The story behind the picture: Bobby Wellins jazz saxophonist plays at Brighton Museum

In 2009 I was the Adult Learning Officer for the Adult Event Programme creating and running public events across Royal Pavilion & Museums. This was one of 62 events programmed in 2009.

This picture was taken in the foyer of Brighton Museum & Art Gallery on Sunday 30 August 2009 and shows a group of jazz musicians including the eminent Bobby Wellins on saxophone.

The event supported Brighton Museum’s summer exhibition The American Scene: Prints from Hopper to Pollock, works from the British Museum’s American prints collection that toured selected museums in the UK in 2008 and 2009 finishing at Brighton. The exhibition attracted huge public interest wherever it was shown.

Here at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery a series of events were programmed to enhance the visitor experience of The American Scene including an American-themed family activity day on Saturday 4th July with jive dancing workshops and print-making. The event programme for adults included a course of study days looking at American culture in the 20th century: Flappers to Art Deco, the Great American Movie and American literature with poetry readings in the exhibition galleries. However, music was always going to play an important part in the event programme for this exhibition and I was delighted to engage this trio of jazz musicians who are seen playing here on the day the exhibition closed.

Bobby Wellins was born Robert Coull Wellins in Glasgow Scotland in 1936. His father was Max Wellins, a saxophonist, and his mother Sally Coull, a singer. The couple performed with the Sammy Miller Show Band. After his first music lessons at home Bobby studied harmony at Chichester College of Further Education, and clarinet at the RAF School of Music in Uxbridge, west London. The 1950s and 1960s were a heyday for Wellins with the jazz scene booming at clubs like The Flamingo, Ronnie Scott’s and the Nucleus Club, his “jazz university”. Wellins also made a living by his music playing on US ocean-going liners between 1959 and 1961 when cruises were strictly for the wealthy glamourous set. Wellins was most famous for a single, exquisite improvised solo on Starless and Bible Black, from the pianist Stan Tracey’s 1965 classic Under Milk Wood, his playing described as “a tenor saxophone passage of birdlike warbles, mournful hoots softly blown into deep spaces, fragmentary motifs that would briefly consolidate into hints of a songlike theme.”

Wellins left London and settled on the south coast and was always active; teaching at the West Sussex Institute of Higher Education in Chichester, performing as soloist in Charlie Watts’s eclectic improv-to-swing orchestra and playing and recording with big bands and solo into the 1990s and beyond. In 2013, Wellins was the subject of the documentary film Dreams Are Free, shown at the Brighton, Chichester and London film festivals that year.

Bobby Wellins was married and had two daughters. He died on 27 October 2016 aged 80.

My memory of the day is the delight on the faces of those who came to hear Bobby Wellins and the jazz trio, some older people expressing their joy at hearing the music of their youth in such pleasant and welcoming surroundings. The trio played in the museum foyer yet the evocative uplifting jazz sound drifted through open doors and up through the museum galleries giving pleasure to all visitors that late summer day.

Paula Wrightson, Venue Officer Preston Manor

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