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Art Themen remembers Don Weller (1940-2020)

Saxophonist Don Weller, who had been unwell for some time, passed away in his native Croydon on Saturday 30 May 2020 at the age of 79. Saxophonist Art Themen, a good friend of Don’s since the early 1960s, pays tribute to one of the UK’s national jazz treasures.

Portrait of Don Weller, Brecon, 2008. © William Ellis All Rights Reserved.

Don Weller‘s initial musical interest was in the classical clarinet and he clearly became pretty proficient on the instrument. As a youngster he performed Mozart’s clarinet concerto in Croydon’s prestigious Fairfield Halls; no mean feat. After a brief flirtation with traditional jazz clarinet, Don, to our mutual benefit, switched directions and transferred to the tenor sax. How he achieved such technical mastery of that instrument remains a mystery to me. 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!”

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”.

One more of Don’s endearing traits was his stage persona. Not for him the sharp Italian-suited image favoured in the big West End Clubs. What you got was an amiable bearded giant complete with beret, sandals and (sometimes) odd socks. Steve Melling relates the occasion when he was playing a gig with Don at the Bulls Head in Barnes. Don was resplendent in open-toed sandals, coupled with one fluorescent lime green sock on his left foot and on the right a similarly arresting one in bright pink. On Steve’s remarking about the visual disparity Don replied, “Yes, I’ve got another pair like that at home!”

A similar example of his singular sense of humour relates to the occasion when, on tour in China, the members of one of Stan Tracey’s groups were foregathered for a trip to see the Great Wall. When asked if he was going to accompany them Don replied, “Nah, I got a wall of my own at home.”

The beret was his particular trademark and some 20 years ago he approached the famous beret maker Kangol with a view to kitting out his 16-piece big band for the Appleby festival. Ever eager for a publicity coup, the salesman asked Don if his own beret was a Kangol. Shifting uneasily from foot to foot, Don was somewhat economical with the truth. “Of course,” he replied. Delighted, the company forwarded a batch of 16 berets to Appleby.

Don Weller Big Band, Appleby 1995, in their new Kangol berets. Photo by Sue Storey courtesy of Art Themen

In the ’70s Don formed the band Major Surgery. (How I envy him for having thought of that as the title for a band. Somehow Minor Surgery doesn’t have the same ring). Although Major Surgery’s material had a more commercial appeal it was pretty much jazz based. Don‘s natural integrity did not allow him to compromise and, whether or not he was belting out a no-holds-barred blues solo or some complicated Coltrane-type chord progression, it was still very much his own voice.

He had a natural ability to get the most out of the musicians he was playing with and his quartets, including such luminaries as Dave Barry, Andrew Cleyndert, Dave Green, Steve Melling and Bryan Spring (alphabetical to avoid upsetting anyone’s ego) sound as freshly minted today as when the music was first played. Do check out In a Sentimental Mood on YouTube.

His versatility kept him in demand in a wide variety of musical situations including the bands of Alan Price, David Bowie, Cat Stevens, Charlie Watts and the jazz funk band Rocket 88.

I have special memories of the unfortunately infrequent performances of The Three Tenors outfit which included the wonderful Mornington Lockett. Always one to eschew publicity, Don was somewhat reluctant to dress up at the photo shoot for our album cover. Miraculously we managed to persuade him to wear a white shirt and black suit. The 5 of us then pinned him down and attached a bow tie around his neck. The result, Don’s appearance on the album cover (below, courtesy of Trio Records) as his doppelgänger Luciano Pavarotti.

Don and I first met in the informal atmosphere of the London Clubs many years back and for me playing with him was a perfect fit. The line-up of a two tenors/rhythm section has always had audience appeal with the connotation of gladiatorial combat, particularly enhanced by the differences in our physical build. There was never an ego clash or cutting contest but instead a feeling of mutual respect. (Admittedly on certain nights, we would josh each other as to whether or not there had been a reversal in the result of the biblical clash between David and Goliath.)

In addition to playing innumerable gigs as a quintet we were both fortunate in having caught the attention of Stan Tracey who employed us in his various groups, notably a quintet, the Octet and the Big Band from the ’60s onwards. Those were heady days and it is difficult to single out any particular concert but I do remember Don’s scorching contribution to Stan’s The Bracknell Connection in Berkshire, the Queen Elizabeth Hall Big Band Concert, and many performances at Neil Ferber’s late lamented Appleby Festival.

Stan’s Octet toured in the early ’80s with the Gil Evans Orchestra. On one occasion, as a result of Michael Brecker’s indisposition, Don, accepting the ultimate accolade, stepped into the great man’s chair with considerable aplomb. Such was the impression he made that after the week had ended Don toured and recorded with Gil’s trumpet player at the time, Hannibal Marvin Peterson (on video here). 

Mention must be made of Neil Ferber’s influence when he commissioned Don to write a big band suite for the Appleby festival in 1995. By then Don was already beginning to have serious heath problems but as a measure of the man, he managed to pull himself back from the brink and his resulting musical tour de force stands comparison with any big band writing, past or present (Don Weller’s big band CD Live – on Paul Jolly’s 33Records).

Rejuvenated, Don continued to play his blistering joyous music for the next 20 years, scooping the Best Tenor Sax in the British Jazz Awards on three occasions. Declining health however forced him to retire from active playing and Steve Rubie generously hosted a tribute to Don at the 606 Club in September 2018. Don’s popularity was never in doubt as evidenced by the numbers of participating musicians, well-wishers and attendees. I last heard him play at the funeral of fellow tenor saxophonist Bobby Wellins in 2016. His solo We’ll Be Together Again was not only incredibly moving but eerily prescient.

For the last two years Don’s daughter Katie and Andrew Cleyndert selflessly looked after him until he was finally admitted to Croydon hospital. While the obituary pages of most publications have been filled with the victims of the pernicious virus, it gives me a small measure of comfort to know that Don, combative as ever, was Covid negative.

It is an understatement to say that Don was well-loved. He was a man of few words with an idiosyncratic sense of humour and vocabulary. As a mark of the esteem in which he was held we all tried to imitate his characteristic and untranslatable expression of ‘Oooowheeeee’ which has passed into common jazz parlance. Don was utterly devoted to his wife Di. During her long-term illness he would – every day and without fail – make the journey across Croydon involving four bus journeys to visit her. Anyone who has listened to his composition Di’s Waltz cannot fail to be deeply moved.

What better way to end than to quote the words of the Observer’s Dave Gelly: “Tenor saxophonist Don Weller was among the true originals of British Jazz with his cavernous sound and utterly unpredictable turn of phrase.”

Donald Arthur Albert (Don) Weller
Born Thornton Heath, Croydon, 19 December 1940
Died Croydon, 30 May 2020

Don Weller and Art Themen at Herts Jazz Fest 2011. Photo by Melody McLaren

10 replies »

  1. RIP Don Weller. Sad news! Used to see Don a lot in recent years when I supported the New Delta Big Band who played at The Lord Napier, Thornton Heath until it closed. Gordon Higginson, Uckfield, East Sussex

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    • Don was indeed well loved,Bobby and now Don,True oridginals,so many great gigs.
      So sad.
      Tony Thomas[Tavey Jazz]

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  2. A wonderful tribute to a much loved and popular visitor to Watermill Jazz over many years-RIP Don.
    Paul Hobbs,Dorking.

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  3. Don Weller, one of my all time favourite tenor men. I chatted with him in the Hare and Hounds Worthing about twenty years ago. Asking him about improvising his advice was to try your best and hope for the best. I wish I’d got to know him better.

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  4. That is a very interesting sumnation of the life of a man who gave me hours of pleasure over many decades, notably at the Bulls Head Barnes and later at the 606 Club. A great musician, always entertaining and sometimes amusing too.

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  5. Apart from all his other attributes, I always remember Don years ago when i did a gig with him and pianist Robin Grayson at the Railwaymens hall Purley –yes really!!– and during the course of the predictably dreadful wedding type gig, he played an unbelieveable “cod” yackey-tack version of Knees up Mother Brown. The other band members including me were convulsed with laughter -so much that the number had to stop,,much to the puzzlement of the audience. It was honestly the most i have laughted in my life -actually life-threatening!.

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  6. saw him so many times and feel so sad to hear the news. Thanks for a fitting obituary to a wonderful player whose personality showed in each solo. He must have been great company too.. Best regards to his family

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