Fond tributes on the death of Bognor-based jazz giant Bobby Wellins

Long-term Bognor Regis resident Bobby Wellins, one of the greats of the British jazz, has died at the age of 80.

Monday, 31st October 2016, 1:17 pm
Updated Friday, 8th June 2018, 3:20 am

The Scottish tenor saxophonist was best known for his collaboration with Stan Tracey on the British jazz album Jazz Suite inspired by Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood (1965).

Active on the jazz scene from the mid-1950s, he was a frequent and highly-regarded performer in the Chichester and Bognor Regis area for many years.

Denis Cummings, of Steyning Jazz Club, said: “The word legendary is exactly right for Bobby. He was a legendary player. Everyone that I know that was touched by him or worked with him would always speak of the experience with affection and with awe. He was a man who knew his instrument and his music better than anyone I know. People talk about Bobby’s tone – and it was very distinctive. People say they can hear the tone of the Highland bagpipes in his playing, and given that he came from Scotland, it was highly appropriate that he should have brought something of the Highlands down with him to Bognor Regis.

“He was a very modest and unassuming man who lived quietly in Bognor Regis. He played for us at Steyning on three occasions, possibly four, and brought local musicians to play with him. He also played at Chichester Jazz Club.

“And he also taught at Chichester College. I know a lot of people that worked with him on his jazz course. They were all totally in awe of his capabilities.”

Bobby’s most recent recording was his Culloden Moor Suite two years ago with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra.

Wellins composed the piece in 1961 after reading John Prebble’s vivid account of the last pitched battle on British soil. Half a century later, he and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra joined forces to re-create his evocative music, a recording lauded for the way they “conjured up the fervour, the anticipation, the horror, and ultimately the lamentable failure of a lost cause paid for in blood.”

Bobby was born Robert Coull Wellins in Glasgow on January 24 1936. His father, of Russian and Polish extraction, was a saxophonist and clarinet player; his mother a singer. Together they had appeared in the Sammy Miller Show Band and later performed as a duo.

Bobby’s father started him on lessons on alto saxophone at 12 years of age, teaching him not only music notation and saxophone technique but introducing him to harmony, teaching him chord progressions at the piano.

Bobby then moved south, taking a three-year course at Chichester College of Further Education studying keyboard harmony. He then spent a spell at the RAF School of Music in Uxbridge, studying clarinet.

On leaving the RAF, Bobby entered the world of the Palais bands, including spells with Malcolm Mitchell and Vic Lewis. His tenure with Lewis included a trip on the liners to New York where Bobby, emerging one afternoon from his hotel, recognised a passing Lester Young. Bobby picked up enough courage to approach his idol and spent the next two hours in a bar introducing his fellow band members to the great man.

Bobby’s recording career started in 1956 when he joined the Buddy Featherstonhaugh’s quintet. Bobby was by now playing tenor saxophone, the instrument to which he devoted himself for the rest of his life.

In the early 1960s Bobby was recruited by Tony Crombie for his latest band, in the ranks of which Bobby began a long association with the great British pianist Stan Tracey.

Along with Bobby and Stan, drummer Laurie Morgan was a member of a loose co-operative of musicians and poets, including Michael Horowitz, who presented jazz and poetry concerts under the title of New Departures. In a bedsit with Laurie Morgan and using an old tape recorder, Bobby began work on his Culloden Moor Suite which culminated in its performance by the New Departures Quartet and a 14-piece orchestra. The quartet recorded an album of the same name in 1964.

This was followed in 1965 by the Stan Tracey Quartet’s recording of a suite of pieces inspired by Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood. In a 1998 poll by Jazz UK magazine, readers chose this record as their all-time favourite British jazz album.

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