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Obituary: Don Weller

British saxophonist noted for his sartorial relaxation and work across a variety of settings from bebop to jazz-rock, with Kathy Stobart, Art Themen, Gil Evans and many others

For many years the appearance of Don Weller guaranteed a full house and an evening of powerful and highly enjoyable tenor playing.

Born in Thornton Heath on 19 December 1940, he learned the clarinet at an early age, performing a solo in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto at Croydon Town Hall aged 15, then played in local trad bands around Croydon, before putting his work as a panel beater behind him, taking up the tenor saxophone and joining Kathy Stobart’s band. He also had a couple of seasons working at Butlin’s holiday camps with Eric Winstone’s band.

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 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.

An immensely popular figure, clad in beret, he often found himself as a sideman in the jazz outfits of Harry Beckett, Tommy Chase, Michael Garrick, John Burch and others, and featured regularly from the 1970s onwards with Stan Tracey’s groups – quintet, octet and big band, forming a strong association with fellow tenor player Art Themen. In 1981 Don stood in for Michael Brecker in the Gil Evans Orchestra, subsequently touring with the band and 1983 saw him playing and recording with Evans’ British Orchestra. He was featured with a number of big bands during that period, not only with those of Evans and Tracey, but with Ian Stewart’s Rocket 88 and Charlie Watts’ Jazz Orchestra. 

With Art Themen and Mornington Lockett he thrilled audiences as a member of The Three Tenors – which also saw an unusual side of the normally sartorially relaxed Don – a formally clad photo appeared on their record cover, complete with bow-tie, although inevitably the beret was included. There’s the story that Don managed to persuade Kangol, the makers of berets, to supply the whole of his big band for their appearance at Appleby Jazz Festival! This big band performed his Pennine Suite at Appleby in 1995 and recorded a live album the following year, the personnel reading like a who’s who of British jazz; it was described in the Penguin Guide to Jazz as rousing and exhilarating.

A quotation in John Wickes’ Innovations In British Jazz summed up Don’s playing: “On his night Don Weller is the raunchiest, most humorous (and human), daring, yet intensely and inventively melodic tenor player in the country.”

He enjoyed the cut and thrust of playing with other tenor saxophonists and his long-standing collaborations with Bobby Wellins were no exception, the two having great mutual respect and recording Nine Songs for Trio Records. This respect was reflected in Don’s moving tribute at Bobby’s funeral in 2016, performing a solo of We’ll Be Together Again. 

In recent years Don had been unwell and an evening was dedicated to him at the 606 Club in 2018. It was a testament to the standing in which he was held that so many great players appeared, headed by his close friend Art Themen. Although funerals are restricted at this difficult time, it is certain that many will be paying their own tributes to Don in the days to come. Our thoughts are with his daughter, Katie and the family.

Donald Arthur Albert (Don) Weller, born Thornton Heath, Croydon, 19 December 1940; died Croydon, 30 May 2020

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