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Book Review

The Long Shadow of the Little Giant: The Life, Work and Legacy of Tubby Hayes


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The Long Shadow of the Little Giant: The Life, Work and Legacy of Tubby Hayes
Simon Spillett
376 Pages
ISBN: #13 978 1 78179 1738
Equinox Publishing Ltd.

Tenor saxophonist, author, and discographer Simon Spillett spent a decade writing The Long Shadow of the Little Giant: The Life, Work and Legacy of Tubby Hayes. Employing a wealth of interviews from Hayes' colleagues (some of whom he has performed with) and fans, an abundance of articles and reviews mostly from British journalists, as well as evincing a sharp, critical view of his subject's music, Spillett presents a meticulously researched and engagingly written piece of work about a figure whose music and story may have escaped the notice of many jazz fans.

Hayes was a tenor saxophonist (he also recorded on several other instruments) composer, arranger, and bandleader who towered over the British modern jazz scene for much of his twenty-three year career. He was welcome throughout Europe, and regarded by many American musicians and critics as equal to nearly every living tenor player before his untimely death in 1973. What separates this biography from run-of-the-mill efforts in which an author offers an endless, ultimately numbing stream of names, dates, gigs, awards, and inside stories about the cream of the jazz crop, is Spillett's ability to convey the significance of Hayes' developing a formidable voice outside of the confines of America, in a country that wasn't particularly receptive to modern jazz.

The book possesses a restless, dialectical quality that suits Hayes' life, times and legacy. Spillett does a brilliant job of capturing the uncertainties of Hayes' professional and personal existence, deftly elucidating a constant juxtaposition of obstacles and triumphs. The uneasy, often contentious relationship between art and entertainment, commerce and art, career fulfillment and interpersonal relationships, as well as the press's role in evaluating an artist's work—all familiar to any close observer of twentieth-century jazz—are in evidence throughout nearly every chapter. Moreover, Spillett patiently explains the strategies that Hayes employed in an attempt to keep his career on a progressive course.

Not unlike his American counterparts, particularly those who came of age, musically speaking, in the 1930s and 40s, early on Hayes worked at finding an identity as a jazz musician while playing in high profile dance bands which featured a jazz selection or two. Apart from the influence of British modern jazzmen, tenor saxophonist Ronnie Scott and trumpeter Jimmy Deuchar, Hayes based his style on the work of American musicians, including but not limited to Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Hank Mobley, and John Coltrane. Hayes was a highly ambitious man with an indefatigable work ethic, who constantly strived to keep up with the latest trends, even dipping a big toe into the 1960s avant-garde.

Before reaching the age of majority, Hayes began leading big bands and combos, rapidly reaching a point where he rarely made concessions to commercial realities or trends. His exalted position in the small British modern jazz scene of the 1950s and 60s was due, in part, to an upbeat, charismatic stage presence which included dressing in sharp, expensive suits and acting as a genial master of ceremonies. "He had a good image, an easy way with the public, and had inspired a certain familiar affection, even in non-specialist listeners." (p. 295) Particularly in the early years of Hayes' ascent as a bandleader, his youthful enthusiasm drew a significant audience of his age group as well as older jazz aficionados.

Even after Hayes succeeded in developing his own voice, being judged by the standards of American jazz was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, he was often praised by the British music press for being the equal of—and sometimes exceeding—almost everyone in the US; on the other, he was frequently pummeled in print for not being an innovator—of which the same could be said about nearly any jazz musician, regardless of their country of origin. A similar play of forces applies to the opinions of Hayes' prodigious technique, which enabled him to rapidly execute seemingly unlimited amounts of notes for as long as he pleased. In some critical circles, he was held up as an example of someone who could play as fast as American tenor man Johnny Griffin; conversely, the same quality was often rejected as excessive, mechanistic and not particularly musical.

While still in his mid-twenties, Hayes pursued the Holy Grail of international recognition by going to America and playing an engagement at New York City's Half Note club, as well as recording as a leader with a select group of American jazzmen. Garnering praise from his American peers as well as some of the top critics was deeply satisfying, and so was the knowledge that he had broken down barriers of entry for other talented British jazz musicians. For several years after his debut, Hayes debated whether he should relocate to America and place himself in an atmosphere where he would compete with players of equal ability on a daily basis. On another visit to the US, he spent time in Los Angeles with his old friend and British colleague Victor Feldman, who had settled in the area. Feldman assured Hayes that a highly lucrative career as a studio musician on the West Coast was attainable.

Ultimately, both scenarios were not to Hayes' liking. A long, sober look at the jazz mecca of NYC revealed that many of the finest jazz musicians were scrambling for work. While a handful of London clubs, as well as a circuit of suburban and out-of-town venues, may have been limiting and a bit dreary, and the challenge of working with musicians who often weren't quite up to snuff was daunting, in the end, the steady employment, plus growing opportunities to play in Europe, meant that staying in England was better than the very real prospect of struggling in NYC. As far as Los Angeles was concerned, Hayes had already done his share of creatively stifling studio work in London (and would continue to do so), and couldn't see relinquishing his identity as a jazz musician in order to live a grander lifestyle.

For much of his career Hayes was in the enviable position of getting enough work that he could afford to be intransigent about playing what he wanted to play and still keep a band together. He didn't compile a set list for live performances, or worry about variety. In the early 1960s, he told journalist Les Tomkins, '"I don't go on and say: "Right—we're going to play a slow one, a fast one, a medium one, a ballad and a tear-up." That's not jazz. That's more like show-band business. We go on the stand and we may feel like playing something down—or we may feel like playing fast ones all night."' (p. 169-170) In the later part of Hayes' career, when a selection in a live set could last as long as a half-hour, one promoter expressed his concerns. The promoter reported to the British journal Melody Maker , "When I asked him to play with dancers in mind, his reply was 'If you wanted a ****ing dance band why didn't you book one?'" (p. 229)

In a series of changes that were similar to the rapid decline of the mass appeal of jazz in America, developments in popular music had a profoundly negative effect on the already less-than-robust following for modern jazz in Britain. The first wave of rock and roll in the mid-1950s, as personified Bill Haley and The Comets, Elvis Presley, and their British imitators, may have taken a small bite out of the audience share for jazz but, by and large, musicians weren't terribly concerned. Many British jazzmen regarded the new sounds as a bit of a joke and wrote the music off as just another dance-oriented trend to be tolerated. Some of them briefly incorporated a tune or two into their sets, sandwiched between selections of the real thing.

In the early 1960s, the situation became more serious when the owners of two of London's major jazz venues, the Flamingo and the Marquee, realized that there were lots of money to be made by booking rhythm and blues bands, such as Blues Incorporated led by guitarist Alexis Korner—a group which, ironically, was regarded as an incubator of jazz talent. Established jazz musicians who thought that R&B was just another passing fad increasingly found themselves shut out of venues they'd long regarded as safe havens, where in the new order of things audiences came to dance, not to sit and listen to what were regarded as unnecessarily convoluted sounds.

The arrival of The Beatles and what Spillett refers to as the initial phase of the Beat Boom, dealt the final blow. It was "a sea change that, although not directly connected with jazz, would soon have a tsunami-like effect on players like Tubby Hayes." (p.163) In the short term, Hayes continued to find steady work in a shrinking jazz circuit, but in Spillett's estimation the handwriting was on the wall. The Beat Boom "had certainly robbed the British jazz scene...of a new young audience." (p. 196)

One of the things that makes The Long Shadow of the Little Giant a thought-provoking jazz biography is that Spillett doesn't sugarcoat or romanticize the pressures of a jazz musician's life—some self-imposed, others generated by the vagaries of the marketplace in which the music is performed. In Spillett's estimation, it takes an extraordinarily strong individual such as Hayes to stoke his/her own creative fires and always demand more; to search for and connect with peers who will join in an endless quest to make great jazz; and to bear the day-to-day burdens of dealing with club owners, promoters, record companies, critics, and audiences—all of whom may be wildly supportive one day, indifferent or dismissive the next.

Though Hayes was successful in terms that would be the envy of many if not most of jazz musicians the world over—working steadily in jazz venues, leading bands with relatively stable personnel on an ongoing basis, and making a living playing his own music, supplemented by studio work and writing themes for commercial projects—his was not a life of unmitigated triumph. He was a longtime abuser of alcohol and drugs, a womanizer and, for the most part, an indifferent husband and father. In the words of Ronnie Scott, a longtime associate, Hayes seemed intent on "burning any and every available candle at both ends." (p, 296) Hayes died at the age of 38, after a long period of debilitating illnesses exacerbated by overwork and the inability to deny himself every conceivable pleasure. Spillett doesn't tap into the tired myth of the jazzman consumed by his own vices. Rather, he reports Hayes excesses without judgment and places them in the context of his accomplishments.

Spillett's explanation of the trials and tribulations of Hayes' bid to become a world-class jazz musician while toiling in a country that wasn't always receptive to his goals and ambitions is, in itself, the basis of an unusually accomplished work of jazz literature. Markedly superior to the efforts most jazz biographers, the manner in which Spillett treats Hayes' music is another, essential component of the book. Throughout the text he interjects a lucid, painstaking analysis of a number of items from Hayes' discography, as well as drawing from an abundance of bootleg tapes made available by musicians and diehard fans. Spillett doesn't rely on the opinions of critics to give the reader a clear idea of what Hayes' music was about—the author's experiences as a jazz tenor saxophonist as well as decades of immersion in the sounds of his subject are well suited to the task. The result of his analysis and passion for the music makes a convincing case that Hayes was indeed a great jazz saxophonist. Spillett's measured yet persuasive account of Hayes' musicianship gives the uninitiated listener incentive to investigate the body of work of this undervalued jazzman.

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