Obituary: Chris Wellard

    British jazz retailer and promoter who embraced a wide range of music, from Louis Armstrong to Howard Riley

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    John Jack (left) & Chris Wellard. Photo courtesy Matthew Wright

    News of the death of jazz retailer and promoter Chris Wellard will be received with great sadness in the London jazz community. An enthusiastic force in the music for a number of years, Chris was first introduced to jazz when he was evacuated to Urmston, Lancashire, during the Second World War. He was familiar with popular dance band music, but when visiting a neighbour’s house with his host Mrs. Bradford, he found three men sitting at the kitchen table listening to a 78 of Louis Armstrong’s Keyhole Blues. “Amazing – it changed my life,” Chris later said.

    Born in Blackheath, south London in 1931, he attended Woolwich Polytechnic in the late 40s and became an apprentice engineer, taking with him the left-wing views inherited from his father, Charlie Wellard, an influential and highly respected union organiser and Communist Party member. However, Chris soon turned towards music and formed a firm and lasting friendship with the late James Asman, a leading figure on the British jazz scene who lived in nearby Plumstead.

    Chris did National Service in the RAF in the early 1950s and a few years later started his own jazz and blues shop in New Cross. It quickly gained a reputation for its wide-ranging stock and knowledgeable staff, which included Chris Trimming, Tony Middleton and Stella Williams, who was to become Chris’s wife.

    During the 60s the shop featured in the specialist music magazines and underground press as a source of obscure imports, and many made the pilgrimage to south-east London, among them John Peel and writer and broadcaster Charlie Gillett, who used it regularly. Chris and his staff also promoted the music, whether organising the National Jazz Convention at Conway Hall, The London Blues Society (in 1967) or making up the concert committee for the newly formed Jazz Centre Society in 1968. Recitals and events were held at the nearby New Cross House and other local venues. Chris can be heard introducing a performance by the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, Question And Answer, recorded at the Prince Albert, Greenwich in 1966 (RANDB068). He was also responsible for the recording of the Howard Riley trio’s acclaimed album Discussions in 1967.

    Regular visitors to the shop and pub included trombonist Paul Rutherford, saxophonist and writer Dave Gelly, pianist Howard Riley, Manfred Mann and Tom McGuinness. At one point, Texan blues guitarist Johnny Winter stayed in the upstairs rooms at the shop.

    The 70s saw Chris going further into distribution, opening a second shop in Eltham, from where he handled a wide range of labels from the improvisation of Incus to US big band swing. Unfortunately, in the mid-70s the lease of the New Cross shop was not renewed, Goldsmiths College earmarking the property for their expansion. Not long after, Chris closed the Eltham branch and operated his distribution from home, whilst working closely with John Jack and Hazel Miller at Cadillac Music, until his retirement.

    He could often be seen (with this writer) on a stall at record fairs in south London, where he enjoyed meeting old friends and customers, and it was an indication of his popularity that so many would come and chat, sharing stories and anecdotes. He would also go to Eltham Jazz Club, run by the late pianist Hugh Ockendon and his wife, Marion, who had been Chris’s first assistant at the New Cross shop years before, and attend reunions with old jazz friends in the centre of London.

    Many will have fond memories of Chris, his engaging conversation, good company and humour, his commitment to progressive politics and his enthusiasm for jazz, especially live, when he would often react with joyful expletives.

    His wife Stella died in 2019 but he is survived by his son, Martin and daughter, Frances. Jazz Journal readers will surely be thinking of them and their families.

    Chris Wellard, jazz enthusiast, retailer and promoter. Born London 7 February 1931, died 10 July 2022.