By Simon Spillett

Equinox Publishing. 377 pages. £19.99. ISBN 978-1-78179-173-8

Reviewed by Jim Burns

British modern jazz of the 1945-1960 period has never really been given the attention it deserves. One or two books have been published about someone like Ronnie Scott, and a scattering of articles in jazz magazines have tried to draw attention to certain of the musicians active in the years referred to. There have been CD re-issues of some of the sounds produced by those musicians, though much still remains in the vaults, if it has survived at all. And it’s a fact that, when it was being played, most British jazz was looked on as an imitation of what was coming out of New York and Los Angeles. I have to be honest, and admit that in the 1950s I bought LPs by American jazzmen and rarely, if ever, thought of purchasing any by our home-grown players. Even when I heard them live it was, on a number of occasions, when they were on the same bill as visiting Americans. There were some practical reasons for this, the main one being that money was tight and I had to limit what I spent   to cover a few essential records and tickets for concerts which featured Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz. An LP re-issue of some sides by Charlie Parker was always going to take precedence over one by, say, Johnny Dankworth. And the chance of seeing Gillespie and Getz on stage was, it seemed to me at the time, more important than visiting Manchester to listen to Jimmy Deuchar or Don Rendell in a little jazz club.   

I did, however, see and hear quite a few British jazzmen over the years, among them the tenor-saxophonist Tubby Hayes. I saw the Jazz Couriers (the group he formed with Ronnie Scott) more than once, and I recall hearing Hayes in one of the London clubs, though the intervening years have pushed its name from my memory. But recollections of my encounters with Hayes and his music came flooding back as I read Simon Spillett’s entertaining biography of him.

Hayes was born Edward Brian Hayes in 1935 and, by the age of sixteen was skilled enough as a saxophonist to be playing in a group led by Kenny Baker, a leading British trumpeter. Hayes wasn’t among the first wave of British musicians to be influenced by the new sounds of bebop which were then filtering through from America. Ronnie Scott, Johnny Dankworth, and others, were keen enough to want to know more about the music being produced by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker that they took jobs with the bands playing on cross-Atlantic liners so that they could get to New York and hear it live and not only on records. But Hayes was influenced by the music he heard on 78s. Spillett says that the first Charlie Parker record that Hayes owned was a 78 of “Stupendous.” I can’t resist mentioning here that it was the first Parker record I bought and was one side of a Parlophone disc, the other side being Howard McGhee’s “High Wind in Hollywood.” Both tracks appeared to me to be totally representative of the new.

If Hayes was quickly picking up on bebop when he was very young, he was hardly making a mark as a pupil at the school he attended. By the time he was fifteen he had left school and was working in a local band, though its musical range didn’t encompass much more than “weddings, tea-dances and suburban youth clubs.” When he did get the opportunity to perform in the West End he appears to have also embarked on a long career of heavy drinking. As Spillett puts it: “Having now entered a tough, adult profession wherein seasoned players would expect a newcomer to prove his mettle in all sorts of ways, Tubby Hayes was growing up as fast as a hothouse flower.” Growing up fast was, as his later life would show, to have had a major effect on his health.

There’s a chapter in Spillett’s book where he talks about what life was like in the early 1950s for those musicians working with touring bands like Kenny Baker’s. Distances between venues were affected by the fact that the motorway system hadn’t then been developed. Accommodation was often fairly basic – Vic Ash recalled a boarding house in Manchester where the bandleader had his own room but the rest had to bunk down in a dormitory with eight beds in it: “You can imagine the grunts and groans and odours during the night.”  And “the lethal food served by the nation’s transport cafes” added to the problems that youngsters like Ash and Hayes had to contend with as they attempted to carve out a career as professional musicians. Drinking and smoking were part of the routine of life on the road, and Spillett points to the opportunities for casual sex as some female fans “would make themselves readily available.” It could be an exhausting life, in more ways than one, and there’s an account of Hayes passing out when the Baker band was appearing at the Winter Gardens in Ventnor. Reports at the time said that it was due to “the effects of heat,” which may have been a polite way of putting it.

Hayes worked his way through other bands, including those led by Roy Fox and Tito Burns, though neither offered wide opportunities for him to display his skills as a jazz soloist. Burns did have a track record as one of the first bandleaders to try to introduce bop to a wider public than that found in a few jazz clubs in London and one or two other major cities. But by 1952 or so he was struggling to stay solvent and so had to compromise with the music his group could play. As for Hayes, he was beginning to make something of a name for himself as a jazz soloist in clubs in the capital, and Spillett states that he was often working with leading British modernists. He mentions Ronnie Scott, Leon Calvert, Joe Harriott, Les Condon, Victor Feldman, and Dickie Devere, as among them. But it was a small world and the “now forgotten suburban venues” that Spillett refers to were often little more than a room in a pub, despite having names like the Robin’s Nest, the Royal Roost, and the Lion’s Den. It was probably around this time that Hayes began to dabble with “stimulants other than alcohol,” according to one of his friends.

Still, Hayes was beginning to come to the attention of musicians and fans. He worked with leading orchestras like Ambrose and Vic Lewis, and it was with the latter that he was a featured soloist and first appeared on records. In 1954 he joined drummer Jack Parnell’s lively band and it was while it was working at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool that Hayes and his wife were arrested for possession of cannabis. I can recall the reports in the press at the time and how unusual it all seemed, drug use not then being something that was known to be prevalent among British jazz musicians. Phil Seamen, also with Parnell, was a heroin addict, and there had been some notoriety surrounding the raid on the Club Eleven in 1949. I was later to get to know about casualties like Tommy Pollard and Dickie Devere, but as an eighteen year old provincial jazz fan in 1954 I thought of drug addiction as something mostly related to certain American musicians.

By the mid-1950s Hayes had formed a musical relationship with trumpeter Jimmy Deuchar and together they played jazz that was, in Spillett’s words, “already firmly rooted in the hard bop vein.” They were heavily influenced by the records that were beginning to be released by specialist labels like Esquire and Vogue, and it was occasionally said of Hayes that his playing too often tended to respond to the latest styles coming from America. He wasn’t alone in this among British jazz musicians and throughout the 1940s and 1950s most British modern jazz, good as it sometimes was, inevitably sounded like a copy of American sounds. Hayes, earlier in the 1950s, had clearly listened to records by Stan Getz, Wardell Gray, and others, insofar as they were available, and would later be influenced by Sonny Rollins. By the mid-1950s LPs were becoming easier to obtain and with their capacity to allow musicians to take longer solos they became of key, if not always beneficial, importance in terms of how they affected British jazzmen. Long solos can often be boring.

The band that Hayes formed and took on the road faced the usual problem of having to cater for audiences that were not necessarily attuned to modern jazz. Spillett provides a useful list of the venues it appeared at during April and part of May, 1955, and as he remarks, it “wasn’t exactly chock- full of outstanding jazz dates.” Bassist Pete Blannin later recalled how the pressure was on to play for dancers rather than the probably small number of people who were there to hopefully hear some jazz. There were personal issues, too, that caused problems. Hayes was said to be self-centred and “liked to get his own way about everything,” Blannin thought, and trumpeter Dickie Hawdon reckoned he was “a bit of a hooligan” and more interested in having a good time than in looking after the business side of running a band. But Hawdon also said that “It was a lovely shouting little band,” and Jack Sharpe, who played baritone-saxophone, claimed that “Tubby’s band on the road was an education I would not have missed for anything. One of the happiest periods of my life.”

Besides touring with his own band Hayes continued to play in jazz clubs, often with Jimmy Deuchar, and to record for the Tempo label which, in the 1950s, offered opportunities for British modernists to show what they could do. Luckily, recent years have seen much of the Tempo catalogue re-issued by Jasmine and Properbox, and so allowed listeners to re-evaluate the music that players like Hayes, Deuchar, Dizzy Reece, Ronnie Scott, and others, turned out. It’s true that the American influence is always noticeable, but even so many of the tracks are eminently listenable and a few can stand alongside most of what was being produced elsewhere at the time. I think it is correct to say that British rhythm-sections were sometimes a problem, and heavy-handed drumming can be heard on many records, just as I recall it could in the clubs. Dynamics were not always a major concern. And, with regard to Hayes himself, there were frequent complaints that he often played too much, too fast. I have to admit that my own reactions to his work did include this criticism. I listened in vain for the pauses and silences that can add tension to a performance. There are moments when what you don’t hear can be almost as important as what you do hear. Hayes boisterous personality seemed to incline him towards filling in every gap, rather like someone who wants to dominate a conversation.

The Hayes band eventually collapsed as a result of “the lack of suitable work, surfeit of unscrupulous promoters, and an ever-decreasing jazz content.”  There was also the rise of rock-and-roll to contend with. Younger audiences took to the music immediately. It was suitable for dancing and didn’t involve musicians taking long, complicated solos. It also put the emphasis on singers. And from the point of view of anyone running a dance-hall or club it was cheaper to hire a three or four piece rock group than it was to bring in a nine-piece jazz outfit. Spillett does a neat job of explaining why audiences turned to rock-and-roll. Not all jazzmen were averse to jumping on the bandwagon and drummer Tony Crombie, an early activist in the bebop revolution, formed a group called The Rockets which was popular for a short period. Individual jazzmen also benefited by being brought in for recording sessions which required some brisk backing work. Hayes and Ronnie Scott, for example, were members of Art Baxter’s Rock and Roll Sinners on at least one such occasion.

In 1957 Hayes and Scott formed what was one of the more-successful British groups, The Jazz Couriers, a two-tenor and rhythm outfit, with Hayes also sometimes playing vibraphone, and Jimmy Deuchar occasionally added to the line-up. There were questions raised about the group’s overall approach and Spillett says that critics zoned in “on Hayes and Scott’s propensity to cram their solos with endless streams of notes and the group’s general preoccupation with appearing hip.” But he qualifies such comments by pointing out “that the bustling energy of the Couriers’ music came as a refreshing wake-up call to those who’d grown used to the more reserved charms of other local jazz units.” That “bustling energy” is certainly what sticks in my mind when I think back to the late-1950s, though I also had some sympathy with those who found the “endless streams of notes” a little overwhelming. Even Ronnie Scott later acknowledged that he had doubts about his partner’s technical proficiency: “There was always a but with me with Tubby. I don’t know what you’d call it. It was like you turned a switch and bang, it was always there, a bit – mechanical.”  

His marriage having broken up Hayes’s personal life was chaotic and sharing a flat with Phil Seamen, a noted junkie, and tenorman Bobby Wellins, who would soon have addiction problems of his own, wasn’t likely to lead to it getting any better. When the Jazz Couriers finally called it a day in 1959 Hayes worked around the clubs with his own quartet and made a number of records. He appeared in the film, All Night Long, with Charles Mingus, Dave Brubeck, and others, and finally achieved his ambition of performing in a New York jazz club. His playing was known to American musicians who had worked in Britain, and Zoot Sims, in particular, helped to promote the idea of Hayes being hired to work at the Half Note. Sims, Al Cohn, and critic Dan Morgenstern, all spoke warmly of Hayes soloing. But returning to the limits of the British jazz scene was something of a let-down. It involved the usual visits to the remaining jazz clubs around London and trips to places like Liverpool, Leeds, Glasgow and Birmingham for one-night stands with his quartet.

The appearance by John Coltrane and his group in London in late-1961 certainly shook up the locals. I was at the concert in Kilburn on November 11th, 1961, and I’ll not try to pretend that I was impressed or converted by Coltrane’s work. I had gone there primarily to see and hear Dizzy Gillespie, who was leading the other group on the programme, and Coltrane’s long solo on “My Favourite Things” frankly left me floundering. I remember someone in front of me arriving around twenty minute late for the start of Coltrane’s performance and asking the person next to him what the first number was like. “This is the first number” was the cryptic reply. Spillett’s description of how Hayes reacted to Coltrane that night reassures me that a non-musician like myself wasn’t alone in finding Coltrane difficult to understand.

There were attempts by Hayes and his advisers to broaden the appeal of his music as The Beatles and other pop groups increasingly dominated the airwaves, though they were probably doomed to failure from the start. Spillett is interesting in his summary of how, by the mid-1960s, pop groups had not only taken over musically, but had also affected the lives of those who listened to them: “The Beatles were no longer simply a band, they were a way of life, a cult transforming the lives of those who followed them in the same catalytic way that Charlie Parker had once transformed young jazz musicians.”  I have my doubts about that, but they may be those of a jazz fan who found it hard to accept that pop music might have that sort of importance or influence.

Hayes continued to keep busy with both jazz and session work (he played flute on a Matt Monro record, to take one example of his non-jazz efforts) and he toured on the Continent and visited the USA again. But in London the outlets for jazz were drying up. He was drinking heavily and began to turn to hard drugs like heroin and cocaine for the stimulation he needed. Or did they offer an escape from the frustrations, both musical and personal, he felt? In addition, his health was in decline and he was diagnosed with a thrombosis which affected not only his legs but also his lung function. And the critical response to his music could sometimes be harsh. Brian Priestley , writing in Jazz Monthly, had this to say: “I’m bound to admit that  I find it almost impossible to write about objectively about Hayes’s solo work simply because, after years of hearing him live and recorded, I seem to have acquired a built in resistance to the Instant Boredom he usually offers. No sooner does he start one of his marathons that I find I’m concentrating on the rhythm section, or reading the menu, or studying my fingernails.”

There were problems in 1968 when his flat was raided by police and he was arrested and charged with possession of diamorphine. The details were  widely reported in the national press. Tragedy was not far away, either, and Hayes’s girlfriend, a singer named Joy Marshall, and like him a drug user, died from an overdose of barbiturates. The news hit him badly, because although their relationship had been stormy, and they were not a couple at the time of her death, the pair did have things in common beyond drug use and Hayes had been genuinely fond of her. He continued to work when and where he could, but collapsed in 1970 when appearing at a club in Birmingham. He was taken into hospital and placed under observation for what was referred to as an “unidentified infection.” It had affected his heart, lungs and liver, and was probably caused by an earlier use of a dirty needle, though no-one seemed to be certain and it was suggested that an unclean razor blade could just as easily been the culprit. The infection had most likely been there for some time and was “triggered by Hayes’s inconsistent lifestyle.” He was hospitalised for fifteen weeks.

The remaining years of his life were not particularly happy ones. He was found to have a defective heart valve and needed an operation to replace it. When he eventually left hospital he spent some time recuperating and then returned to playing and worked with Bill Le Sage and Hank Shaw in a group called the Bebop Preservation Society. He also made a short tour of Scandinavia which included appearances in Gothenberg, Oslo, and Stockholm. Reports said that he’d stopped smoking, was drinking only moderate amount of light wine and beer, but still had problems when walking and had to amend the way he played to take account of his breathing difficulties.

Back in Britain in the early-1970s it was the usual round of clubs in pubs in Islington, Stockwell, Clerkenwell, and other London districts. As Spillett describes it: “The big names of the Brit-Bop generation – Stan Tracey, Phil Seamen, Hayes – had all now become fixtures on this scene, existing under the radar of a jazz press fascinated with the latest developments in fusion.” But Hayes was not a well-man and when Phil Seamen died at the age of forty-six, his body damaged by the years of drug taking, he remarked to a fellow-musician, “It’ll be me next.” He continued to work, but by 1973 it was becoming obvious that he wouldn’t be able to function much longer as a musician. Spillett’s account of Hayes struggling and failing to get a sound out of his saxophone prior to going on stage at a gig in Brighton makes for harrowing and moving reading. He had to be admitted into hospital again as the replacement heart valve that had been fitted earlier was failing. An attempt was made to substitute another valve and it seemed to have been successful, but Hayes died in the operating theatre: “His blood pressure was too low and his body simply too worn down to be brought round.”

How good was Tubby Hayes? He was clearly a major player on the British scene, though the consensus of opinion seems to be that he was more of an inspiration than an influence. Musicians who worked in his various groups spoke of his capacity to push them into playing better. But he didn’t create a school of saxophonists playing in his style, perhaps because, like Hayes himself, younger jazzmen looked to the USA for their influences. There is, too, the accusation that he often played too fast for too long. In this respect, it could be that we may not have heard him at his best. There’s a revealing comment by drummer Alan Ganley which is worth quoting in full:

“Sometimes on the stand it was like ‘Look how fast I can play and for how long’ which is open-mouthed stuff but not always as musical as he could play when he just relaxed and didn’t bother about creating an impression. He was a showman, a natural showman, but when you’d get him in a situation where it was just a few guys hanging around and someone would just start playing, he could be much more relaxed. The best I’d ever heard him play would be at a party, an after-hours thing where he wasn’t trying to impress.”

Simon Spillett has written a book about Tubby Hayes that tells us a great deal about the man and his music, and about British modern jazz generally.  It’s closely researched, with ample notes and a useful discography. And it made me want to listen again to Hayes and all the other musicians we perhaps didn’t fully appreciate in the 1950s and 1960s.