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JZUK67_p17_Wellins

2/22/06

5:29 PM

Page 17

Photographs © David Sinclair

HOW A JAZZ
NOMAD FOUND
A HOME
Acclaimed for one of the great saxophone improvisations on the
1965 ‘Starless and Bible Black’ from Under Milk Wood, Scottish
saxophone Bobby Wellins then disappeared off the scene. But
now he’s playing better than ever, as JOHN FORDHAM reports
THE RENAISSANCE happened late for
Bobby Wellins. It was 1996, he was
60, and almost three decades had
slipped by in which the soft flame of
his sax-playing had first seemed to be
extinguished completely, then
unsteadily rekindled in a scattering of
gigs and hard-to-find recordings.
But in the mid-1990s, it sprang up
again. Back came that characteristic
tenor sound of hovering, low-pitched,
hesitant phrases, sudden flurries,
resonant bell-notes and bird-like
warbles - and always the patient,
canny unfolding of a story. After long
submission to a variety of addictions
in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and then a slow
return to health and confidence,
Wellins has lately sounded as good as
at any time in his life. ‘One of the
great psychiatrists I had during those
years,’ Wellins says, ‘told me when I
recovered that I was going to wake
up every day of my life from then on

The old firm - Bobby Wellins (sax) and Stan
Tracey recreate ‘Starless and Bible Black’
at the Barbican for 2005’s Jazz Britannia.

thinking what a lucky person I was.
And it’s true, I do.’
Wellins approaches 2006 - his 70th
birthday year - with enthusiasm and
some ambitious projects in the
pipeline, enthusiastically supported by
JazzDev’s Seb Scotney. Wellins is in
consultation with Brian Nott at
Jazzizit to produce a compilation
album going back to his first
recordings in 1956 with London
bandleader and racing-driver Buddy
Featherstonhaugh - in a band that
also included a young Kenny Wheeler.
He has also composed The Wind That
Shakes The Barley, an extended
dedication to Scottish writer James
Barke’s biography of Robert Burns,
with music and words by Wellins, and
orchestration by Pete Churchill. The
Glasgow International Jazz Festival is
currently considering taking it on.
Wellins was very moved by
Barke’s account of Burns’ early life - ‘I

found it all very poignant.’ Though he
points out that he doesn’t fly flags for
his homeland at every opportunity,
this is also not the first time Wellins
has explored a Scottish theme for a
bigger group. Back in 1961 he had
composed the evocative Culloden
Moor for the New Departures Quartet
that included his musical alter ego
Stan Tracey, playing one legendary
showing of it with a big band.
Wellins knows that many of
today’s Scottish jazz musicians,
inspired by the example of Tommy
Smith, the Bancrofts and the Rae
family, stay physically closer to those
homeland roots. But he grew up in an
era in which moving south for a jazz
career was virtually the only option.
‘All the people you admired or
wanted to play with were in London
then,’ Wellins says. ‘There was plenty
of work, and not just in London either.
Manchester was wide open for jazz,

so was Liverpool, and there were
working mens’ club gigs on a Sunday.’
Wellins recalls the excitement of
the West End scene in the early 1960s
when American stars first came to
play at the then recently-opened
Ronnie Scott’s Club. But with easier
access for American players, and
strong competition from the new pop
scene, the writing was on the wall.
‘It drove people into their own
little corners, looking after their own
interests,’ Wellins says. ‘The original
cameraderie on the jazz scene began
to disappear. But some of us found
our own corners that worked out well.
The saxophonist Duncan Lamont
started a West End place called The
Nucleus, which was like my jazz
university, I’d go there at 2.00am after
I’d played in Tommy Whittle’s band at
the Dorchester, Ronnie Scott and Tony
Crombie heard about it, and dropped
continued on page 18