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2/22/06

5:30 PM

continued from page 17

in to play, so did newcomers like
Gordon Beck and Colin Purbrook. And
that was how I came to join Tony’s
Jazz Incorporated, which had a
regular gig at the Flamingo Club. And
that was also how I met Stan Tracey.’
Tracey was the Gerrard Street
house pianist by then. He and Wellins
quickly realised how sympathetic
their tastes and working methods
were, and the Scottish saxophonist
began to make regular appearances
at Ronnie Scott’s himself.
‘There was a gambling place
across the road,’ Wellins recollects
with a laugh. ‘If Ronnie was on a roll
he didn’t want to stop to come and
play. So Pete King would call me up
and ask me to double for him. They
were great to me. Pete would
sometimes say, “you eaten anything
today?”and give me money for a meal.
Once he gave me a fiver to get a
clean shirt and tie, then sent me in a
car to White City to do a BBC
recording with the singer Dakota
Staton. I knew her stuff, so I soloed on
about eight things on a first take, no
rehearsal. Those BBC orchestral
musicians thought I was some kind of
genius: “I say, how the hell did you do
that?”. I just thought “well, that’s what
jazz musicians do.”’
With Stan Tracey’s Under Milk
Wood, Bobby Wellins found that his
unique improviser’s mix of impetuosity
and reserve had reached out beyond
the jazz coterie. Wellins unhesitatingly
applauds Tracey’s wife Jackie, then a
prominent major-label PR, for helping
to spread the word about one of the
best small-bands to have emerged in
Britain. With hindsight, he feels it
could have been the point at which
they branched out internationally, as
George Shearing or Victor Feldman
had done before them.
‘Unfortunately,’ Wellins says, ‘we
were shot to hell at that time, in
absolute chaos because of drugs. As
well as the availability, I think there
was a pressure on us, as successful
British jazz musicians, to try to make it
in the States. That’s what Tubby
(Hayes) was trying to do. I was a
registered addict, so I had no fear of
arrest - some who hoped to get to the
States didn’t register, because they
wouldn’t have been able to get a visa.
But everything was nomadic, I was
often walking the streets. It was a

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Page 18

dreadful time, but we were still
attempting to play. Then I let Stan
down a couple of times and things
started to come apart.’
Wellins’ jazz career went on hold
for most of a decade from the mid’60s, and he moved from London to
Bognor Regis with his family.
‘Finally my wife told me I was
seeming like a monster to my own
children. That gave me a clear
thought, I had to change. But I was on
barbiturates, coke and heroin, and
coming off the barbiturates was the
worst. I still get in a sweat thinking
about it . But after three months, I was
eating again. I got back to playing a
bit. The drummer Spike Wells and the
bassist Adrian Kendon got me a few
gigs. Kenny Wheeler recommended
Pete Jacobsen to me as a pianist. I
made Jubilation and Dreams Are Free
in 1978 and ‘79 for Adrian’s record
company. And I found I was back.’
In 1996, with Don't Worry 'Bout
Me and the Billie Holiday dedication
The Satin Album, the spell had been
broken and one of the UK’s true poets
of the saxophone was free again. He’s
been recording and playing steadily
since - sometimes in duos with pianist
Mark Edwards, with former Dexter
Gordon partner Kirk Lightsey, and of
course with Stan Tracey.
Wellins marvels at Tracey as much
now as he ever did, and considers
him a central influence: ‘You could
learn so much just from the way he
accompanied you.’ He also feels he
learned a lot from his singer mother,
and from a jazz-loving father who had
recordings by Sidney Bechet, Louis
Armstrong and the swing bands. As
well as Bechet, Wellins will also
mention Flip Phillips, Stan Getz, Gerry
Mulligan, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Sonny
Rollins, the trumpet sound of Clifford
Brown, ‘and lots of piano players.’
‘My dad taught me to always ask,’
Bobby Wellins reflects. ‘“What did
you do just then, why did you play
that?” Today I could sit with a young
pianist like Liam Noble for hours, just
trying to find out what he’s doing. I’m
still learning. I still feel I haven’t
reached my potential yet.’
Bobby Wellins plays the 606 Club in
February (Call 020 7352 5953) and the
Generations Jazz Festival with Kirk
Lightsey on March 12. Check
www.bobbytwellins.co.uk