Book review

Mark Baxter – ‘Tubby Hayes. The Life Behind The Tenor’

Mark Baxter: Tubby Hayes. The Life Behind The Tenor.
(Mono Media Books. £39.95. Book Review by Dave Gelly)

It first came out as a limited edition, 100-copy deluxe hardback, price £84.95. It sold out within six weeks. You will be pleased to learn that a further edition of 100 copies (paperback this time) came out on 12th March at the giveaway price of £39.95 (free signed-for delivery in the UK). What is it? Well, it’s a kind of glorified Tubby Hayes scrapbook: photographs, letters, pages from diaries, contracts, press cuttings and so on, curated (his word) by Mark Baxter, producer of the 2015 film biography of Tubby, A Man In A Hurry.

It starts with Tubby’s 1935 birth certificate and pictures of his father (a violinist with the BBC Revue Orchestra), his mother (a former show-girl ) and a young Tubby of various sizes. It could be any kid – mostly cheerful, except when posing in boxing gloves. After that it’s his first tenor saxophone (make and model uncertain) and the 15-year old wonder-boy’s name on flyers for suburban jazz clubs. One of these announces “The Jack Honeybourne All-Stars and Tubby Hayes, plus guest star Ronnie Scott”. “He frightened me to death,” Ronnie recalled. Jack Honeybourne told me about those early-fifties gigs. He and Ronnie often used to go together – on a bus! The past is a foreign country where Ronnie Scott travels by bus. It’s also a country where 18-year-olds get called up for two years’ National Service and get out of it by bunging a hundred quid to an obliging doctor, as Tubby did in 1953 (documentary evidence, p32).

Although it’s arranged in something like chronological order, the book has a curiously random feel about it. Understandable, I suppose, since it’s made up of bits and pieces that happen to have survived. Even so, a bit more narrative would have been useful. Where there is some, the whole thing makes much more sense. Take, for instance, a single vibraphone mallet, the sole object surviving from Tubby’s vibes-playing period. There it is on page 89, alone and mute, save for five lines at the top of the page, telling how Tubby came to take up the instrument, by accident almost, and less than a year later was voted third in the vibes section of the MM poll. It works beautifully.

On the page captioned Some Tools of the Trade there are three mouthpieces. One looks like a metal Otto Link, the other two have ligature caps on, so your guess is as good as mine. They are accompanied by an opened box of Rico three-and-a-half tenor reeds. As a composer-arranger, Tubby seems not to have employed a copyist. His musical handwriting is surprisingly neat and clear and he wrote on manuscript paper personalised with his name in one corner. Examples here include a fragment of Ronnie’s part to the Jazz Couriers’ 100% Proof and a page of a violin part to Frank Loesser’s How To Succeed In Business. See what I mean about random? What’s the point of that violin part, without some kind of explanation?

Did he mind being called “Tubby”? Apparently not, going by the picture on page 65, in which his paunch is unashamedly on display. It was his height (5 ft 4in) that he was touchy about. According to the accompanying note, he added an extra inch to his passport details. I know a distinguished jazz musician (now retired) who is convinced that he was repeatedly turned down from working with Tubby because, at 6ft, he would have towered over him. Actually, Tubby never struck me as particularly fat or short. I think the word “stocky” is about right.

As for his private life, the difficulty here is that much of it survives in letters and various kinds of document and the reproduction can be pretty poor. His letter home to Rose, his second wife, from his American debut in September 1961 is fascinating. You can feel his excitement (“Going over to Zoot’s place now…”), but you need good light and a magnifying glass to read it. Talk about through a glass darkly! It’s worth the struggle, though, in the later years, as his difficulties pile up. There was his drug habit and his marital problems, both of which led to money problems, and also a heart condition. There are letters from Rose, from whom he was estranged, complaining that the children looked shabby and needed new clothes, and from his accountant telling him that the Inland Revenue were losing patience. The worst of it was that his everyday, London-based work was drying up. When the Beatles came along and marginalised his core audience of devoted modern jazz fans, it had a profound effect on his career. For the first time he couldn’t take his audience for granted. Instead of setting the fashion he was reduced to following it, playing the Pink Panther Theme, appearing in the film Dr. Terror’s House Of Horrors and recording an album of mid-60s pop songs. He even looks uncomfortable, with straggly hair and sideburns (p100).

Had he lived, he would probably have got through it all somehow, as his near-contemporary Bobby Wellins did, but it wouldn’t have been the same afterwards.

Mark Baxter’s Tubby Hayes. The Life Behind The Tenor is published in paperback today, 12 March 2021

PURCHASE LINKS: Mono Media Films shop page 
Or by email at mono_media@hotmail.com 

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