Thursday, December 19, 2019

Some Thoughts On Simon Spillett's Biography of Tubby Hayes

© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Tubby Hayes' work beyond 1956 is outside the scope of this retrospective and the story of triumphant years ahead, the Jazz Couriers, the international acclaim of working and recording in America, appearing with Duke Ellington, leading his own big band and becoming a successful composer and arranger, and his untimely tragic death at the age of 38, have been told many times elsewhere. The unifying threads of Tubby Hayes' career, from its start as a teenage prodigy to its end as a youthful veteran, from his early work as a promising wunderkind to his finding a mature voice, were his enthusiasm for his art, his infectious desire to play, his supreme confidence, virtually unique in British jazz circles during his formative years, and the high affectionate regard in which he was held by colleagues and fans alike. Tubby Hayes' success was all the more remarkable when one considers the not always conducive musical environment in which he began his career. He not only became a truly world class jazzman in the somewhat bland and opaque world of 1950s Britain but his memory and music continues to be respected and revered half a century later, and deservedly so. Any one of the tracks on this anthology will convey the irrepressible urge of this truly Little Giant as he took his first strides towards jazz stardom.”
-Simon Spillett, booklet notes to Tubby Hayes: The Little Giant [ProperBox 117]

Where to begin about a biography that’s choc-a-bloc with interesting observations, analysis and cogent commentary by Simon Spillett in his The Long Shadow of the Little Giant: The Life, Work and Legacy of Tubby Hayes [Sheffield, UK/Bristol CT: Equinox Publishing LTD, 2017, Second Edition; click on the book title for order information].

Opinions, open-ended questions, other points of view abound in Simon’s richly detailed biography, many centered on whether Hayes was in fact enough of an original talent as a Jazz musician to be accorded the distinction of having “bestrode British Jazz as a colossus” or was he “... overrated, glib and superficial ….”

One thing is certain, after reading Simon’s Tubs Tale, it’s hard not to see Tubby at the center of many, if not, most of the major developments in British Modern Jazz in the 1950s and 60s.

In this sense, this book is a two-for-one treat because one gets to review the growth and development of Tubby’s career in the context of the larger British Jazz scene. And while I knew something about the former, I was aware of all-too-little about the latter.

As an added bonus, Simon provides a third dimension by paralleling Tubby’s growth as a Jazz musician with developments that were occurring in the US Jazz scene during this period.

Thus we get:

“As the reviews of Tubby's Groove had made clear, Hayes's music remained firmly within the remit of hard bop, but whilst the majority of English modern jazz musicians continued to be content to work inside the parameters that had been established by bebop a decade or so earlier, there were those in  America who were now trying to find new ways out of the formula. Bored of playing music crammed with ever more chord changes, Miles Davis had begun to experiment with simple scales - or modes - as the basis for improvisation during the late 1950s. The first album to fully document this approach was 1959's Kind Of Blue, a record of elegant and austere beauty, and an LP apparently adored by the members of the Tubby Hayes quartet. Jeff Clyne later remembered writing out Davis's 'So What' for the band.21 Davis's album had also featured John Coltrane, one of Hayes's principal inspirations, who that same year recorded Giant Steps, a set that was the very antithesis of what his boss was attempting. Rather than escaping the maze of harmony, Coltrane sought to make it ever more complex, creating complex systems of superimposed chords that required a virtuoso technique to negotiate. Tubby Hayes found the American's approach intoxicating, as he told Jazz Journal:

‘Coltrane is my favourite of all the modern tenor players - he is so original and creative. So much more creative than even the other good ones. Like Sonny Stitt for instance - Stitt plays beautifully but he has those little runs and things which have almost become cliches. Coltrane is never like that: he is always, and particularly on the freedom of his own record dates, he is always striving for something new, something original. Sometimes, he doesn't always make it - he may fluff a note here and there or play a run that doesn't quite come off - but he is always trying something new. I heard a record the other day on which he plays two or even three notes that are hard for the human ear to hear. I am sure some people will condemn it as a horrible row, but who knows to what it might lead? Some of those chord sequences he uses, such as those on Giant Steps are far in advance of anything anyone else has ever attempted. How he can play like that, at that tempo, amazes me. He explores the harmonics of the saxophone and produces those high notes which, who knows, may add another octave to the range of the tenor - and that would be an advantage.12’

Supporting these claims, when asked on the BBC's Jazz Session during 1960 which record he would nominate as an outstanding example of the direction in which he saw jazz progressing, Hayes unhesitatingly recommended Giant Steps. It was easy to understand the endorsement. The title track represented the ultimate destination of bebop's ideals: the music was intensely complex and utterly intellectual, a super-extension of all the aspects of modern jazz that had captured Hayes's imagination since the late 1940s. However, even with a player as excitingly intense as Coltrane executing it, it wasn't impossible to escape the nagging suspicion that the theory would ultimately prove to be a stylistic cul-de-sac. Bebop had put in more chords than swing musicians used. Coltrane had doubled the equation. What else could there be left to do other than repeat the formula until jazz became a genuine harmonic maze? Coltrane himself would draw similar conclusions soon after but, for the time being, Tubby Hayes had found a performer who offered the ultimate in comparative musical benchmarks.

Alongside Coltrane and Miles Davis's innovations, other ways of broadening the language of jazz were just beginning to open up. During the late 1950s Dave Brubeck had begun to incorporate unusual time signatures in order to break the dominance of regular 4/4 swing, whilst the band of Charles Mingus explored the textural qualities of the jazz ensemble in a way that was nothing short of Ellingtonian. But by far the most radical of those trying to find new freedoms was Ornette Coleman, the Texas-born alto saxophonist whose music simply abandoned the notions of pre-set harmony altogether, taking jazz back to its roots in unfettered field hollers and unconventional melodic lines.

Coleman set the jazz world on its head with this concept, with critics soon labelling his music 'free jazz! Some thought him a charlatan, others a new messiah (with titles like Tomorrow Is The Question and The Shape Of Jazz To Come, the saxophonist's albums were big on marketing polemics), but where he had indisputably proved his worth was as a composer and bandleader. Coleman had a natural feel for melody and his early compositions, such as Lonely Woman and Peace were strong enough to attract even those who found his squawky playing too much to bear, …. Like many British jazzmen, Hayes initially regarded Ornette Coleman as a joke ...”

A chronological biography rather than a thematic one, Simon’s story of Tubby’s professional and personal life unfolds through twelve chapters, eleven of which examine a playing career which lasted about two decades and ended abruptly on June 8, 1973 as a result of a failed heart valve replacement surgery. Hayes was only thirty-eight years of age. 

Most of the chapters cover two year periods which allows for through and particularized reviews of Tubby’s concerts, nightclub, radio and television appearances, and recordings, along with significant happenings in Hayes private life.

In addition to the twelve chapters, there’s a wonderfully introspective Afterword, subtitled The Lost Leader: The Legacy of Tubby Hayes, plus 30 pages of Notes and a 25-page Selected Discography which is invaluable as a play-along to help understand and underscore some of the points that Simon is making in his descriptions and explanations concerning Tubby’s music. 

Throughout his work, Simon, a talented tenor saxophonist in his own right, intersperses quotations from countless hours of interviews with surviving musicians who worked with Tubby - [he appears to have begun his research on the bio around 2005] - as well as, relevant and representative information researched from the Jazz literature.

Simon is quick to point out in his Introduction: “Writing as a musician - and specifically as a tenor saxophonist - I’ve consciously tried to ensure that the narrative doesn’t get bogged down in technical speak and musical analysis. After all, this is a book about Hayes’s life, work and legacy, not a treatise on his improvisational style or a chronology of his mouthpiece changes.”

Yet, while he doesn’t belabor it, Simon’s is an informed perspective and he really does educate the reader about the special qualities of Tubby’s musicianship. But the manner in which he does it is almost conversational, not pedagogical. 

Simon’s writing style is graced with energy, enthusiasm and erudition such that you learn about Tubby and his world almost effortlessly: he puts you in it.

Although I didn’t set foot in London until about 20 years after Tubby’s death in 1973, fortunately for me, I did have the opportunity to hear Tubby in person during a two-week stint in June, 1965 when he appeared at Shelly’s Manne Hole, a jazz club in Hollywood, California.

It all came about in a serendipitous way.

Of course, I knew about Tubby from his many recordings on Jasmine, Fontana, Carlton and other England-based labels and especially through what came to be known as “The New York Sessions,” the recordings for Columbia he made with trumpeter Clark Terry and pianist Horace Parlan’s trio [CK 45446]. 

My first listening dated back to Suite Sixteen: The Music of Victor Feldman-Big Band/Quartet/Septet [Contemporary C3541/OJCCD 1768-2] which was given to me as a gift by Victor with whom I was studying drums with at the time. Before coming to the states in 1956 to join Woody Herman’s band on vibes, Victor, who later added piano to his collection of instruments, was a featured drummer in a variety of British bands.

Thanks to Victor [and my subsequent drum teacher, Larry Bunker], I was an active participant in the Hollywood studio scene for a number of years and it was on one of these sessions with both of us playing Latin percussion instruments that Victor turned to me and said: “You coming to the gig tonight at Shelly’s?.” When I asked about it, he told me that Tubby Hayes was in town and that he world be backing him trio bassist Monty Budwig and drummer Colin Bailey [an ex-pat from Swindon].

Simon tells the story of that Tuesday opening at The Manne Hole this way - 

“Due to open his two-week engagement at Shelly s Manne-Hole on June 8th, 1965, problems awaited him the instant he stepped off the plane. Although the American Federation of Musicians had once more successfully facilitated the exchange deal and there appeared to have been no musical objections to the visit, before Hayes could officially begin work he came up against a trip wire of red tape laid down by the Department of Immigration, responsible for the issue of the necessary work permit. On his three previous visits there had been no such problem but now the department demanded that Hayes "prove his stature as a musician,"a sharp reminder of the make-or-break power of protectionist bureaucracy. The Manne-Hole's management was even reduced to brandishing Hayes's entry in Leonard Feather’s Encyclopedia of Jazz before the government men finally acquiesced, barely a few hours before his first set.

Feather himself was on hand to review the opening night, which had reunited Hayes with Victor Feldman, and offered his comments variously in DownBeat and Melody Maker, drawing a somewhat ambiguous conclusion:

‘[Hayes's] main influences appear to be pre-John Coltrane; in his sense of continuity there is something of the 1957-58 Sonny Rollins in his up-tempo work. At this writing [he] does not seem to have a strongly individual sound or style, though repeated hearings might very well alter this reaction. Regardless of this point, he does

convey an urgently compelling rhythmic sense on medium and up numbers and on such ballads as Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most, he achieves a warm mood, though the effect was weakened by an overlong series of cadenzas used as a finale.’

Another ex-pat, George Shearing, joined the band on its final set for lengthy explorations of 'Nardis' and 'Soon' and was less cautious than Feather, telling the press: "Tubby is one of the most exciting musicians to come along in years. He could make a very good living over here. In fact, I hope he'll return and never go home."

Like those he'd made to New York in previous years, the Los Angeles trip gave Hayes a useful barometer reading of the US jazz scene. Although he found the West Coast, with its concentration on studio session work, far less appealing than New York, the local musical fraternity nevertheless welcomed him with open arms, and there were a series of lengthy radio and television interviews, a situation unheard of back home. There were also other revelations that couldn't have possibly been acquired from his vantage point thousands of miles away in London. Old heroes like the former Clifford Brown tenorman Harold Land were now beginning to reflect the trends of post-Coltrane jazz and there was a clamour of local interest in the avant-garde saxophonist fohn Handy, a player yet to really make an impression on European audiences. Even Shelly Manne's venue proved to be something of a disappointment, totally unlike the smart Hollywood supper club he'd expected.

Never one of Hayes's favourite drummers, Manne himself turned out to be far more impressive in person ("so alive and swinging and sensitive, listening to what's going on") but as the run progressed it was Victor Feldman who created the most profound impact.' Deeply impressed by the domestic comfort that his former colleague now enjoyed, Hayes was agog at the workload that went into its upkeep. Feldman was rarely out of the studios, working up to fifteen hours a day on TV, film and jingle sessions covering everything from harpsichord to glockenspiel. Sitting together in the Californian sunshine, Feldman proposed that Hayes could have the same kind of existence should he move over, a suggestion that his old friend found less than attractive. Travelling halfway across the globe to become a studio musician had never been an ambition, however lucrative it might prove.

Whilst at the Manne-Hole, Leonard Feather also took the opportunity to interview Hayes about the discoveries of his visit. The saxophonist was especially keen to stress the difference in attitude found in men like Feldman, Monty Budwig and Colin Bailey to that encountered in his London colleagues: "The atmosphere over here somehow encourages a more enthusiastic attitude among musicians than I find at home. They're always ready to get on the bandstand. There's never any panic about rounding up the men to start a set."

Throughout his, for the most part, laudatory chronicle of Hayes’ career, Simon remains mindful of the following critical view:

“Was Hayes's popularity based solely on his technical ability? Was it a victory of smoke and mirrors over genuine musical substance? Had his eminence blinded many to the fact that other British jazzmen were now making far more creative music? Those who had grown heartily sick of Hayes's monopolizing ubiquity included Danny Halperin of Jazz News. Astute, assiduous and outspoken, Halperin was one of the few local journalists bold enough to suggest that, when all was said and done, Hayes was in fact little more than a highly effective musical synthesizer. "Tubby has everything in abundance," he opined in the magazine's December 13th issue, "except the kind of restraint that might keep him from indulging in endless strings of meaningless, repetitive choruses." This was by no means the last time Halperin would single out Hayes for criticism, but he had a point: British modern jazz was in danger of becoming almost a parody, not only of American styles, but of itself.”

And while he does his best to factually dispel this negative view, Simon is fair in giving it credence where appropriate in an effort to offer a balanced and objective treatment of all phases and aspects of Tubby’s career.

In this regard, I found the following insights from Simon’s Afterword to be particularly probing about Tubby place in the larger scheme of things:

“Virtually all of Hayes's obituaries had stressed the world-class quality of his musical talent, with one calling him "the most eminent European jazz soloist." [July 1973 JazzJournal] However, the problem in making any genuine assessment of his gifts was that they have become almost inextricably linked to the romance and folklore of his life story - the chubby teenager who'd blown Ronnie Scott off the stage; the only British soloist authentic enough to export to the USA; the parochial saxophone colossus cut down too early. Even in the twenty-first century, he is still frequently described as "Britain's greatest jazzman," a point that misses the glaringly obvious fact that his career goals were anything but dictated by localism.

So what exactly had he done to elevate himself to this unique position and moreover why had his talents stood out so prominently among those of an entire musical generation that had prided itself on its high standards? The answers lie not in any ability to create a startlingly new jazz voice, but rather in his gift for doing what others did, but so much better. Indeed, sheer professionalism lies at the heart of virtually everything Hayes ever achieved. Right from the off, he had an uncanny knack for unlocking the cypher of modern jazz. In the early 1950s, he was smack inside the language of men such as Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and the school of "Brothers" who'd emerged from Lester Young's example. Fast-forward to the late 1950s, and the music he made with the lazz Couriers, both as a writer and a player, revealed an equally keen understanding of the methods of hard bop, one that would only deepen further still during the early 1960s. The purple patch of recording that ensued from this point - a period roughly outlined by the albums Tubby's Groove and Return Visit - undoubtedly captured Hayes at his career peak. Everything he had worked for was now finally in place: international respect via work in the USA, the immaculate virtuoso technical skill unmatched by any other UK jazzmen, the multi-instrumentalism, the formidable composing and arranging skill. Above all, Hayes had won the respect and admiration of the vast majority of his listeners and fellow musicians, a remarkable achievement in the sometimes fractious world of British jazz.

The most frequently heard compliment about his playing at this juncture was that it sounded "like an American," leaving Hayes in the peculiar position of appearing both a benchmark and an anomaly. Clearly world-class, he nevertheless remained the centrepiece of a very British jazz scene, often judged by the same harsh standards that were applied to some of his less
able contemporaries. Thus began the oft-heard criticisms of his improvisation containing "too many notes." His garrulous delivery lacked any real substance, some writers maintained. To his credit, Hayes remained largely unmoved by even his sternest detractors. As someone who already possessed a generous helping of self-confidence, he wasn't the kind of person to take it to heart and rarely justified himself in print. After all, if players like Johnny Griffin, Sonny Rollins and Stan Getz considered you an equal, why bother to respond to a petty, non-playing critic sniping from an ivory tower?

The changes that began to transform the British music scene during the mid-1960s, however, were much less easily brushed aside. Hayes was not above vanity and, after a decade of having things pretty much as he wished, the seismic alterations of the post-rock and roll world did not sit easy. When rhythm and blues began to slide into jazz clubs in London, and then took them over, the crowds of adoring fans went elsewhere. Ronnie Scott's was now presenting the "real deal" - genuine American jazzmen - and, despite that fact that without Hayes such a situation certainly wouldn't have existed at all, he began to find himself sidelined. Added to this, the rise of new styles - both inside and outside jazz - presented another threat. Ornette Coleman mystified him. The Beatles irritated him, and even old heroes such as John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins seemed to have lost something in their pursuit of the outer reaches.

Nevertheless, adversity is often a traditional fuel for artistic creativity and with his new band of Mike Pyne, Ron Mathewson and Tony Levin, Hayes now came up with a compromised music that took on board some of the innovations of the day, albeit one that still contained enough of him to be recognizable. The album made by this band, Mexican Green, is frequently cited as Hayes's true musical masterpiece - and it is. All the elements that he mastered are present - the burnout tempos, the lyrical balladry, the naturally sophisticated sense of harmony - but there were also enough new things present to prove that change wasn't all bad. The collective improvisation on the title track alone proved hands down that Hayes was refusing to stand still. Indeed, when more than one critic posthumously compared his musical journey to that of his idol John Coltrane, it wasn't just expedient flattery.

The two men had a great deal in common. Their careers had both been alarmingly brief and both had suffered at the hands of critics fond of using their considerable technical skills as sticks with which to beat them. If Hayes ultimately lacked Coltrane's visionary zeal, he nonetheless displayed a similar appetite for self-development. Coltrane had been forced to reconsider his approach in the wake of men such as Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, and Hayes did the same, never quite travelling as far as his hero (on record at least) but clearly prepared to abandon some of what he'd taken as rote in order to annex new ground.

There is another point of comparison to be made with Coltrane. Lionized as the American is for his later music, and for the spiritual quest so overtly
and inextricably linked with it, he is still perhaps best remembered for the intimidatingly complex super-developments of bebop harmony which he had pioneered in the late 1950s. Indeed, even in the early twenty-first century, nearly fifty years after his death, a college-trained saxophone student is more likely to zone in on this part of his legacy - the Giant Steps phase - than try to unlock the mystical cypher of records such as Om and Expression.

One final parallel exists. Just as A Love Supreme has sometimes obscured the fact that Coltrane's earlier albums actually contain more diverse - and at times more engrossing - music, the vaunted reputation of Mexican Green may have inadvertently done a disservice to some of Tubby Hayes's earlier work. It remains - without qualification - an exceptional record, and is perhaps the first recorded instance of Hayes working with local players unilaterally suited to his aspirations; but in some ways it stands somewhat outside the rest of his discography. It is his last pure jazz album, a record that points towards a further development that ultimately never came, but that also ironically looks backwards at the same time. In fact, the piece on the album that best exemplifies the folkloric legend of Tubby Hayes - saxophone virtuoso - is not the open-ended title track but The Second City Steamer, a performance typical of the hard bop workouts he'd indulged in earlier in the decade.

Now is also a better time to evaluate just how "authentic" Hayes really was. Although it remains possible to argue that via a combination of factors
-  poor engineering, uninterested record labels and bad timing among them
-  he never really made an album that consistently captured what he did at its best, there is no doubting the impact Hayes could have at a live gig. The music recently unearthed from gigs at venues such as the Dancing Slipper, the Hopbine and others has confirmed that in general he operated at his best away from the confines of the recording studio. This situation was by no means peculiar to British musicians - one need only look at the discography of Sonny Rollins to see something similar - but even these candid releases reveal the axis on which Hayes's music had always wobbled. Listening to the best of British jazz from the 1950s to the 1970s, be it by Tony Kinsey or Alan Skidmore - to pick two extremes - and there is rarely any doubt about the country of origin. To make so sweeping a statement might seem a little like critical suicide, or at the very least require a lengthy technical caveat to qualify it, but in some almost unfathomable way, it remains a truism.”

Well-researched and well-written, Tubby Hayes is very fortunate to have had his story told by Simon Spillett. It isn’t often that the story-teller is as engaging as the story being told. The Long Shadow of the Little Giant: The Life, Work and Legacy of Tubby Hayes [Sheffield, UK/Bristol CT: Equinox Publishing LTD, 2017, Second Edition] is one of those times.

One can only hope that Simon will turn his considerable skills as a biographer of Jazz musicians to other deserving British Jazz players like Ronnie Scott, Jimmy Deuchar, and Gordon Beck. Of course, if his focus should include Victor Feldman as a future subject, I have a 100+ page manuscript ready to contribute to such a project!

As a point in passing, many of Tubby’s earliest recordings have been collected in Tubby Hayes: The Little Giant [ProperBox 117] a four disc set which includes a 44 page illustrated booklet for which Simon wrote the text. The photos that populate this piece are drawn from it] 

The above video mix that is drawn from the recordings that Hayes made with fellow-tenor saxophonist Ronnie Scott when the two fronted The Couriers of Jazz quintet. Although, I’m a fan of most of the periods of Tubby’s music, his recordings with Ronnie are my favorites. The following quotation from Steve Voce writing in the July, 1969, edition of JazzJournal gets at some of the reasons for this preference.

“Scott's tenor playing has always made an interesting comparison with Tubby Hayes, as has been shown when they've worked together. Whereas Hayes is a more pyrotechnic player who makes full use of his fluency, Scott has a more direct and solid approach, his pithy tone and more angular phrasing producing the same results as Tubbys restless agility. In the welter of Griffin, Rollins and Henderson-inspired tenors of today, it probably escapes a lot of listeners that Ronnie and Tubby are thoroughbred romantics in the line of Getz, Hawkins and Webster, as well as supplementing their styles from the music of later men.”

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