Passion and all that jazz

ANGI KENNEDY One of the country’s finest jazz musicians is playing Bungay on October 5. With him will be the town’s very own Sargy Mann, blind artist and drummer. ANGI KENNEDY spoke to them both about the gig.


“Half an hour before we go on stage, we'll probably meet up, have a chat about which songs we'll be doing, and just take it from there,” says Sargy Mann.

No rehearsals together, no thrashing out of a routine, just seat-of-the-pants jazz, improvising and going where the songs take them.

It's an adrenalin-pumping approach to performing, but with around 200 years-worth of jazz-playing experience behind them, they can afford to take a few risks.

Add to the mix the fact that the four musicians playing at the Fisher Theatre in Bungay on Friday October 5 live hundreds of miles apart, and that Bungay-based artist and drummer Sargy is now totally blind, and you begin to appreciate that these players have guts as well as talent.

As Bobby Wellins grins: “We get in like Che Guevara - hit them and get out as quick as we can!”

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The group have come together as a pick-up band - each skilled musicians in their own right but playing together as much, it seems, for their own enjoyment as for the audience.

Bobby Wellins, is of course, one of the great names of British jazz. Glasgow-born, he grew up in a musical household - his father was a saxophonist and clarinet-player, his mother a singer. The music genes were obviously strong in the boy too - he began sax lessons at the age of 12, and went on to study clarinet at the RAF School of Music in Uxbridge.

Bobby started off in Palais bands, and by 1956 was making records. His Dylan Thomas-inspired suite of pieces Under Milk Wood (1965) was voted by jazz enthusiasts three decades later as their all-time favourite British jazz album.

For Sargy, Bobby is a true jazz hero. “We knew each other distantly in the 1960s and have played together occasionally since,” said Sargy. “I idolised him from afar. He is just about the only British jazz musician whose records I would buy whenever I could afford to.

“He has a completely individual sound that is instantly recognisable, which is one of the most prized possessions a jazz player can have.”

And he will be drinking in every note of that sound when he joins Bobby on stage on Friday evening.

Sargy, who has lived at Bridge Street in Bungay for the past 17 years with wife Frances, is a semi-professional drummer. He began playing as a school boy.

“I went to Dartington School in 1950 and there were some older boys in the school and our music master who were very much into jazz,” he explained. “They didn't have a drummer so I started playing, unbelievably badly, but it became a big passion for me.”

The years that followed saw Sargy training in engineering but eventually admitting to himself that he wanted more than anything else to study art.

Sargy is an extraordinary artist, an accomplished painter and teacher, now retired, whose achievements were always made even more remarkable by his life-long poor eyesight.

Only a year or so ago, he went completely blind, literally overnight. But since then he has not only returned to painting, developing new skills to manoeuvre his way around the canvas, but also staged an extraordinary exhibition in London of works painted since losing his sight.

Throughout his life music remained a great love. He played in a trio with the wonderfully talented Dudley Moore and has drummed with some great musicians like Dave Holland and Don Rendell.

And he often practises on his drum kit, which shares his studio with the various canvases Sargy is working on.

“Blindness is only a slight disadvantage when I'm playing with others,” he said. “I always just play by ear. When I am practising, I put on records and play along to them, trying to understand what the drummer is doing.

“Because of the way it is structured you can get people who have never played together and straight away - without any rehearsal - you can put on a very good performance.

“My only terror is that like all very good jazz musicians he likes to play very fast and if he does, it is obviously a matter of hanging on for dear life!”

But, according to Bobby, Sargy has nothing to worry about. “I like people who are extremely talented but are very unassuming. He is a really good player and he really swings.”

He added: “We will probably play some standards. But we may be a bit flexible in the format and a bit adventurous. They will be things that people recognise, but we do like to mix it up a bit.”

With them will be another septuagenarian, pianist John Critchinson, whose career has seen him playing with Ronnie Scott and many of the other top names of jazz. Completing the quartet will be Norfolk-based jazz bass player Mike Harris.

Bobby Wellins, Sargy Mann and friends will be performing at the Fisher Theatre in Broad Street, Bungay from 7.30pm on Friday October 5. Tickets are priced £8.50 and £7 and are available from the theatre box office on 01986 897130.

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