Tributes to sax star Ray

Jazz musician Ray Wilkes
Jazz musician Ray Wilkes
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Tributes have been paid to a legend of the Blackpool jazz scene.

Saxophonist Ray Wilkes died at Blackpool Victoria Hospital on Saturday, aged 86, after a short illness.

Dan Forshaw is among those to have paid their respects, as Ray was his first saxophone tutor and “probably the biggest influence 
in my life outside of my parents”.

Ray trained initially at Kneller Hall as a classical 
clarinetist and gained his jazz education in New York during the 1950s.

And his return to Blackpool from New York coincided with the heyday of the big jazz bands in the resort, where he became a firm favourite with audiences at the Winter Gardens, Tower Ballroom and the Blackpool Mecca, according to Dan.

“I first encountered Ray as a 10-year-old tenor saxophone student,” Dan said. “’Tenor sax aged 10!’ Ray exclaimed the first time I saw him and I still remember my first lesson as if it was yesterday.

“At the age of 14, I was introduced to jazz by Ray. At first it came when I screwed up a piece of sight reading, Ray would say ‘no jazz please, we’re British’ but later he opened a world of possibility – a world where I could have my own voice, a world of almost limitless creativity, I was hooked.”

Dan, now a professional saxophonist and tutor himself, was taught right through to grade eight by Ray, and said he also learned how to teach himself from Ray.

“Ray taught me about encouragement,” Dan said. “He never criticised what I played on a solo, some pointers in the right direction, certainly, but never a harsh word when I was pushing the limits on expression.

“I remember in my early 20s, as a full-time professional musician, in the Royal Oak, Poulton, as Ray and the recently-departed Jimmy Thompson held a ‘two tenors battle’. It was the first time I’d heard Ray play in the flesh, I was too young to attend his legendary gigs at the Raikes 
Parade, and hearing Ray at full pelt in a gig I realised what a privilege it was to have had this guy as a teacher.”

Dan later played live with Ray, and recalls what he believes was his tutor’s last public performance at The Villa at Wrea Green on his 80th birthday.

Fellow sax player Russell Van Den Berg also paid tribute to Ray, saying: “The reason I followed this path into music, was because when I played with Ray I felt what 
musical connection was for the first time.

“It was so profoundly spiritual it gave purpose to my spirit.

“A man behind a piano and kid on a sax, in the dim light back room of a terrace house in Blackpool 25 years ago – filled a universe with resonance and dissonance alike of music. “

“And thanks to that experience – it’s all I’ve ever continued to pursue. That connection, as Ray shone, I strive for in performance and teaching.”

Ray leaves his wife Dorothy and his stepchildren.