Little Girl Blue – the Rodgers and Hart ballad she sang in Jumbo – all the more poignant.

When I called Person last week to chat over his life and career, he sounded tired – he was between gigs – and slightly disinclined to talk. He also didn’t have a clue which journalist he was being interviewed by. Then I mentioned the D word, and the man sprang to life. “That’s my gal,” he said in a voice that was undoubtedly accompanied by a wink and a smile. “How’d you know that?” The conversation in the car was relived. “Oh yeah-yeah-yeah! I remember.” It’s Doris Day’s

One of Houston's favourite Doris Day records - which features Fools Rush In

“sincerity” that Person particularly admires, and he regularly plunders her repertoire – “everybody does!” – for such gems as Sentimental Journey (the title of one of his albums) and I’ll Never Stop Loving You.

Unfortunately, Person never got the chance to work with his dream girl but he does have an impressive track record when it comes to singers, having recorded with the likes of Lena Horne (“Oh, she was very nice,” he says in his sexiest drawl) and Ernestine Anderson (“easy to work with”). His longest working relationship with a singer, however, was with Etta Jones, who made her name in the early 1960s with her hit Don’t Go To Strangers. For 30 years they worked together – until her death, in 2001. Theirs was a rewarding musical friendship which some compared to the legendary relationship betweeen musical soulmates Billie Holiday and Lester Young. Did he see it that way?

“Well, I know everybody else did – but for me, it was just my relationship,” he says, somewhat sheepishly. “I think it worked so well because nobody had an ego. Nobody in the whole band had an ego. Everybody had a job to do, and you just did it. I’d do my stint, she’d do her stint, and the band would do their stint and that was it. Everybody had equal time.

“I’ve worked with a lot of singers, and usually I’m the leader. But when I record with them they’re the leader. And I just try to make it sound good. I’ve always had the attitude that even though I was leader of my group, and Etta was part of that group, when it came her turn to sing, she became the leader and then whoever the piano player was, when his time came, he became the leader. I didn’t feel I had to be in charge of what they do.”

Person was born and brought up in Florence, a small town in South Carolina where his mother worked as a schoolteacher and his father was employed by the agriculture department. He and his brother were exposed to all sorts of music – from the church choirs (“everyone was involved in those”) to the pop tunes his mother would play on the piano. When he was 15 years old, he was given a saxophone for Christmas and within a few years was studying music at South Carolina State College.

Living in South Carolina, he didn’t have the chance to hear his favourite saxophonists – who included Illinois Jacquet and Lester Young. “I was already performing myself by the time I got to hear many musicians. But I did get to see Duke Ellington’s Orchestra when it came to Columbia, South Carolina. Our teacher took us to see them and it was an amazing, thrilling, experience.”

The Ellington band didn’t just make a musical impression on the young saxophonist; it was visual too. Back then, the Duke’s outfit was one of the best-dressed on the scene – and one only needs to look at the famously sharp-suited Person to see that he would have fitted right in. Indeed, these days one of the musicians to whom he’s often compared is the great Ellingtonian tenor man Ben Webster, another master balladeer.

For now, though, the only balladeer up for discussion is Doris…

 * Houston Person plays Ronnie Scott’s, 47 Frith St, London on Monday January 9 and Tuesday 10. His CD Moment to Moment (HighNote Records) is out now.

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