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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 Strayhorn

Billy Strayhorn 1This year marks the centenary of one of the great unsung heroes of jazz history, a man who was also half (and sometimes, arguably, more than that) of one of the greatest musical partnerships of the 20th Century – and the composer of such classics of the jazz repertoire as Take the A Train and Lush Life. His name was Billy Strayhorn.

In late 1938, this quiet young musician in his rather past-its-best Sunday suit was taken backstage in a Pittsburgh theatre to be introduced to the great jazz bandleader and composer of the day, Duke Ellington. As Ellington rested between performances, relaxing on a reclining chair while his valet tended to his hair, the 23-year-old Strayhorn was ushered in.

Strayhorn, Ellington & Preminger

Strayhorn & Ellington on the set of Anatomy of a Murder for which they wrote the score. Director Otto Preminger looks on.

Ellington may not have bothered to open his eyes to take a look at his guest, but by the end of the short visit, Strayhorn – who dazzled Duke with a series of piano performances of Ellington tunes first as the composer himself would play them, and then in his own arrangements – had been wholeheartedly accepted into the organisation.

So began a three-decade relationship that was one of the most fruitful and – according to those who witnessed it – loving in jazz history. From the outset, the refined and cultured Strayhorn, a dedicated Francophile and follower of fashion – who had never really belonged in the Pittsburgh shack in which he was raised – was not so much Ellington’s right-hand man as his alter ego.

Constantly on the road with his band, Ellington entrusted composing and arranging assignments to Strayhorn, who had absorbed the Ellington orchestra sound and was more than happy to devote himself to keeping it up to date with new music, and keeping the royalties pouring in to the organisation which had many mouths to feed.

Bob Wilber, the 86-year-old American clarinettist and saxophonist (pictured below) who was a member of a celebrated small group put together by Strayhorn in the 1960s, says: “He so completely assimilated Duke’s music that often you couldn’t tell in an arrangement which part was Duke and which part was Billy. He was absolutely indispensable to Duke.”

Strayhorn, who had been a frustrated would-be cosmopolite in Pittsburgh – where his sexuality was never discussed but always assumed as gay – blossomed in Manhattan, living initially with members of Ellington’s entourage in the boss’s Harlem penthouse, and spending his days soaking up all the art and cocktails that he could during his non-writing time. “A miniature, black Noel Coward” was how one friend later described him.

As his biographer David Hajdu writes: “In Pittsburgh, who he was had inhibited Billy Strayhorn from doing what he could do; in New York, what he could do enabled him to be who he was.” And what he was was a young gay man who loved the finer things in life, and was able to set up home with his boyfriend secure in the knowledge that – unlike many employers back then – his sexuality, and his openness about it, would not be an issue with Ellington who treated him as one of the family, possibly even better than he treated his own son, Mercer, who also wrote for the band.

Not only did his association with Ellington provide him with the bon vivant lifestyle he had dreamt of, it also gave him an outlet for his artistry and allowed him to flourish as a composer. He may have been composing and arranging for the Ellington outfit from 1939 – and Bob Wilberhave been the author of Take the A Train, a massive hit which Ellington quickly promoted to the band’s signature tune – but Strayhorn wasn’t credited as composer or arranger for his contribution until the 1950s, after a brief period when he had split from the organisation.

Everyone in the band, however, knew that he was a prolific writer of their music – and he was terrifically well liked and respected. Tommy Smith, the  director of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra which is performing three concerts this month to celebrate the “Jazz Genius of Billy Strayhorn” – from such “big”, familiar pieces as Isfahan, Chelsea Bridge and Satin Doll to rare, recent rediscoveries – recounts a story told to him by one-time Ellington trombonist Buster Cooper.

“He told me he was once sitting next to Strayhorn on a plane, and Strayhorn had his briefcase out. He opened it and there was some manuscript there, and Buster was really excited because he thought he was going to get to see what Strayhorn was going to write – they were all in awe of him and never sure who had written what. But Billy Strayhorn lifted up the manuscript – and there was a bottle of whisky there. He offered Buster a drink, and put the manuscript away. Buster never got to see what the music was.”

One song which everyone knew was 100% Strayhorn was the evocative ballad Lush Life, the poetic words and haunting music of which he had mostly penned even before he met Ellington. It’s long been a favourite of jazz singers – and its recent performance by Lady Gaga boosted her credibility with the jazz community because it is, as Bob Wilber points out, “a very tricky song”. Indeed, Strayhorn was incensed by both the arrangement and the fluffed lyrics in Nat King Cole’s famous recording of it.

Annie Ross, the British-born jazz singer, met Strayhorn in the early 1950s when they were both living in Paris – the city he had written about in Lush Life. She says: “We hit it off immediately. He liked the way I sang and he taught me Lush Life. He was a gentle soul. They called him the Swee’ Pea precisely because he was so gentle.”

It might also have been something to do with the love of flowers and nature that he inherited from his devoted mother– a love that is obvious from such song titles as Passion Flower, Lotus Blossom and Violet Blue, which were written as features for alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges whose gloriously plaintive sound was the perfect match for Strayhorn’s beautiful but dark-tinged melodies, and sumptuous arrangements.

When, in March 1965, Strayhorn – whose piano playing was usually done in the recording studio or just to entertain friends – was asked to put together a band for a concert featuring his first solo piano performance, Bob Wilber got the call that one might have expected Hodges to get. “I don’t know how he had heard me – whether it was only on record – but he realized that I would be the ideal interpreter for the compositions that he wrote for Johnny Hodges. It was an absolute thrill being called to be in that band – which he named the Riverside Drive Five. I was thrilled to do it.”

One of the tunes performed at the concert and then long forgotten about was Orson – Strayhorn’s portrait of Orson Welles. The music for it was discovered in box stuffed with manuscripts in Strayhorn’s basement long after his death from cancer in 1967. The handwriting on the music helped shed light on Strayhorn’s enormous contribution to the Ellington repertoire and sound, while stacks of his own pieces underlined the fact – long known amongst musicians and Ellington experts – that he had been a brilliant composer in his own right;Billy Strayhorn solo that he alone had composed many of the numbers that had been thought to be collaborations.

Now, in Strayhorn’s centenary year, he will perhaps receive more of the widespread recognition he deserves – and his rarely heard compositions, among them the afore-mentioned Orson, will reach a broader listening public, not least audiences who attend the SNJO’s concerts this month.

* The SNJO (with Brian Kellock on piano) – The Jazz Genius of Billy Strayhorn is at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh on February 20, Buccleuch Centre, Langholm on February 21, and at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow on February 22.

* First published in Scotland on Sunday on February 15

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Review: Scottish National Jazz Orchestra – Jazz Toons & Screen Classics

Scottish National Jazz Orchestra: Jazz Toons & Screen Classics, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow, Sunday October 27th ***

Heeding the publicity’s suggestion to bring the offspring to Sunday evening’s concert by the SNJO turned out, fairly early on, to be another yet example for the ‘Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time’ chapter of the parenting memoirs. After all, a programme of music from such family favourites ranging from classic cartoons to movie blockbusters played by a young, dynamic band sounded just the ticket for music-mad youngsters. And indeed, when SNJO director Tommy Smith announced the titles featured in the opening medley, it was the nine-year-old critical support team beside me whose “yaaaaas!” turned heads at the mention of Superman.

The main problem was the arrangements: if you didn’t warm to Pino Jodice’s reworkings of the tunes then you’d pretty much had it for the evening, as he was responsible for most of them. The most enjoyable numbers were the ones in which the melody didn’t get swamped by the arrangement, and which stayed closest to the original versions –  Mahna Mahna, from The Muppets (complete with hilarious Animal impersonation by drummer Alyn Cosker), The Flintstones and, especially, the Star Trek Theme.

That last-mentioned featured the dazzling vocals of guest star Jacqui Dankworth and went down so well that it was repeated as an encore later, after a glorious Somewhere Over the Rainbow, one of only a handful of songs in which Dankworth’s sublime voice was showcased rather than seeming to be in competition with the overbearing arrangement being played by the band.

First published in The Scotsman, Tuesday October 29

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CD Recommendations: April 2013

Scott Hamilton: Remembering Billie (Blue Duchess) Remembering Billie

Billie Holiday is a singer beloved by instrumentalists, and one whose distinctive repertoire has been celebrated by such wonderful, lyrical musicians as Ruby Braff, Chet Baker and Bobby Wellins. Now tenor saxophone giant Scott Hamilton offers his take on ten Holiday classics, in the company of his new, hard-swinging American trio/quartet. As ever, his big, soulful sound is a particular joy on the ballads, notably God Bless the Child and Good Morning Heartache, and it’s also a treat to hear Holiday’s 1930s small group hits getting the Hamilton stamp.

The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra: In the Spirit of Duke (Spartacus) 

EllingtonLast autumn’s Duke Ellington-themed tour by the SNJO was undoubtedly one of the best live Ellington experiences in Scotland, in living memory. This CD is a 16-track fusion of music from the five Scottish concerts and it not only captures the thrill of hearing a young band getting a kick out of the glorious Ellington repertoire, but it also showcases its world-class ensemble playing (especially that of the saxophone section), and such terrific soloists as Ruaraidh Pattison (alto sax), Martin Kershaw (clarinet), Ryan Quigley (trumpet), Tommy Smith (tenor saxophone) and the inimitable Brian Kellock (piano).

Sigurdur Flosason & Kjeld Lauritsen: Night Fall (Storyville Records) Night Fall

This CD is a wonderful introduction to the gorgeous, gentle sound and lyrical style of Icelandic alto saxophonist Sigurdur Flosason, and features a line-up of sax plus Hammond B3 organ, played by Kjeld Lauritsen); guitar, played by Jacob Fischer, and drums, played by Kristian Leith. Flosason excels throughout, particularly on ballads. The overall effect is of a series of laidback musical conversations, with the dialogue between sax and guitar especially pleasing. Indeed, the organ often gets in the way.

Heather Masse & Dick Hyman: Lock My Heart (Red House Records) Hyman cd

American piano virtuoso Dick Hyman (newly turned 86) has joined forces with the alto from the popular folk singing group The Wailin’ Jennies for this unsurprisingly classy duo album. Masse has a luscious, rich voice and refreshingly unfussy style, and serves up lovely interpretations of an eclectic selection of songs including two original numbers and two sublime Kurt Weill ballads. Only the title track, which closes the CD, disappoints since Masse morphs into what sounds like Betty Boop. Hyman remains as elegant, imaginative and dynamic as ever.

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