V is for Vicariousness

<h1 itemprop="headline">V is for Vicariousness</h1>

After two soul-bearing entries I feel it’s time to restore some sort of emotional equilibrium to these pages by returning to what statistical feedback has proven to be the most popular subject matter on this blog; the music of the late, great Tubby Hayes. Regular readers will know how much I love to make obsessive deep dives into the minutia surrounding this most British of British Jazz Legends’ life and work, which on these pages to date has encompassed everything from his relationship with the Beatles to his surprising belief in astrology. To my mind, anyone wishing to gain a deeper understanding of any artist can benefit enormously from looking at the context which surrounds their achievements, the reason why, over the years I’ve spent fascinated with Hayes and his music, I’ve also become acquainted with such seemingly ephemeral things as the end of National Service, the Bubble Car and the Three Day Week. If you’re that way inclined it follows that virtually anything connected to the life and times of your idol becomes of instant interest, each tiny fragment of their era creating a still more tangible picture of their being and accomplishments.

Over the past few weeks it’s been the actual physical relics of Hayes that have engrossed me; I’ve been writing an extended booklet for a forthcoming issue of some previously unheard recordings from 1972 which promise to somewhat upend received wisdom of the saxophonist being a spent force in his final years. To this end I’ve been prising apart his old work diaries, dusting down his scrapbooks and copying quotable quotes from a whole series of yellowing press clippings from the time in question, all things that would be impossible to do had I not had the incredible fortune of being gifted the vast majority of his own personal archive upon the death of his final partner, Liz Grönlund in 2015. For a biographer this was like receiving a mother-lode of information, both trivial and of great consequence, and it’s no exaggeration to say that this collection has since transformed my understanding of Hayes and, in particular, the end game he so bravely fought out in his final months. Indeed, I cannot imagine a more intimate, more fascinating glimpse being given into the world of a musician who remains one of the best the UK has ever produced.

Those fearing that I’m squandering such a prize were disarmed a couple of weeks ago when, via the wonders of the web, I presented a 30 minute discussion of Hayes’ archive to The Jazz Centre UK, that valuable body who’ve latterly been doing so much for the preservation, dissemination and documentation of our music and of whom I’m proud to be a Patron. During the course of this presentation I shared examples of Tubby’s immaculately hand-written musical manuscripts, his saxophone mouthpieces, work diaries and address book, private correspondence, contracts and family photographs and other such gems, each opening a window into the world which had sprung forth his genius. To call the opportunity to see these things publicly unique is an understatement – barely a few years ago nobody knew they existed, much less me who, as Hayes’ biographer and (one friend called me) ‘the ultimate super-fan’, thought I’d got a pretty good handle on my subject. Indeed, to my mind uncovering these treasures was of as much importance to British jazz as would be the discovery of, say, Charlie Parker’s mouthpieces, scribbled lead sheets or a letter penned to his mother or any such personal items to American jazz fans. Had such things been available to view in my twenties, the time when I was strongly bitten by the Tubby Hayes bug, I’d have jumped at the chance to see them, no matter how.

Yet the presenting of archive material like this isn’t always the guaranteed draw you might imagine. Hayes’ fans come in various degrees of enthusiasm, ranging from those who’ve bought a couple of albums and find that’s enough, to those who’ve read all there is to read on him, heard every recorded snippet and know his story inside out. In between lay a vast body of listeners who don’t necessarily agree with my ideas on context and who see no reason whatsoever to look at Hayes’ address book or see his diary for 1961; to them, these things are mere trinkets – all they care about is the action of his music and perhaps, in their distillation of things, they may be right. ‘Experts’, they argue, ‘are far too bogged down in the detail to capture the essence of the man’, their obsessive examinations of tenor parts, saxophone slings and the like calling to mind that wonderful aphorism that the pointing finger is not what you should focus upon but the object at which it is directed. In part I agree, yet I’m also happy to argue that without the pointed finger some folk may be too dumb to notice what’s there in the first place. If this sounds at all sniffy then it’s not intended to; I merely scratch my head and wonder why so many who claim to be fans of Hayes don’t show much interest in the background truths of his story, preferring instead to glance at the cheap thumbnail sketch that’s been on offer for over forty-five years now. I’ll never understand why.

There’s a nice sense of irony when I reveal that the same week as I presented my Tubby bits and pieces talk for TJCUK I was also involved in another virtual attempt (read that how you will) to promote his music, this time in the practical shape of a ‘livestream’ gig with saxophonist Pete Long, who has lovingly transcribed Hayes’ arrangements for the Jazz Couriers, the lively quintet he co-helmed with Ronnie Scott in the late 1950s. Together Pete, pianist John Pearce, bassist Joe Pettitt, drummer Matt Skelton and I performed two sets of the Couriers’ music from a Golf Club in suburban Croydon to an audience not much bigger than that which would have been able to squeeze into the same club’s foyer.

Now, fear not, this piece is not suddenly taking yet another turn towards the apathetic disbelief of my two previous entries (I think I’ve said all there is to be said there), but I do wonder why music so vibrant, so rarely heard and so venerated as one of the ‘great’ achievement in UK jazz history can so spectacularly fail to attract an audience. The trouble is, I think I already do know the answer, deep down somewhere in the dormant recesses of my impacted musical conscience and it’s this; nobody really wants a recreation. If jazz is, as is so often said, reflective of the personalities making it then a band like the Jazz Couriers, full of young boppers speeding on post-war testosterone, is never ever going to be effectively aped by a bunch of middle-aged men set before a webcam in the back room of a sports venue some six-plus decades later. Musicianly and sincere though the arrangements remain, those attempting to play them now are about as necessary as yet another Glenn Miller ‘ghost’ band.

Actually, Miller is a very useful example of this phenomenon. I grew up adoring his music, thanks largely to my father whose interest in all things GM was as in depth as is mine on Tubby Hayes. He had thousands of hours of radio broadcasts covering Miller’s every career move from the mid-1930s to his tragically terminated stay in Europe during World War Two. Added to this were hundreds of rare photographs, home movies, private acetates, personal correspondence and associated ephemera, all of it helping me realise that the maligned folk image of Miller’s music is as far wide of the mark of reality as it would be to say Tubby Hayes ‘took smack to play like Charlie Parker.’ Still, for all this enthusiasm, my father rarely went to see any band perpetuating Glenn Miller’s music. His reason was simple; ‘it’s nowhere near the original so what’s the point?’ On the few occasions when he did do, he was greeted with performances by bands who played the music either so contemptuously or so disinterestedly that the whole effect was indeed, as predicted, one of utter pointlessness. I went along to one with him once, an outdoor event which found one of Miller’s ex-sidemen sabotaged by a certain English drummer whose idea of brisk swing sounded more like the soundtrack to a hoe down. ‘Let’s try that again, shall we?’ said the understandably grumpy clarinettist out front after one aborted take of Mission to Moscow. It was not a great moment, either for those on stage or, moreover, for Miller’s legacy.

And I suppose those feelings of embarrassed hopelessness are what some jazz fans must feel when they read things like ‘Tribute to The Jazz Couriers’ or ‘The Music of Tubby Hayes’ nowadays. They’ll be saying almost exactly what my Dad said of Syd Lawrence - ‘let’s stay in and listen to the original.’ I can hardly blame them, and nor can avoid the rather awkward realisation that I too, much like that godawful American jazz educator I railed against two days ago, have also achieved the double bullseye of simultaneously cheapening what I champion. It’s not a good feeling to have and, I suppose, I ought to apologise to anyone who’s been offended. Only I don’t have to because they’ll be the ones who’ll have seen ‘Tribute to Tubby Hayes’ advertised at their local jazz club and stayed home that night, nursing a glass of something tasty to their original copy of Tubbs in N.Y.

Still, all is not lost. I’ve often said privately that my becoming an interpreter of Tubby Hayes (and in a larger way, a professional musician) was a calculated exercise; researching a book about him and desiring to gain a practical understanding of what made him tick, I was rather like one of those actors who goes to boot camp for a few weeks in order to prepare for a part in a World War Two movie. I was playing a role; acting; pretending to be the real thing rather than inhabiting the persona hook, line and sinker. What this role play did though was open doors, initially those to playing gigs. Latterly though, it’s given me enough nous to be a writer and that, pace yesterday’s post, seems to be where I’m headed now. Tubby Hayes will always be with me though – just this week still more live club recordings surfaced, once again stirring my passion for his music and story. But that’s exactly what it is; his music and his story, not mine. I may be foolish, but I’m not that stupid.

Photo: I ain’t afraid of no ghost - Glenn Miller, his trombone and his acolytes

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