By Simon Spillett
Book review by Andrew Cartmel
For anyone familiar with the work of both Tubby Hayes and Simon Spillett this is a much anticipated volume and a real treat. Simon Spillett is one of Britain’s leading tenor players; he is also a gifted writer. This is a rare enough combination but what’s more, crucially for the work at hand, Spillett has a deep and well-informed love of Tubby Hayes and his music. He has already written extensively on the subject in the form of liner notes and CD booklets, but scrupulously avoided recycling this material for the book.
In addition, as a working musician with “access to both recordings and recollections” among his fellow players, Spillett is uniquely situated to write the definitive biography of this great – and criminally underrated – British jazz titan.
Simon Spillett expresses puzzlement that he’s the first to write at length about Hayes, a musician who was, as he says, of a stature to set beside John Coltrane or Stan Getz. A “man of quite extraordinary gifts”, Tubby Hayes recorded on 13 instruments including tenor, flute and vibraphone as well as distinguishing himself as a composer and arranger. Above all there is what Spillett calls his “local importance… Hayes is as British as James Bond and The Beatles.”
At a time when British jazz was in danger of seeming “rather toothless” compared to the American scene, Tubby was a genuine hero of the music. He was all over the music papers of the day, which makes the swift and utter obscurity that followed his death all the more puzzling. But he was not forgotten by the men who’d played with him and Simon Spillett had the invaluable opportunity — indeed, in many cases, the last chance — to talk with and record these primary sources. This makes The Long Shadow of the Little Giant a priceless document; Simon Spillett was the perfect man to write the story of Tubby Hayes and he undertook the project at precisely the right time.
The book charts the development of the young virtuoso, his crucial encounter with the English record label Esquire in 1954 and its introduction of the hard bop idiom to British listeners, along with his pivotal meeting with trumpeter Jimmy Deuchar and his early, seminal recordings on the Tempo label. By 1959 Tubby Hayes was the Melody Maker tenor sax poll winner, a position he’d retain for the next 11 years.
Spillett explores the frustrating episode in 1960 when Alfred Lion at Blue Note received some superlative tapes of Tubby’s performances – and decided not to release them, instead consigning them to the vault for over half a century. Perhaps not such a mysterious reaction when you consider the failure of Blue Note to break another British star, Dizzy Reece, in America. (The sessions were released as Tubby’s New Groove in 2011.)
The book doesn’t soft pedal the darker side of Hayes’ life, such as his marital problems – to his wife and son he became just “a face on a record cover”; or his struggles with booze and drugs – such as returning home from the Bulls Head one night absolutely blotto, and pounding on his front door bellowing for his girlfriend to let him in, only to find that he had the wrong flat; or dropping acid with Stan Getz in a hotel room.
The Tiny Giant was finally felled by heart surgery, a second procedure to replace a faulty mitral valve. As in the old classic of gallows humour, the operation was a success, but the patient died.
But Spillett’s book, rightly, concentrates on the music, and celebrates the steady revival of Tubby’s reputation. All but two of his albums are now back in print, along with many newly unearthed releases.
This is a beautifully written and exhaustively researched volume, well illustrated and featuring a proper index, detailed notes and a selective discography – a complete discography, co-written by Simon Spillett, is due out soon.
Something else to look forward to.
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