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"In Conversation with Bobby Wellins"

Leading UK Jazz tenor saxophonist, Bobby Wellins, talks to Northants Jazz Editor, Rupert Kendrick

Before our meeting for this interview, I’d last seen Bobby Wellins at Wavendon Stables about two years previously. He’d travelled up from London and had arrived over half an hour late for the gig because of heavy congestion on the M1.

After a profuse apology, he expressed his pleasure at appearing at The Stables, “I’m glad to be anywhere after the journey I’ve just had”, he remarked with typical wit, and with a smile and a wink, he turned to his quartet to announce the first number - “Blues for the M1” - before turning back and bursting into one of his characteristically driving solos.

Bobby was weaned onto music as a child by his father, a sax player, and his mother, a singer with a dance band. “My family was steeped in music,” he explains.  “I started playing an alto sax when I was about 12 and began practising seriously when I was 16. I attended the RAF School of Music and learned band music and then played in a number of big bands - it was then the big band era - before teaming up with Duncan Lamont and eventually becoming a soloist.”

Curiously, his main influences have not all been saxophonists. “Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, Jimmy Lunceford, Gerry Mulligan, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Sonny Rollins have all been major influences for me. There are others as well, too numerous to mention, but I’ve always been particularly influenced by the great pianists because of the rhythm and phrasing of their music.”

When it comes to his favourite musician, there’s not a moment’s hesitation, “Zoot Sims,” he says immediately, “he was so innovative, and again, there was a rhythm and phrasing to his playing that I found unique.”

The performances of many jazz musicians are often influenced by the venues at which they play. “My favourite is the 606 Club, I think,” he says. “For me, it has just the right ambience and it certainly helps that the management is very keen on jazz.

“I know some players are put off by noise at some venues, but I’m not over-fussed by that now, and I just concentrate on playing. But there are some venues which are really inhospitable and at the moment, there’s a real shortage of venues because of the employment situation.”

We end with a look to the future. How does he see the future of jazz and its variants of jazz-rock-fusion and the like? “I think jazz will survive so long as the standards of musicianship are maintained. I was weaned on the standards of some of the very best, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke, to name but a few.

“The problem these days is that many players can’t easily be distinguished from one another. They need to find a niche and in doing so, they tend to move away from pure jazz towards more popular music and many play their own compositions which are not always easy to interpret.”

Bobby’s now in his 70s, but he certainly doesn’t look it. At the Peterborough gig where we met, he was as chipper as ever. The day before, he’d played at Brighton and the following evening he was booked for the 606 Club. I wondered how long he wanted to carry on with his present workload.

“I’m enjoying it very much so I’ll carry on as long as I can - carry on until they carry me off in the middle of a solo!” he laughs. I suggest that perhaps they might just let him finish it first!

June 2010

Bobby Wellins was interviewed at a gig featuring Gary Kavanagh and the Bobby Wellins Quartet, presented by Peterborough Jazz Club on 11 June 2010

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