Bob was one of the few people in the entire western world who hated The Beatles. It was personal: they’d completely fucked him and his generation was the way he saw it.
Bob played the saxophone. It was jazzers like him who’d been sunk by the tidal wave of pop music. They should have seen it coming, he and Tubby and the others. They kept hoping that the music would win through. Wasn’t jazz the greatest music of the twentieth century? But the gigs gradually dried up after She Loves You. As the holes in his diary grew bigger, he remembered asking himself if this shitty pop music really could be the future. Now he had the answer. Three chords and a banal lyric could net you a fortune while just to pay the bills he was on a scruffy train prostituting his talent at yet another low paid one-nighter.
Outside the train window a grey drizzle wafted past. The fields were slabs of glistening mud, pocked with soupy puddles. Gazing out, he could faintly see his reflection in the glass. Hair sleeked back. Moustache limply hanging on his top lip. Eyes hinting at insomnia.
Everyone agreed he was talented. A year or two before Jailhouse Rock, one of the magazines had called him “the English Dexter Gordon.” That’d pissed him off. He was Glaswegian for fuck sake! Three or four years later, he’d released A View From The Bridge, with a cover featuring him and Tubby Wickham standing on Tower Bridge trying, and, he had long ago admitted, failing, to look like Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan. “More like fuckin’ Laurel and Hardy” Tubby’d said. Reviewing the album, another magazine had voted him best newcomer. Newcomer? He was nearly 30! A lot of the jazz greats were dead by 30. Journalists: all arseholes.
Some days he tried to focus on the better times. He nearly played with Miles Davis once. Miles had heard A View From The Bridge. He’d phoned Bob from Paris.
“French cat’s got problems with his chops,” Miles growled. “C’nyou giddout ‘ere?”
Bob would have been on the next plane. Only Miles’ agent phoned back later to say the “French cat” was okay after all.
“You miserable git,” Tubby had ripped into him as they drove to a gig shortly afterwards. “Sittin’ there wallowing in sorrow. At least he fuckin’ asked you. The only fucker who asks me is you.”
By the time the train crawled into the station the drizzle had turned to heavy rain. He waited for a cab, squinting through the gloom up the wet strip of road for any sign of incoming taxis. He thought about Tubby. Tubby had escaped all this. He’d drowned himself in booze. For some it had been heroin. Bob and Tubby had both chanced their arms with that: but each had managed to pull out of the nose-dive before fatal impact. They fled to whiskey and beer. Lots of it. In Tubby’s case, enough to turn his liver to leather. The cirrhosis made him so weak, a dose of pneumonia finished the job. He was forty-two.
Sometimes Bob played along to Tubby’s records. Maggie hated that. “Just let him go for Christ sake” she’d said once. She left him shortly afterwards. Went off with a drummer from Burnham-on-Crouch. Bob knew what Tubby would have said. “It’s always the fuckin’ drummer.” Now he played the records louder and for longer. He wove his solos round Tubby’s horn which was doomed to play the same notes in the same order forever. The ultimate cruelty for a jazzer.
“Let me guess – Butlin’s?” the cab driver chirped.
Not Birdland. Not The Bluenote. Note even Ronnie’s. “Yeah. Billy-bloody-Butlin’s mate,” Bob sighed.
The plaster on the over-sized stucco entrance arch to the camp was blowing in a few places and the “u” of Butlin’s had fallen off. On a hoarding on the left pillar, faded to washed-out blues and pinks, was last year’s poster for “Miss Butlin 1966”. Looking at the dreary exterior Bob couldn’t help thinking that what the Beatles had done for jazz, cheap flights to Spain had done for Butlin’s. Those technicolour adverts from the 1950s, with well-toned young men jack-knifing from high boards into azure pools filled with slim, laughing women, all basking in an everlasting golden summer, had given way to peeling paint and the smell of chip fat in the cavernous dining halls.
Beside the arch was a tiny wooden sentry box with a glass hatch. Inside it, Bob could just make out the silhouette of a hunched figure shrouded in cigarette fumes. He waved his sax case and the hatch slid open, releasing wisps of smoke.
“You with the band?”
“Straight down past the refect’ry, right at Funland and the ballroom’s dead ahead.”
Bob ducked into the rain and wandered down to the ballroom. Tonight he would be playing with The Dudley Pearl 3, one more in a long line of local rhythm sections who would struggle to keep up with him. Inside, on a make-shift stage of battered rostrum blocks, a drummer whacked experimentally at his kit. To his left, a very long, thin pianist was peering through his fringe at a tangle of leads.
As Bob opened his sax case, the drummer, who’d stopped thrashing, walked over to welcome their guest player.
“Alright Bob? It’s a real honour to play with you. I’m Spike”
“Thanks Spike. How do you know me then?”
“I’ve got that great album you done what was voted best newcomer. Lovely playing. Still one of me favourites.”
“Well that’s nice. I don’t get noticed much these days.”
“That’s so crap man. You used to be one of the British greats.”
Spike ushered Bob to the bar and insisted on buying the drinks. Three pints and three generous double whiskies had gone down by the time the long thin pianist summoned Spike and Bob for a sound check.
The barman handed Bob a double-cum-triple whiskey. “Take one up on the stand mate.” Bob smiled, looking intently at the barman, who seemed to be blurring just slightly. He walked back with Spike, being very careful where he placed each foot. When he bent down to get his horn out, the floor lurched and he had to steady himself with both hands on the sax case for a few seconds. A shower of tiny light spots drifted round the room off the glitter ball. Concentrating very hard, he picked up the sheaf of music, the standards they’d play that night, and walked gingerly towards the microphone. It was 8 o’clock. He looked round the room. It was mostly empty chairs. Bob counted seven people dotted around. Sitting alone in the front row was a woman in her fifties trying to look twenty-five. A few more stood at the bar, just beyond his focus. Tubby would have called it “man-to-man marking”
The pianist mumbled. “Whenever you like.”
“Thank you for coming tonight ladies and gentlemen.” He fiddled with the mouthpiece. “I’m Bob Welford.” He paused again, snorted air through his nose. “I used to be a British great.” He looked intently at the chart on the music stand. “We’re going to start tonight with a tune that’s been covered by everyone worth knowing – All The Things You Are.”
Spike and the bass player kicked in together and the pianist noodled the opening chords over them. Bob put the sax to his mouth and sucked at the reed. He stared intently at the octave key on the neck of his instrument, then raised his eyes to where an audience should have been.
He took the sax away from his mouth. The rhythm section kept going, waiting for the horn. In his head Bob played with the title. All the things you used to be. Things ain’t what they used to be. All the things you aren’t. After the first 32 bars the pianist, looking anxiously at Bob to no avail, had begun to solo. Bob stared out at the seven people. He looked up at the glitter ball. He fingered a key or two on the instrument. The pianist continued his solo into the next 32 bar sequence. And Bob realised this was it. This was where The Beatles had led him.
He unhooked the sax from its strap, turned his back on the audience and ambled back to the chair. He took the mouthpiece off the sax and put them both in their case, leaned it against the drum riser and walked off stage.
Outside the steady rain had thinned back to drizzle. One weather-beaten red minicab was waiting by the rank at the camp entrance. Bob got in and asked for the station. On the train back all he could see out of the window was the orange glow of the sodium lamps on the road that tracked the railway along its course back to London. He felt unusually calm. About half an hour into the journey he started to imagine what an obituary might say about him. Tubby had only merited a few cursory lines in the Melody Maker. But Tubby had died while he was still working. Having stepped off the bandstand for good, no-one would remember Bob at all in another ten or fifteen years. The idea of an obituary to himself, however, appealed to him. He began to compose fragments in his head:
The death has been announced of the British jazz saxophonist Robert Welford.
Or would they make the usual mistake and call him “English”? And if they did, who’d be left to write and point out the cultural faux pas? Would they also consign him to a “used to be” status?
He is best known for his 1957 album A View From The Bridge that featured his long term collaborator Eric “Tubby” Wickham on trumpet. The record brought his playing to the attention of Miles Davis who was in France recording Lift to the Scaffold. Davis had originally hired a French tenor player, Barney Wilen, to work with him, but Wilen developed a painful gum infection a week before the recording date. Welford was contacted by Davis to step in, but the Frenchman recovered and was able to fill the saxophone role. The album went on to become one of the most famous in the jazz canon.
That would be it of course. He’d be remembered for what had nearly happened rather than all the things he’d been. Even in death he’d still be the nearly man. More sodium lights flowed by. And then it came to him: in a fictional future he could be all the things he wanted to be.
Welford had been inactive for some years, but shortly before his death he released a compilation album of some of his work called Beyond The Bridge. It sold remarkably well and is considered to have been a contributor to the renewed interest in jazz music that is sweeping the country. Sales of the record have pushed it into the album charts where it has reached a high of number three.
For a closing coda, he decided he’d use an imaginary quotation from Miles Davis.
“Bob Welford was the best tenor player I never had.”
Outside the muddy fields drifted passed to the accompaniment of a dreary 4/4 rhythm beaten out by the train wheels carrying Bob to the end of the line.