Farewell to Bobby Wellins

Michael Tucker was among the many friends and family who said their farewells to Bobby Wellins, with a fitting musical tribute from Don Weller

It was standing room only – and then some – at Chichester Crematorium for the service held on the afternoon of Monday 21 November to celebrate the life of Robert Coull "Bobby" Wellins (pictured right).

The event was led by Father Spike Wells, one of the late saxophonist's longest-serving running mates. Wells not only played with Bobby through the years, but also wrote well about him, including an early piece for Jazz Journal and the sleeve-note to the 2007-8 recording Snapshot (on which Wells features).

This excellent drummer, long turned man of the cloth, proved to be as convincing with matters spiritual as he has been with stick and brush ever since the late 1970s, when he drove the quartet with Pete Jacobsen (p) and Adrian Kendon (b) which saw Wellins return to playing after a lengthy hiatus caused by health issues – a return documented by the classic albums Live ... Jubilation and Dreams Are Free.

Bobby's widow Isabella and daughters Liz and Fiona must have been deeply touched by both the warmth of feeling evident in the room and the sheer size and nature of the turnout – which besides Wells included musicians of the calibre of Claire Martin, Don Weller, Clark Tracey, Dave Wickins, Geoff Simkins, Julian Nicholas, Terry Seabrook and Adrian Kendon. Pete Brown and Michael Horovitz were also present, each contributing (very different) Scottish-flavoured poems, preceding a fine reading of Burns's A Red, Red Rose by Bobby's great-nephew, Christopher.

The hour-and-a quarter service began with some touching family reminiscences from Fiona Wellins. Underscoring Bobby's love of life and art, his big heart, questing mind and special sense of humour, she drew many a quietly appreciative and affirmative response from the congregation.

Clark Tracey, who is currently working on a biography of his father, spoke with feeling of the life-long friendship and musical empathy forged in the early meetings of Bobby and Stan at the turn of the 50s and 60s, as well as of the joy he himself had experienced while working with them in later years.

Regarding the legendary Under Milk Wood album from 1965, Clark emphasised how his father had written the music completely with Bobby's sound in mind: how great an achievement, said Clark, were the improvisations which Wellins had developed from only six written bars of thematic material on Starless And Bible Black – surely one of the most affecting of poetic achievements in all jazz.

At various points, tracks from various recordings by Bobby were played, offering distinctive examples of his unique sound and melodic sensitivity, his characteristic blend of harmonic literacy and rhythmic audacity. Isabella's favourite, How Deep Is The Ocean (1983), was followed by Sweet Used To Be from the 1967 With Love From Jazz album with Stan Tracey, and My Man's Gone Now (2007). Immediately after the committal came what the notes to the service rightly called Bobby's "unforgettable" coda on Mad About The Boy (2007). Earlier, there had been live music of the highest quality, as Don Weller offered a beautifully paced solo tenor reading of We'll Be Together Again.

Dave Wickins recalled the time when, unable to attend the gig himself, Wellins – through the good offices of John Cumming – had set up a backstage London meeting with Sonny Rollins for Wickins' (then) tyro saxophonist son. When Bobby's name came up in the conversation, Rollins beamed: “Bobby Wellins? What a great musician; what a great sound!”

In his own reminiscences, Wells recalled hearing Wellins at Ronnie Scott's in the mid-60s, as a surprise addition to Stan Tracey's warm-up trio set for Johnny Griffin, billed as the "Little Giant" from Chicago. “Much as I admire Griffin”, said Wells, “that night I left Ronnie's in no doubt as to who, for me, was the real 'Little Giant'".

He then offered astute insight into how Bobby's sound had developed from the pinched, even sardonic overtones evident at times in the 1960s, through the ever-adventurous, multi-faceted interplay of tone and line in the late 1970s and 1980s, to the mellow depths of the final years (epitomised by albums such as Snapshot, with its wondrous reading of My Funny Valentine, and the recent Culloden Moor Suite, recorded with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra led by Tommy Smith).

It cannot be said enough: Bobby Wellins (1936–2016) was one of the finest and most distinctive musicians – anywhere in the world – ever to grace a stage or recording studio. The service offered splendid, lovingly orchestrated tribute to him: it will, I am sure, live long in the memory of all who were there.

Photo by Andy Cleyndert

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