JJ 04/71: British Jazzmen, No. 8 – Tubby Hayes

Fifty years ago Martin C. King offered a progress report on the man regarded as 'one of our first players truly in the international class.' First published in Jazz Journal April 1971

The Tubby Hayes big band on the BBC's Jazz 625 programme

A few months ago, in the midst of its usual orgy of pictures of hairies, and banner head­lines proclaiming each one of them to be the greatest musician you’ve ever heard, the Melody Maker printed a photo of a lean-faced man in his mid-thirties, his forehead slightly lined, and his eyes a little weary – clearly a man for whom life had not been easy. Yet this was not the portrait of some world-weary person pre­pared to resign himself to fate. There was determination in that face. Here was a man who was set on conquering his problems. The caption read: ‘Tubby Hayes – keen and cheer­ful’, and those of us who knew the old Tubbs found it hard to believe that this was the same man whose portly frame had earned him the nickname Tubby, and whose tenor, soprano, flute and vibes playing had gained him the reputation of being not only one of this country’s most versatile jazz musicians, but one of our first players truly in the international class.

It is no secret that Tubby Hayes has suffered from a series of illnesses and personal problems in the last few years. Things are looking better now though and Tubbs is starting to play again. If all goes well we could be at the beginning of a new phase of his career. A look at his achievements to date makes one excited to speculate about what the future may hold for Hayes and his audience.

‘I had felt for some time that we were getting into a rut. I found the musical approach of the quintet was inhibiting my own musical develop­ment. Without wishing to jump on the “avant-garde” bandwagon, I sought a freer approach to my music’

He was playing tenor in the early 1950s, though it wasn’t until the end of this decade that he developed his own style and gained widespread recognition. The Hayes bag is essentially hard bop; people have cited Johnny Griffin and Hank Mobley as influences and there is some truth in this. Closer listening however reveals a much broader stylistic base. Although essentially a driving player with a hard, urgent tone and clean articulation, he can at times purr with the warmth of a Ben Webster, honk and squeak as poignantly as an Archie Shepp, bay with the intensity of a John Coltrane, wrap himself around a melody with the panache of a Sonny Rollins or a Stan Getz, or create a spiralling cadenza as devious and intricate as any by Paul Gonsalves. Such comparisons can be misleading though – in the final analysis what comes out of Tubby Hayes’ horn is pure Tubby Hayes, and the listener is never left in any doubt about this.

Teaming up with Ronnie Scott, Tubbs be­came co-leader of the Jazz Couriers. Their best recorded work is probably to be found on (1), a record on which all the arrangements were by Hayes. From 1962-4 Tubbs was resident at Scott’s Club with his own quintet, ‘a band’, he recalls, ‘which included some wonderful musicians and some of my closest friends.’ (2) is appropriately recorded live at Scott’s, Hayes displaying his ability on all his instruments, and being joined in the front-line by trumpeter Jimmy Deuchar. The group played at a number of major European festivals, were in a regular television series and even appeared in a film. Clearly a successful unit, so why the break-up in 1964? ‘To be quite honest’, explained Tubbs, ‘I had felt for some time that we were getting into a rut. I found the musical approach of the quintet was inhibiting my own musical develop­ment. Without wishing to jump on the “avant-garde” bandwagon, I sought a freer approach to my music’

A period of freelancing followed during which Tubbs made a number of trips to Europe and two to the States. The latter led to recording dates with American musicians. (3) includes Clark Terry on a number of tracks and is a very pleasant record, but (4), made on the second visit to America with a band including Roland Kirk and James Moody, is much more successful. Also about this time Hayes recorded with Paul Gonsalves, the bottled-up fury of the Ellingtonian tenor man contrasting nicely with the more direct style of the English player (5). Tubbs was invited to be a guest in the John Dankworth Orchestra for the recording of the Dickens suite (6) and, although he doesn’t get many solo spots, he fills his role perfectly when required to, helping Dankworth to bring his portraits of the novelist’s characters truly alive.

The mid-sixties saw Hayes expanding his talents by leading a big band that, according to Steve Voce (Jazz Journal, July 1967), ‘could carve any band in the world.’ (7) comes up with some new approaches to such classic tunes of modern jazz as Milestones, Bluesology and A Night In Tunisia. The record’s high spot is its title track 100% Proof, a piece written by Hayes as a vehicle for his tenor playing. It is however more than just a framework for blow­ing on. With a somewhat symmetrical structure and interesting chord sequence it stands up as a composition in its own right. Tubbs plays magnificently with bags of feeling and tech­nique, yet without succumbing to self-indul­gence: even in the most florid of cadenzas he never loses sight of the architecture of the piece, rather he tends to emphasise its structure.

Mexican Green: one of the most exciting LPs of modern British small-group jazz that has been made

Early in 1966 Hayes set about forming a regular group again. The first of his illnesses interrupted his plans though, but by the spring of 1967 he had a quartet established. With Mike Pyne (piano), Ron Mathewson (bass) and Tony Levin (drums) he had a first-rate oufit. Fontana recorded the group (8), allowing Hayes complete freedom in the choice of numbers and their length. The results are excellent – one of the most exciting LPs of modern British small-group jazz that has been made. For Pyne and Levin it was their first venture into a recording studio, though you’d never guess so from their impressive playing – note, for instance, the way Levin throws himself into Second City Steamer, and Pyne’s (apparently completely free) rhap­sodic introduction to Dedication To Joy. Once again though, the most interesting piece is the title track, Mexican Green. Written by Hayes, it shows how he has come to terms with the free-formers. While there is admittedly much free blowing, the piece is structured in a loose rondo form which, with its repetition of certain material (an incantatory tenor passage and a fast drum section) between the solos helps to give the piece some shape and identifiable character. Perhaps ‘loose’ is the operative word though, for as Hayes admits on the sleeve, ‘One night it lasted one hour and thirty-eight minutes, which I will agree is a bit much!’

And what of the future? Because he’s still convalescing Tubbs hasn’t returned to regular playing yet, though there’s a strong hope that he will. Meanwhile he’s concentrating on his writing which, as I’ve tried to suggest in my brief description of 100% Proof and Mexican Green, is an important aspect of his work and one which, because of his instrumental virtuo­sity, has tended to be neglected. He’s also making the most of his opportunity to listen to a wide range of records and re-think his music, ‘so if the time comes along when I feel I’m okay to go out again with a quartet’, he reported to Max Jones (Melody Maker, 15 August 1970), ‘I hope to be able to put over some pretty fresh ideas.’

Recommended records:
(1) Jazz Couriers – The Last Word. Tempo TAP 26
(2) Down in the Village. Fontana 680.998TL
(3) Tubbs in New York. Wing WL 1162
(4) Return Visit. Fontana TL5195
(5) Paul Gonsalves – Change of Setting. World Sound ST631
(6) John Dankworth – What the Dickens. Fontana TL5203
(7) 100% Proof. Fontana STL5410
(8) Mexican Green. Fontana SFJL911