ROBERT COULL "BOBBY" WELLINS Chapter 5: THE "RARA AVIS"
We are still in the week of Bobby's 3rd anniversary of passing. I published my funeral address here on the day itself to mark the occasion.
But it is time to reflect further on my musical life with him. The last instalment (Chapter 4) was entitled Musket Fire and told the story of the revivial of Bobby's "Battle of Culloden Moor" for a nationwide tour in late 1979.
The Rara Avis ("rare bird") of this week's title refers both to Bobby's unique sound on the tenor saxophone and to a new jazz suite which he set himself to compose on the subject of THE ENDANGERED SPECIES of birds. The project was originally promoted and partly funded by South-East Arts to "raise awareness" (as they say these days) of the plight of certain birds familiar on the South coast. This was something close to Bognor Regis-resident Bobby's heart.
He said: There was an oil spillage which washed ashore at Bognor. The guillemots were being pulled out in a dreadful state. To see for yourself a bird's life being taken away from it is quite horrific. Their lives are short enough anyway. It brought home to me the damage we are inflicting on ourselves and the creatures around us and I needed to express how I felt through composing.
I don't know how long it took him to write. My battered contemporary diaries reveal that our quartet had worked quite steadily through 1980 and 1981.
One thing that stands out is Bobby's recreation of the Tubby Hayes big band for a tribute to Tubbs at Hammersmith Town Hall in May 1980. The line-up included an impressive number of alumni of the original Hayes band, including Les Condon, Ian Hamer, Chris Pyne, Bill Geldard, Peter King, Ray Warleigh, Jack Sharpe, Ron Matthewson and myself.
The charts we used Bobby had retrieved from Bunny Gould who played baritone on the gig. The results were exciting but a bit shambolic. I believe Bobby only managed to get everyone together for one rehearsal…………..
For the other thing I fondly remember, please refer to the Musing posted here in January 2019 called A balmy night on the French Riviera where you can read about our trip to the Nice Jazz Festival in July 1980.
Sometime in 1981, the original bass player (and the only one who, in my opinion, successfully mastered the required rhythmic feel in the famous Wellins original Dreams are free) Adrian Kendon left the quartet. He was replaced by the irrepressible Ken Baldock. Ken's sonorous, swinging bass lines were a price worth paying for his eccentric behaviour.
Ken had certainly joined by the time we made a 3-day visit to Belfast to play at the Guinness Spot. It was the era of the "troubles" and I was reminded of my first appearances at the Guinness Spot with Blossom Dearie in 1969 when it was all kicking off. Blossom, Jeff Clyne and I had stayed at the Europa Hotel which become known as the most bombed hotel in Europe.
To recall Baldock’s presence on the Bobby Wellins trip in 1981, I need only recount that, at the Heathrow check-in desk, Ken was handed his boarding card with seat number allocated and he announced in a loud voice to the queue behind him BUT THAT WAS MY CABIN NUMBER ON THE TITANIC IN MY PREVIOUS LIFE!
Trumpeter Kenny Wheeler had been guesting with us on a few gigs and of course he and Bobby were very old friends, dating back to their time together in the Buddy Featherstone-Haugh quintet in 1956.
So Bobby decided to add a fifth "bird voice" to the tour in the form of Kenny's distinctive trumpet. My diary contains a reminder to pick up the parts from Bobby on Monday 8th February 1982 and on Wednesday 10th we opened in Hemel Hempstead. [Go the the Music page for items recorded at that concert.]
In March, after the tour was over, the group minus Kenny Wheeler did a concert featuring "The endangered species" opposite the Art Ensemble of Chicago in Bradford. The show was recorded for Yorkshire TV but they sold it to a TV station in Australia and - incredibly - a friend brought me back a video he had taped down under!
The group including Kenny Wheeler and with the addition of Chris Karan on percussion and a string quartet then went into studio (Britannia Row, Islington) on 21st March to record the suite.
Tony Coe wrote the string arrangements and the recording was released under the name of BIRDS OF BRAZIL rather than "The endangered species". The thinking behind this was financial backing from the World Wildlife Fund who pointed out to Bobby that perhaps the most endangered birds in the world in terms of extinction were those in Brazil.
Since this CD has been reissued and is readily available to those who want to hear the Suite, I have added to the Music page this week other tunes which we played on the February tour as a warm-up to the Suite itself.
By the by, before putting my 1982 diary away, I noticed that, five days after the recording session, I moved to Brighton - to the house which I have lived in ever since. The one which Art Themen, himself a serious man of property, facetiously calls the baronial mansion…………………