Some years ago, I was attending a party at which I was what might be politely termed a ‘fringe’ guest. I hardly knew a soul and as is so often the way at these things the few bits of inane chat I entered into were characterised by that mix of forced sincerity and good manners the English are famed for the world over. Answering that most dreaded of questions - ‘And what is it you do?’ - I found myself stumbling inarticulately, nervously attempting to explain my ‘job’, something which for no good reason always feels a little like I’m trying to justify my own existence. Sensing I was getting nowhere fast (my interlocutor’s eyes darted furtively about part way into my explanation of improvisation) I added, almost as an afterthought, ‘Oh, and I’m writing a book.’
Suddenly, the lady opposite me stopped her idle flitting and shot me a look that passed for genuine interest.
‘Really? What about?’
‘Well, it’s about Tubby Hayes. A biography.’
‘Oh! I loved him.’
‘Yes, he was marvellous in Guys and Dolls, wasn’t he?’
‘You mean Stubby Kaye.’
‘That’s right. So what made you choose to write about him?’
I include this anecdote – all perfectly true, by the way – not to embarrass that mistaken party-goer but merely to highlight that, while I’ve spent the best part of my life darn near obsessed with the minutia of Tubby Hayes’ life, music and career, there are those who wouldn’t know him from Adam. Or Stubby Kaye, for that matter. I’m making no claim on any sort of intellectual high ground for having devoted so much time to this, as far as the general public are concerned, niche figure – after all, we’re all experts on something, aren’t we? - but in recalling this incident I’m minded to pen an ‘Idiot’s Guide to Tubby Hayes’, an admittedly light-hearted attempt to capture the do’s and don’t’s for anyone unfamiliar with his name or output. But rather than aim it at the sort of person who’ll manage to confuse a veteran Broadway turn with a legendary Brit-bopper, I’ve decided to design my guide instead for the millennial generation, who may be as unfamiliar with Tubby Hayes as I am with the current crop of ‘reality’ TV stars and who may need a friendly helping hand should they ever be marooned in a conversation with a jazz-loving grandparent. So, here goes...
I suppose the ideal place to start is his nickname, as friendly-sounding moniker given young Edward Brian Hayes by, if legend is to be believed, fellow tenor saxophone player Kenny Graham. Jazzmen often have rather jolly sounding sobriquets – Fats, Chubby, Slim etc – often awarded in acknowledgement of some physical characteristic. In Tubby’s case, as a short teenager who at one point boasted some impressive puppy fat, the chosen handle was well-matched. It stuck too, even when his weight dipped to that commensurate with his height (five foot four) in his twenties. And it survived the awful yaw that was his mid-1960s dive from fourteen stone to something almost stick-like (his band members rechristened him ‘Tubey’ at this point). For your purposes, always call him either Tubby or, if you’re feeling really brave, Tubbs, as if you knew him personally. Never ever refer to him by his surname; you’ll start sounding like a jazz book if you do.
OK, so you know the name, and if you’ve seen the photos, you’ll have spotted an at times uncanny similarity to that well-known 21st Century showbiz irritant James Corden. Best not to overplay this alignment though; most veteran Tubby Hayes fans will have no idea who James Corden is and, to be honest, I envy them. Like the resulting images of a late night drunken Google search, once seen he’s never forgotten. And don’t mention ‘Car Pool Karaoke’ - they’ll have never heard of it.
So what did this chubby little man do all those years ago? In answering this question, you’ll need to speed-dial several facts at once. For starters, he played modern jazz on the tenor saxophone – that is to say the kind of jazz you can’t stand and find impossibly ‘weird’. And he played other instruments too; the flute (think that silver thing you were given to learn for a term at High School) and the vibraphone (think Ice Cream van chimes). He wrote music as well, lots of it, almost all of which you’ve never heard, but should you wish to appear down with the cognoscenti you might want to idly scatter your conversation with things like ‘have you heard ‘The Serpent’?’ or ‘Off The Wagon’ is my favourite.’ Although he composed well over a hundred pieces, these two will be enough to be going on with for now.
And he led lots of bands, big and small. The former you may recognise as being the sort of indentured labour in suits drafted in to prop up Robbie Williams in crooner mode – lots of noisy trumpets and trombones (don’t worry, nobody will ask you to identify which is which) and a drummer going (as you’d say) ‘mental’ on every tune. The sound these guys make will be a bit like that loud bit on that Björk track you remember, minus, of course, the Icelandic caterwauling.
If you really want to gen up on what this lot could do, you could always do a quick You Tube search on your phone on a trip to the loo; under Tubby Hayes you’ll find various bits of black and white TV from somewhere close to the last ice age, on which blokes looking like middle managers at a Holiday Inn play music that sounds like its been written on amphetamines. You’ll also get a chance to hear Tubby Hayes play, of course – that is when he’s not waving his arms about out front. This too may sound like a Bluetooth speaker being put through a food blender, but don’t panic; modern jazz from the 1960s was often played at this speed – the trick is to listen to it with studied indifference. While your synapses may be begging for mercy practice feigning a ‘cool’ look; imagine you’re on one of those Zoom conference calls where you’re being paid to attend but have everyone else on mute.
But what if someone asks you about albums – which do you think is Tubby’s best? Albums – cripes! You used to buy those as a ten year old (‘Now That’s What I Call Music 5,405’) but since the advent of Spotify and streaming all you do is listen to playlists and the like. ‘Alexa – play my I’m not really listening because I was born after the year 2000 playlist’ - music is so easy to appreciate this way, but albums! They require a full forty or so minutes concentration and who has that sort of time these days, what with the daily necessity of posting endless selfies on Snapchat and arguing with someone on Messenger.
Fear not; with Tubby all you need to do is utter two words - ‘Mexican Green’, the title of his best-known (and luckily for you easily downloadable) album, made sometime between the death of the dinosaurs and the birth of your great nan.
Think of it as a kind of short hand for Hayes at his peak, although at this point be very careful not to commit the faux pas I actually witnessed first hand from one saxophone student (true story) in which they commenced a well-thought out argument on the ‘Mexican’ influences upon Tubby’s music. Absolutely no word of a lie!
And this takes us to the rather sticky story of Tubby Hayes’ drug addiction, no laughing matter whatsoever, but a subject which you, as a pure jazz dilettante, can discuss with an authority bordering on god-like. You’ll be expected to chuck in a few familiar names - Charlie Parker, Miles, Trane - but it’s important you get at least some facts right; don’t say Tubby died of drugs. He didn’t. Also, don’t say he took drugs to play jazz. That’s a load of bollocks too (unless you believe a certain pallid ‘professional’ Londoner). But most importantly, don’t compare him to some tragically drug-addled rock hero; jazz people have absolutely no idea who you’re talking about, trust me, and will see no connection whatever between, say, Kurt Cobain and a fat English bloke playing jazz saxophone. To this lot ‘Come As You Are’ isn’t a historic piece of grunge-rock, it’s an invite that means Ron can go round to his neighbours without changing his work trousers.
To complete your Tubby Hayes conversation starter pack, you’ll need to be able to thoughtfully discuss his early death and make spooky postulations about what he might have done had he lived a full lifetime. Rather bizarrely, this is the fun bit of your evening - a multiple choice selection if you like – in which you can artfully weave his unlived future into whatever scenario best accommodates your own preferred musical tastes. Go on, give it a try! Imagine, say, Miles Davis hiring Tubby and the two of them covering Michael Jackson together while dressed like sequinned clowns. Or maybe try something even more outlandish; Tubby playing Glastonbury, for example, or writing the theme to ‘Love Island’ or appearing on Jools Holland. This Tubby Hayes is the ultimate fantasy figure – you literally can’t go wrong because in this parallel universe you don’t even have to have any clue whatsoever about what he did or played; he’s just some dead jazz guy whose name you kind of know. You don’t even have to read anything about him, or really listen to his music, or spend time appreciating how he did what he did in a context far from conducive to making world-class improvised art. In fact, in this regard Tubby Hayes is pretty much like anyone from ‘back in the day’ you’re half aware of. You know, Charlie Parker, that Ellington bloke, Frank Sinatra, the guy who sang ‘What A Wonderful World’. Old music. The past. No way as hip as your current musical idol who is trending on Twitter, has eight million Instagram followers and was ‘amazing’ on that livestream. So go on, file him under ‘old school jazz’, stick him next to your overpriced and pointless trophy repress of ‘A Love Supreme’ and tell your friends you’ve ‘checked out’ his stuff.
The rest of us will just listen and learn.
Photo: Edward H. not James C. - Tubby Hayes circa. 1966.