Those who’ve taken the time to read some of the writings posted here since this blog began some three months ago may have noticed something of a leitmotif, namely that of Tubby Hayes, the late great British jazz legend whose story, work and legacy thread through these pieces no matter what appears to be the subject under discussion. For example, discuss five very different English jazz pianists of a certain vintage and suddenly he’s there, not as the main man of course but as a presence very far from merely incidental. Write a tribute to a fallen name of yesteryear, like Malcolm Cecil, and - hey presto! - Hayes crops up in that narrative too. Those new to the era of British jazz I like to look at may find this sort of ubiquity rather off-putting, as if Tubby Hayes’ name were dotted about in some sort of branded product placement. As for me, well, I’ve long grown used to the fact that, irregardless of what career peregrinations I may undertake, or how far the distance becomes from my authoring a book on Hayes and my present day concerns, or whatever music I alight upon, I’ll always be tagged somehow with the initials TH.
Now, don’t get me wrong; I am very, very far from ungrateful for this association, both as a writer and what is laughably called a ‘professional’ saxophonist. A great deal of time in the former role has been spent in detailed examination of Hayes’ various achievements and recordings, and has, I make no secret of the fact, been a useful source of paid employment during this present time when my other income stream – live gigs – has unfortunately taken on the qualities of a dry riverbed. Sleeve notes, interviews, magazine articles and the like, in the main focusing on Hayes, continue to occupy a great deal of my time. In fact, just this week, I’ve been commissioned to again write a booklet essay for some 1970s recordings of his which are shortly due for commercial release, just one of several such pieces I’ve penned of late covering previously unissued sessions by the likes of Don Rendell, Dick Morrissey and Michael Garrick. I enjoy this sort of work immensely, my being the type of person who is far better suited to analytical pursuits than social ones.
Yet Hayes and his music still play a part in what’s left of my playing career. In my earlier years I perhaps played the TH card a little too heavily but, no sooner had I realised the folly of doing so, the association became the ‘copy and paste’ blurb of choice for jazz promoters nationwide, even when the music I was playing had little or nothing to do with that particular inspiration. For some time I pondered heavily on the wisdom of all this before, late last year, coming to the conclusion that, when all was said and done, all I really wanted to do was play stuff in the same sort of general area anyway and that, having scored the greater measure of the modest success I’ve had as saxophonist when doing so, I might as well embrace that identity hook, line and sinker.
And so it is that over the coming months both my quartet and the (about to come off ice) big band I formed in a moment of sheer madness in 2019 will perform engagements unashamedly centred upon Hayes and his music. I dare say that for all the market cachet of such things – and my does the UK jazz business like a ‘tribute to...’ - there is equal part revulsion at the idea of the spectacle of Hayes music being retrod by a generation too young to have heard it live. Indeed, to some the notion of a Hayes ‘ghost’ band is probably about as appealing as hearing some lacklustre and distantly-bloodlined Glenn Miller celebrants creaking carelessly through ‘In The Mood’ for the eight-billionth time.
At this juncture you may be forgiven for expecting a robust defence of my stance – a kind of parti pris in which I’ll explain the technical appeal of Hayes’ music and how it and myself make ideal bedfellows. Well, don’t. To be honest, I find Tubby’s music as difficult to play now as I ever did, despite having tackled it in one form or another for close to two decades. Moreover, when confronted with some of the intricacies of, say, his arrangements for the Jazz Couriers (early Hayes certainly but very far from embryonic) I am perhaps more cowed now by their perfection than I would have been a dozen or so years ago when I was still young and dumb enough to consider myself in with a chance. Examples like those, as well as the overwhelming majority of Hayes’ other composition and arranging creations be they for quartet, quintet or big band, are all the proof needed that he was a craftsman of the first order whose work demands to be played by musicians of identical executive skills. Or in other words, by those better than a certain saxophonist - me - who finds the the initials TH standing emblematically for Too Hard.
I’m reminded of this in almost painful relief whenever Pete Long invites me to be the Hayes-half of his reconstituted Jazz Couriers line-up, a band which debuted a couple of years ago and which has somehow managed to maintain its sporadic existence during the last year of ‘lockdown’. Two live stream gigs with the group in August and October of 2020 proved to be an overdue epiphany of ‘owning up’ for yours truly, one causing something close to a complete collapse of faith, which, I’m pleased to say was staved off by a recourse to the practice room and a thorough rethink of what I thought I was capable of musically. To this end, over the course of the winter just past I spent a great deal of time learning how to blow again, addressing such fundamental aspects as breathing and fingering and more generally reconsidering my motivation as a saxophonist. I won’t make any heady claims that this had transformed me in any substantial way, yet it did return some of my resolve to where it had been a few years back, before all sorts of crises came and mugged me.
You might therefore expect me to greet with open arms, renewed chops and a ready reed the opportunities that post-lockdown performing looks to afford. Only it’s not that straightforward. An invite to make a further livestream with Pete Long of the Jazz Couriers material recently caused me to break out in a cold sweat, so daunting is the prospect of playing it in front of a digital audience of studied indifference. The thought of fronting a big band playing Hayes’ music, one full of well-regarded jazz soloists and, more importantly, a whole section of saxophonists who could play rings around myself in every regard from technical to expressive, similarly strikes me with a sort of rigor mortis. Even the less immediately intimidating of forums holds its terrors; on June 6th my quartet makes a rather modest return to the gigging arena at a provincial jazz venue – no pressure there then, you might think, except, even with a rhythm section that boasts a formidable trio of popular British jazz names, we still can’t draw a full audience. Why, you ask? Well, I’ve a theory about this which, while it makes perfect sense to me at least, might not make perfect reading.
To examine this suspicion further, I need to briefly digress and discuss the work of one of my saxophone-playing colleagues, the ubiquitous Alan Barnes, who I recently had the delightful experience of shadowing for a few days in order to pen a piece for a prominent UK jazz magazine. At the end of this process, which culminated in an illuminating interview which I may publish in full here at some point, one crystal clear truth emerged; that Alan is the ultimate dedicated musician and has been, professionally, for over forty years. To put it more succinctly, if he’s not practising his instruments, which he does with daily diligence, he’s writing music. And if he’s not engaged in the acts of composition and arrangement, he’s transcribing material he can usefully repurpose in his own way. Then, if there are any hours left in what is his already overpacked day, he’ll be listening to the art form he promulgates, taking inspiration in every and anyone from Sidney Bechet to Billy Strayhorn. Simply, he lives, eats, breathes and sleeps jazz music, the very reason why whenever we hear his creative process, be it improvisational or composed, we have the same sort of comfort that we take in the work of any of the great jazzmen we might admire; that it is the work of someone who knows exactly what he’s doing at all times, and whose tremendous consistency is the end product of years – literally decades – of dedication, application and sheer hard graft. Those, to me, are the qualifications of what you call a ‘serious’ musician.
And so it was, in coolly regarding how Alan goes about his business, that I came to see fully the error of my ways. He gives 100% to whatever the task is at hand, damning the critical torpedoes, ignoring others’ more loudly trumpeted ‘concepts’ of jazz and so on. I, on the other hand, stand there gripped not by enthusiasm for the music I’m about to play, but by nervous thoughts that oscillate on a scale ranging wildly from embarrassment to despondency. It’s a curious sort of terror for an individual not otherwise especially anxious to fall victim to. Whereas other performers live ‘in the moment’ I treat that same moment with merely squatters rights, worrying endlessly that those listening are mentally finding me wanting, scoring me against their own personal favourite, or whoever the flavour of the month is etc. Worse still, there’s the nagging doubt that, even closer to hand, on the bandstand we share there are minds that are thinking similar thoughts but who feel the obligation to mask such feelings with professionally-cultivated insincerity. These fears genuinely affect me and, much like the tightrope walker advised never to look down should he momentarily loose focus on his performance, once they take over I’m as good as floundering in the safety net below. Such falls can make for awkward viewing and, as dismissive as musicians sometime are of audiences, make no mistake, they can see clearly who is the dedicated player and who is the mere chancer. More’s the point, they may well come to hear the latter a couple of times, and readily bear witness to his risky high-wire act, but it's the former who they’ll remain faithful to, taking comfort as much as enjoyment in his sure-footedness. Sincerity, it seems, will always win out.
Now all this isn’t written in an effort to solicit help, sympathy, pity or any other response else you may be suspecting. It’s merely documented to illustrate how emotions that are, seemingly, random and possibly unfounded can sabotage a musician. Moreover, so incongruous are these fears that they trouble me not one jot in other areas of my life. If, for example, I’m contacted out the blue and asked to write a 3,000 word essay on, say, Ornette Coleman, then I’ve absolute faith in my ability to do so and do so effectively. Why? Because I have genuine belief in my craft as a a writer. Why again? Because I’ve put in countless hours sharpening that skill, reading, editing, retooling, moving a word here, a sentence there, refining and trying the gain a complete understanding of the tools at my disposal. The end result may not be to anyone’s taste, but it is something in which I can feel the pride of a job well done. But as a musician? Hmm? There’s just no contest: nerves, uncertainty, intimidation and fear cut across the neural pathways to render me far less effective than I might be, or, worse still, than I perhaps once was when I didn’t stop to be distracted. Part way in ‘losing it’ to these noisy, nagging inner voices seems somehow inevitable.
Whether this is a fixable problem or not I’m not entirely sure, and nor am I sure it matters much to me any more so far is my life now from what it was once, but there is, regardless of how it may impact my future, a useful lesson to be extrapolated from the experience of all this, however unnerving it may be and that’s this; if you dedicate yourself to something, whatever that creative endeavour is, you must do so with 100% integrity. If you give anything less, then you will always be operating with compromise as part of your cerebral make-up. At its worst this leads to rank dilettantism, yet so many of us (myself included) have opted for a sort or middling ‘comfort-zone’ of achievement, letting the opinions of others, bad reviews, hurtful comments, even just time-in complacency and indifference rob us of out potential, which I think is an even worse fate. Regaining that edge, the ‘killer instinct’ or the sheer bloodymindedness you once possessed by the bucket-load isn’t by any means an easy thing to do, especially if you’ve been blunted by age or real life experiences that genuinely deplete like illness, depression or grief, but it is possible. Where that reclaiming begins is in the ability to be kind to yourself, and to your own efforts at something even when they fall short of either your own expectations or what you once may have been able to achieve. If you look at music as either an Olympic sport or a popularity contest (and lord, have I done both!) then you’re sunk. If you look at it as a passion and a craft you can reconnect and rebuild. The choice, as ever, is up to the individual.
Photo: As serious as your life: Tubby Hayes in the moment, 1956.