Simon Spillett – The Long Shadow of the Little Giant: The Life, Work and Legacy of Tubby Hayes
(Equinox, £19.99, 388pp. Book review by Chris Parker)
“Let’s face it, jazz has come from here [the USA], [but] a lot of people have an interest in Europe in jazz music and we’ve learnt a lot from the guys coming over. And now, as the guys get a chance to play with American musicians I think gradually they’re evolving styles of their own. It takes time.” Tubby Hayes, visiting Boston in 1964, made this comment to trumpeter Herb Pomeroy, and it neatly sums up the artistic dilemma facing UK-based jazz musicians at the time. On the one hand they were criticised for lacking the virtuosity and verve thought to characterise US jazz; on the other, once they reached these desired levels of proficiency and commitment – as Tubby Hayes undoubtedly did – they were dismissed as mere imitators.
Simon Spillett, himself a tenor saxophonist inspired to take up the instrument by exposure to a VHS recording of a 1965 Jazz 625Tubby Hayes Big Band performance, is fascinated by this dilemma, and the most valuable parts of this admirably comprehensive and painstakingly thorough study address it head-on: “[Hayes], like many of his peers, had largely persisted in contriving to be a jazz musician on American terms […] Nevertheless, somewhere within the ostensibly gritty language of hard bop that he had assimilated so well by the early 1960s lay a Britain of post-war dreariness, rainy one-nighters and transport cafes, a world away from New York’s searing hipness.” It is this 1950s/60s world that Spillett conjures up so skilfully in this exhaustive account, assembled with scrupulous care from personal interviews, contemporary criticism and indefatigable listening to rare live tapes and recordings.
“He was never as happy as when he had his mouth wide open and was shouting his head off” is Hayes’s mother’s summary of her son’s childhood personality, and such full-on ebullience enabled Hayes to launch himself into Britain’s jazz scene while still a teenager, initially with bands run by the likes of Kenny Baker and Vic Lewis, and subsequently leading or co-leading his own bands, most famously the Jazz Couriers, in which he played alongside fellow tenor player Ronnie Scott. Spillett documents this process with exemplary care, his eye ever alert for the telling detail – “the leader [of the band playing my first regular gigs] was a coalman and we used to drive to our dates sitting on the empty coal sacks in his truck” – but never losing sight of the bigger picture: “When Coltrane signed with Atlantic Records in 1959, the deal had been $7000 for a one-year contract […] The saxophonist had also received a Lincoln Continental. British musicians were lucky to get the bus fare home.”
It is once Hayes establishes himself as the UK’s most galvanic jazz force, celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic not only for his widely noted ability to combine the restless, robust inventiveness of Sonny Rollins with the poise of Stan Getz, but also for his indefatigable energy as a bandleader, arranger and occasional star sideman, that demons begin to haunt him. Some (a growing dependence on alcohol and heroin) were rooted in his personality, others (a crippling workload of one-nighters in pre-motorway Britain; the rise of jazz-stifling rock and roll, swiftly followed by the irresistible force spearheaded by the Beatles; the apparent replacement of Hayes’s beloved hard bop by freeform jazz at the cutting edge of the music) in the culture of his times, but whatever their source, they eventually overwhelmed him. Spillett views this sporadically triumphant but ultimately tragic story with a commendably dispassionate, unflinching gaze, never allowing his avowed admiration for his subject to blind him to Hayes’s faults, imbuing his account with sympathy and perceptiveness but never allowing it to become mere hagiography.
The Long Shadow of the Little Giant, then, is at once a valuable re-creation of a vanished world in which jazz’s centre of gravity seemed immovably fixed in New York and Los Angeles, and a stirring and moving account of the career of a musician who arguably did more than any of his contemporaries to bring about a seismic shift that resulted in jazz becoming, in the best sense of the word, “world” music. It also benefits greatly from being written by a professional musician with an unerring eye for the apposite, enlightening critical quote, and although the biography’s editorial standards are somewhat slipshod (portions of it appearing not to have been copyedited and thus containing numerous solecisms, misused words and sloppy punctuation etc.) it is nonetheless welcome as a vital contribution to a subject Equinox are doing such a good job of chronicling: British jazz history.