The jazz world is mourning the death of leading sax player Don Weller, who died at the end of May, aged 79.
Thornton Heath-born Weller was a well-known performer in the pubs and clubs of Croydon, London and beyond for four decades. He played many gigs at The Gun, The Dog and Bull on Surrey Street, at The Oval Tavern, the Lord Napier and the Green Dragon, his burly, bearded figure always topped off with a beret.
Innovations In British Jazz summed up his playing: “On his night Don Weller is the raunchiest, most humorous (and human), daring, yet intensely and inventively melodic tenor player in the country.”
Born in on December 19, 1940, Weller grew up learning the classical clarinet.
Indeed, he made his “stage” debut performing a solo in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto at Croydon Town Hall aged 15.
Into the 1960s, he worked for a time as a panel beater while playing music, first the clarinet, then the saxophone, in trad jazz bands at evenings and weekends, before going full-time to join Kathy Stobart’s band or earning his keep with a couple of summer seasons working at Butlin’s holiday camps.
According to his obituary in Jazz Journal, Weller was, “A versatile musician, he worked with rock groups such as East of Eden, the soul band of Geno Washington and with Alex Harvey and Jack Bruce. In the ’70s he formed the jazz-rock unit Major Surgery, with guitarist Jimmy Roche, before teaming up with drummer Bryan Spring and releasing an album for Affinity, Commit No Nuisance; the quartet was augmented at one point by American trumpeter Hannibal Marvin Peterson.”
Weller’s versatility kept him in demand in a wide variety of musical styles, including playing with David Bowie, Cat Stevens, Alan Price, David Bowie, Cat Stevens, Ian Stewart’s Rocket 88 and Charlie Watts’ Jazz Orchestra.
Weller won Best Tenor Sax at the British Jazz Awards on three occasions.
In the 1970s Weller had found himself as a regular sax player with another south London jazz musician, the pianist Stan Tracey, “the Godfather of British jazz”, performing with his quintet, octet and big band, and forming a strong association with fellow tenor player Art Themen.
Themen has paid fond tribute to Weller on the London Jazz News website, recalling some of his old friend’s traits and foibles.
One year, the Stan Tracey group was on tour in China, and on a day off they gathered to go on a tourist visit to the Great Wall. Weller didn’t bother to join them.
“Nah,” Weller said. “I got a wall of my own at home.”
Themen, like many professional musicians, remembers spending long hours practising – or “woodshedding”. The fellow sax player was in awe of Weller’s apparent nonchalance in such respects. “How he achieved such technical mastery of that instrument remains a mystery to me,” Themen wrote of Weller.
“Most of us need to spend many hours of painstaking woodshedding in order to bully the horn into submission, but Don appeared to have sprung from the womb with the full six-speed gearbox. Bryan Spring, one of the great drummers associated with Don is a good example of a compulsive woodshedder. He would sidle up to you and say ‘Did 36 hours practice yesterday… gettin’ there!’.
“On the other hand, Don seemed to eschew this modus operandi. He once rang me up when I was attempting to get the hang of a Cedar Walton tune. ‘I’m practising,’ I said. ‘Practising?’ he replied incredulously, ‘that’s cheating!’
And Themen continues, “Another facet of his innate natural skill of which I am in awe, was his ability to play impeccably after downing a fair amount of drink. I once asked him how he managed to play so well when he was pissed. His reply? ‘That’s easy. I only practise when I’m pissed’.”
With Themen and Mornington Lockett, Weller also thrilled audiences as a member of The Three Tenors (in this case, saxophones, rather than Italian singers), and he also put together his own big band for a jazz festival at Appleby in 1995.
It was ahead of that festival, and the albums that followed, that enthusiastic beret-wearer Weller displayed what might be described as a “can do” attitude. Or his Kangol attitude…
Weller approached beret-makers Kangol, to kit out the full band in their headwear. Asked by a salesman whether his own beret was a Kangol, Weller was described as being “somewhat economical with the truth”.
“Of course,” he told the man from Kangol. Sixteen berets were duly despatched to Appleby.
Weller continued to live in south London through most of his life. In the past decade, he would spend every day taking the four-bus journey from his home to visit his terminally ill wife, Di, in hospital. “Anyone who has listened to his composition ‘Di’s Waltz’ cannot fail to be deeply moved,” Themen wrote.
And for the last two years, as his own health deteriorated, Weller was cared for by his daughter, Katie, until he died in hospital in Croydon just over a week ago, on May 30.
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