Simon Spillett is an acclaimed British saxophonist in his 40s who first encountered Tubby Hayes, his once dominant, widely-known British tenor sax/flute/vibes modern jazz forebear, on a mid-80s rebroadcast of a 1965 ‘Jazz 625’ episode featuring Hayes’ occasional big band. Tubby had died, aged 38 – from a combination of a heart valve problem and an excessive lifestyle of ‘addictive tendencies’ that had effectively reduced his body’s ability to recover from two heart operations – and by the mid-80s, despite being a figure of legend in the British jazz world, almost none of his many recordings were in print.
As time went on, Spillett wondered why nobody had written a biography of not only so important but so widely documented a musician but so richly colourful a figure. Summing up the key aspects of Tubby’s legacy at the end of this superbly researched and concisely, even-handedly and beautifully written book, Spillett suggests that one such is a ‘can-do’ attitude ‘from which we can still learn much of value’. He quotes Tubbs himself on this, from 1963, the point at which his seemingly inexorable progress – and with it the aspirations of the whole British modern jazz community – was being challenged by the overwhelming change in the weather brought in by the Beatles: ‘It’s no good waiting for somebody to put something in your lap. You’ve got to go out and do it for yourself.’ Amen to that, says Simon, and I agree.
Spillett himself has done just that: he has put what I clearly recognise as a huge amount of time and effort into chronicling not only Tubby’s extraordinary, prodigious career but has in the process told a great part of the story of British modern jazz in the later 50s and on through the attrition of the 60s into the splintered world of the 70s – all faded yellows, browns and hopes. Free improvisation (the much-vaunted ‘New Thing’ of the middle 60s) was retreating back into the margins, jazz-rock was momentarily on the rise (albeit a busted flush before the decade’s end) and there was little promise of much sustenance for old-school modern jazzers like Tubby, once the enfant terrible of the Ronnie Scott/Johnny Dankworth generation – a man influenced by Charlie Parker and middle-period John Coltrane – and now in danger of being a has-been. Even Stan Tracey, another of the three or four greatest British jazzmen of the 60s, was signing on the dole by then.
Tubby *did* try and keep up with the times, and try and draw something from the free-improv people, late Coltrane and pop/rock (he couldn’t quite get the Beatles, but one quote suggests he was prepared to think there might be something in some of their later, experimental compositions that jazzers could develop). The title track of his 1967-recorded/1968-released LP ‘Mexican Green’ – an album often described as his definitive single statement – showed him exploring the then-new ideas in jazz, over 12 minutes; live versions pushed half an hour. Frustratingly, it had to wait over a year to appear, with a 1966 big band recording coming out under his name in the Summer of Love instead, with critics wondering why he was sounding so passé. He even joined a brief early 70s sextet, ‘Splinters’, with the likes of arch free improvisers John Stevens and Trevor Watts (yes, there’s a posthumous live CD). But peers quoted in Spillett’s book are of mixed opinions as to whether his heart was really in these explorations away from the core of jazz harmony and chords.
There had been seismic changes in jazz during his 23 year career (1950-73), both musically and in terms of the infrastructure necessary to make a living in Britain as a jazz-based musician – regardless of wider societal changes. As Spillett eloquently puts it in an endnote to his Afterword:
‘Edward Brian Hayes had been born a child of the mid-1930s and grown up in a Britain at war, and which still had an Empire. The Britain he died in in 1973 was quite different, a land of power cuts, glam-rock and ‘Love Thy Neighbour’. Although it had survived rather than thrived, British jazz was among the post-war success stories; it was never out of the woods for long, and the financial privations its musicians faced would never really go away, nor would their ever again be the kind of work-on-tap, both in jazz and heavily jazz-related [music], that had proliferated in the 1950s and ‘60s, but in terms of its confidence and diversity of aims things had never been healthier.’
In short, there had once been plenty of work in a combination of pub gigs, commercial work (dance bands), TV/radio appearances and studio sessions, albeit a fairly scratched living for most and schlepps up and down the country in draughty vans in pre-Motorway days, whereas by the mid-70s the commercial work and broadcasts were fewer and the pub circuit diminished, though it has survived to this day as pretty much the backbone of a British jazz scene. Nevertheless, opportunities opened up in Europe (several of Tubby’s late gigs were in Scandinavia), and the perennial angst of British jazzers constantly feeling inferiority to “the Americans” (as US jazz players, rarely seen in Britain until the 1960s, were universally termed, as if they were creatures of myth and magic) became a non-issue.
What also changed, for the better, was that the use of hard drugs in British jazz seemed to become a thing of the past too – Tubby being one of those who had an issue with it, even getting busted by Inspector Pilcher, in between his bothering of Donovan, Beatles, Stones, et al. (Spillett tells an amusing anecdote of Pilcher turning up at Tubbs’ place one day, in what seems from this remove to be a series of fishing expeditions/pure harassment, and managing to put his foot in it, literally: ‘Excuse me officer, you’re standing in my meat pie…’!)
Simon manages to paint a compelling warts and all portrait, with substantial testimony from surviving colleagues and family members as well as deft filtering of the large body of contemporaneous interviews and reviews from the maestro’s career, and the benefit of his musician’s ear and layman’s communication skills on seemingly every scrap of extant Hayes audio – commercial recordings, broadcasts and bootlegs/private recordings.
Remarkably, as of today, there is more of Hayes’ work commercially available than ever before, even within his lifetime. There are currently only two of his album releases that has never appeared on CD and one of those is due out soon, through Spillett’s efforts. (As an aside, I’ve mentioned the other one to a reissue label, and all being well, we shall have that on CD by year’s end. The only album on which we hear Tubby playing something by those dratted Beatles…) There has also been a slew of authorised archive releases, including almost all (as far as I can tell) of his extant BBC recordings as well as carefully selected gigs or compilations of gig extracts, such as 2010’s ‘Lament’ CD – which I’m listening to online as I write – including four extended, and thrilling performances from four gigs at the same venue in Kent spanning 1967-70.
Lamentably, one has to move fast in the world of collecting these releases: the ‘Lament’ CD is now out of print as a physical item, although downloads are available. Less happily, if you wanted to hear the only evidence of the short-lived version of Tubbs’ quartet with Danny Thompson on bass, ‘Live At The Dancing Slipper’ (2007), you’d have to pay £35+ for a second-hand copy. (Thompson, incidentally, appears not to have given Spillett an interview. I would imagine he was asked.) Still, collecting Tubby Hayes’ music is, as the man himself might be amused to learn, can be an addictive tendency. I did pick up for only a few pounds a second-hand copy of the Ian Hamer Sextet’s ‘Acropolis’, being several very late-period BBC sessions featuring Tubby, albeit the contents’ provenance disguised, and it’s fascinating to hear Tubby playing in something akin to a Nucleus-lite jazz-rock context on a few numbers.
Spillett’s book, with an extensive discography – and the promise of a stand-alone book to come around a still more extensive presentation of Tubby’s discography – will undoubtedly do much to fuel further interest in the little fat man and his amazing music.
I would recommend this book not only to jazz buffs but *anyone* interested in a well-written music biography and the ‘Swinging Sixties’. Tubby was, in a way, a king of the Mods who somehow fell out of fashion, but who was a pioneer in many ways and a prodigy on his instrument(s). Whether he was a genius or simply a natural with extraordinary drive and energy, who galvanised a be-suited movement and did everything possible to take modern jazz into the mainstream in Britain – an art form as entertainment, ultimately to be defeated by the mass pop/rock explosion (entertainment that in due course arguably became, in some hands, an art form) – is up for argument. Spillett doesn’t use the G word, and isn’t short of criticism when warranted, but Hayes’ achievements, as a pioneer, and a geographically isolated world-class musician/composer/arranger in a prejudiced African-American-centric world are incredible – and it can all be heard and enjoyed to this day. Add the context, so ably provided by Spillett’s book, and it’s fascinating, but even without the context it is simply music that very often stands on its own feet as wonderful music. And his band members are often themselves hugely exciting, particularly the late 60s quartet with Tony Levin on drums.
Pete Brown and Jack Bruce’s ‘Theme For An Imaginary Western’, written as a mythologised musical memoir of the Graham Bond Organisation carving out a path for the blues-rockers of the later 60s, comes to mind as much for Tubby as those guys. It was an exciting time: it was a hard slog with no text book. Nowadays it’s ‘jazz education’ and Arts Council funding. I know which of the two draws me in.
Length of Read:Long
Might appeal to people who enjoyed…
Jazz Britannia (BBC4 doc)
One thing you’ve learned
The only reason to play jazz for a living is because you ‘have to’. Otherwise, it’s madness. Particularly so in Britain in the 60s.