Another in a series of occasional essays built around the previously unpublished eye-witness testimony of those who knew and worked with Tubby Hayes.
Tubby in Clubland
In British jazz lore there are few things as intoxicating as the tales of seeing Tubby Hayes uncorking his brilliance in a small club setting. It’s well-acknowledged that the art of improvisation thrives best in such circumstances and for those lucky enough to have actually seen Hayes live during his 1950s and 60s heyday his gigs were to prove an unforgettable experience.
It was also a lifelong one for Hayes, who from his teens to the early 1950s to the last days of his career some twenty-odd years later, had always been a popular – and regular – attraction in UK jazz clubs, criss-crossing the country from Southend to Sunderland and leaving a trail of awe-struck audiences in his wake.
But, while we known how consistently he wove his musical spell in the venues, some of the practicalities of how these evenings worked have become all but lost to the sands of time. How much did he get paid, for example; what kind of relationship did he have with those who’d booked him?; moreover how did he regard and treat the eager fans who’d paid to witness the spectacle that was a Tubby Hayes gig? Furthermore, did any of his legendary ‘off-stage’ behaviour influence the course of these evenings? In sum, what did Tubby Hayes reveal in person that could never quite be captured on record?
Below are a sample of reminiscences from those who either employed, played with, or witnessed Tubby Hayes in these environs, ranging over time from the early 1950s, when the saxophonist was very firmly a new talent, through the heady poll-winning years of the early 1960s and onto the twilight that was his post-surgery comeback in 1972-73.
Their comments combine to illustrate just how loved he was, how large was his appetite for life and how lasting was the impression he made on those around him. They variously show his wit, his apparent indestructibility, his charm and, in two instances, his impatience and a surprisingly lack of professionalism. Taken together they form a valuable snapshot of Tubby Hayes’ talent, a troubadour of the tenor who left legions of anecdotes like those below.
We begin in 1954 when Essex-based saxophonist Kenny Baxter – around the same age as Hayes – engaged the nineteen year old tenorist to play at his newly opened venue. Interviewed in 2007, he remembered his guest for both his musical brilliance and his conviviality;
‘When I used to run a club called The Shrine [in Southend-on-Sea], they all used to come down, Eddie Harvey, Jimmy Deuchar, Major Holley, Joe Harriott, Tubby, everyone. After the gig, we’d get bottles of beer and cider - which was all we could afford in those days - and with the girls we’d all go round to [pianist] Bill Haig-Joyce’s place. He was a marvellous piano player. And there’d be these all night, after hour’s parties. You don’t get that now, but then being young all the guys would be up for another session after the gig. Anyway, Bill would play and guys would join in, like Tubby, and whoever else was there. Bill made tapes of some of this but they got lost somehow. I remember one night, I got up and found Tubby asleep in the bath! When I got up again in the morning he was gone.’
Around the same time, Hayes was tempted out into the wilds of Buckinghamshire after an approach by another amateur tenorist, as one fan remembers;
‘The first time I heard Tubby play was when Lol Coxhill persuaded him to come down from London to play at the Comrades Club in Friar’s Passage in the old Aylesbury town centre. If I can remember correctly he was paid £3 plus his train fare.’
Although it now seems a paltry amount to secure the services of a world class jazz musician, £3 was a sum akin to king’s ransom in austerity Britain. Indeed, a few quid would lure Hayes to all sorts of places during these early years. Young, eager, and in some senses still making a name for himself there were times when he was less star and more stand-in, as pianist John Critchinson, then helping to promote a venue in rural Wiltshire, remembered;
‘The first time would have been when we were putting on ‘Jazz at The Icebox’ in Chippenham, I suppose around 1953. We wanted to book Don Rendell, but he wasn’t available for some reason so we got Tubby, probably for a couple of quid. And he came down, like Ronnie [Scott had], full of beans, really ‘wahey!’ and it was all so bloody fast.’
Hayes’ high spirits on nights like this were as much fueled by good-living as enthusiasm for the gig at hand. And sometimes, while in his cups, the mark he made on those presenting him could be positively physical;
‘When Tubby played the old Concorde Club in Southampton, [the promoter] Cole [Mathieson] saw him off in a taxi at the end of the gig. Tubby gave Cole a bear hug and then got in and slammed the taxi door...with Cole’s hand still inside it. He walked around with a hand like a banana for weeks afterwards, and called it his ‘Tubby’ hand.’
Hayes himself, though, had what appeared to be a cast iron constitution. No amount of booze could prevent him delivering the musical goods. And, every so often, it helped to stave off potential disaster. Fast-forwarding to the mid-1960s, when he was arguably the biggest star name in British jazz, he made an appearance at a fondly-remembered venue in South East London. Fan Richard Kennard takes up the story;
‘There used to be an old pub called The Green Man at the top of Blackheath Hill. Regular jazz sessions were held in a room at the top that was accessed via an unusually long and steep flight of stairs. Tubby was the guest one evening and arrived in good humour, wearing a smart Italian suit. He played the first set and was enthusiastically received. As half time he announced he was going out for a cigarette but no sooner had he disappeared through the exit there was an enormous clatter and crashing as he lost his footing and tumbled over and over down the stairs. Several people rushed to his aid convinced that nobody could have survived such a fall and that he must surely have broken his neck, but when they looked down there was Tubby at the bottom already picking himself up and laughing uproariously. He was obviously completely oblivious being, shall we say, anesthetized.’
In these sort of circumstances, despite his propensity for alcoholic indulgence, Hayes was, by and large, a model of professionalism, contriving to balance popularity and ubiquity with a keen sense of ‘business’. But as the drummer with his 1968-73 quartet recalls, every once in a while one too many could blur the lines;
‘He was always keen to leave them wanting more. If a promoter rushed up to us after a gig brandishing an open diary, Tubby would usually tell them to wait, as, if we came back too soon, they’d get used to us. There was one night, I think it might have been at the Brewery Tap in Walthamstow, when the promoter opened his diary and Tubby was not feeling too well and was promptly sick all over it.’
Hayes also sometimes fell foul of people’s assumption that his cheery demeanor and welcoming mien meant anything went. One night in 1970, when performing with his big band at the Bull’s Head in Barnes, he let his temper fly, as one witness vividly remembers;
‘He was with his big band and [they] almost filled the room on their own. Anyway, he was reading aloud a score of notes ending with ‘B natural’. The room was full but quiet – then some smart arse shouted ‘Never mind B natural just B quick!’ Tubbs then stopped, looked at the bloke, and said ‘if you fuckers can do any better you are welcome to come up here and try’. Needless to say, no more was said.’
So what did Hayes really think of those who had paid to see him? And was his affability ever tried by that most dreaded of gig pests - ‘the gripper’? Interviewed in 2008, his partner offered this insight;
‘He got on OK with people in the audience but he didn’t have too much to do with them. He wouldn’t mix with them or anything like that. If it was a musician coming up to talk to him he would talk to them and like it. But sometimes if it was someone boring him, someone hanging on, he’d make an enormous burp, as if to say that’s enough now.’
Regardless of these occasional shows of disrespectful behaviour, the one constant in all the recollections of those who heard Hayes live on the club circuit was that he never, ever, disappointed. Indeed, his mere appearance could sometimes spell the difference between a club going under and carrying on, as one tale from 1967 reveals;
‘Once, I put on the Don Rendell-Ian Carr band, just after they'd made [the] ‘Dusk Fire’ [album], which had got a great review in ‘DownBeat’. We did really bad business, which I didn't expect at all. Anyway, the next band I booked was Tubby's and the place was heaving. He packed them in and I made money, made up for the loss with the other [Rendell-Carr] band and had some extra. So I paid Tubby an extra tenner – a small fortune then. After that, I think he always remembered that when I booked him.’
Nor it seems did Hayes ever take a high-handed attitude with those in the ‘house’ trios he encountered. On what was one of his final out-of-town engagements at the Top Alex in Southend-on-Sea in January 1973, he was accompanied by a young drummer who later recalled how open he’d found this big jazz name;
‘You sensed no vibes from him about working away from his regular guys. In fact, he was very complimentary to me, saying my cymbals sounded like Tony Williams. To me, as a young player, that was really encouraging.’
The final word perhaps should belong to one of those who booked Hayes’ regularly. It’s a simple four word recollection that could well have been expressed by virtually anyone who heard Tubby Hayes live.
‘He never disappointed me.’
Photo: All night long: the Tubby Hayes Quintet in action at an unidentifed venue, spring 1962. Jimmy Deuchar, Tubby, Allan Ganley, Freddy Logan and Gordon Beck.