The old ching-ching-ching

The old ching-ching-ching

‘You can’t tell, really, by listening off the stand. I mean, you can get an idea of whether it’s good or not – but you can’t tell whether you personally would like to be playing with him until you’re actually on the stand working.’

Tubby Hayes, Crescendo, 1963

‘I have a reputation for eating drummers.’ So said Tubby Hayes during an interview in 1966. It was hardly a startling confession. The saxophonist’s notorious love of speed – the musical kind, that is – had been pretty much established for a decade by the time he shared this observation. With his dazzling combination of a fluently seamless technique (‘[his] fingertips never leaving the pearl buttons,’ remembered one observer, ‘just fluttering imperceptibly as if in a light epileptic tremor’), a similarly lightning fast harmonic mind and a general delivery that smacked of ‘I’m here’ authority, Hayes had never really been troubled by the automatic assumptions that British jazz was inferior to that played across the Atlantic. While this made him something of a parochial aberration, albeit a delightfully engaging one, it also placed upon those playing with him a pressure they’d hardly ever felt elsewhere. Hayes had no time for musical slacking and even less patience with those who couldn’t simply get on with the job at hand. Around such standards, some players were apt to get nervous.

‘I don’t mind doing the gig,’ he would recall certain drummers saying, ‘but please take it easy!’ Hayes didn’t and moreover couldn’t; although he could be as sensitive a purveyor of slow ballads as Stan Getz (‘he was a beautiful ballad player’, remembered drummer Allan Ganley) there was never anything less than 100% energy within his playing, each phrase shot through with an intensity that was as exciting as it was unusual. Whatever sounds came from the kit behind him, and no matter who the player, Hayes’s core message was simple; deliver at my level or don’t bother.

The litany of drummers Hayes employed regular with his various line-ups from 1955 to a few weeks short of his death in June 1973 was, given his exacting criteria, understandably small – just five in number, in fact, each man helping their leader shape a particular stylistic phase of his all-too-short musical journey; Bill Eyden, Phil Seamen, Allan Ganley, Tony Levin and Spike Wells, all of who occupied the drum chair – the hottest seat in British modern jazz – in various editions of the Jazz Couriers, the Tubby Hayes Quintet and Quartet from across a eighteen year stretch which saw British jazz, and Tubby Hayes himself, change immeasurably.

In two instances (Levin and Wells) Hayes had plucked young, unknown talents and provided them with a well deserved career ‘in’ that money couldn’t buy (‘it was a bit like Miles choosing you’, says Wells), in others  it was more a case of finding a musical blood brother. Hayes’ relationship with the dynamic but notoriously dissipated Phil Seamen see-sawed between hand-in-glove understanding to outright hostility. That with Bill Eyden – whose consistent playing made him a sort of Seamen minus the unpredictability – was more serene, the drummer being Hayes’ fail-safe go-to right up to the end of his life. Perhaps the most intriguing of Hayes’ interactions with a regular drum partner was that with Allan Ganley, a player whom he transformed almost alchemically from a rather measured and mannered performer into a player of genuine power and punch. Interviewed towards the end of his life, Ganley admitted he’d never played better than during his time with Hayes, an opinion shared by many and one echoing similar sentiments expressed about players like Tony Levin and Spike Wells. All of these men agreed that Hayes possessed an uncanny ability to draw out performances almost beyond them. ‘You wanted to please him, you wanted to give him everything you’ve got’, remembered Ganley. And it was what ‘you’ve got’ that Hayes really wanted, another Miles-like trait. ‘I was never expected to play like someone else,’ remembered Spike Wells in 2004. ‘He hired you because he liked something about your playing, and as long as you provided it he let you do want you wanted. He didn’t put you into a sort of narrow groove or anything.’

In this regard Hayes conformed to the perfect jazz bandleader archetype - from Ellington to Mingus to Miles to Marsalis – that of a frontman who hired you to be you and who brought whatever personality you had face to face with the demands of the music. And as a player with a sense of ‘time’ as iron-clad as it was swinging, he’d always known the value of a good drummer. In his late teens, the years when, often billed under such handy-if-insulting handles as ‘Boy Wonder Tenorist’, he’d hooked up with several drummers who’d helped fuel his fire, most of them now sadly forgotten. There was that tragic, shady and fitfully brilliant Dicky Devere, a player said to be so formidably inventive that even Phil Seamen would stand, mouth agape, when he played (Devere can only be heard on record with Kenny Graham’s Afro-Cubists, buried in a rhythm section that does more banging and clattering than outright swinging). Then there was Pete Bray, a close friend of Hayes who helped him get through the commercial horrors of the ill-fated Tito Burns Sextet of 1952. Another young bebopper, East Ender Lennie Breslaw, became Hayes drummer of choice for his own first band, launched in early 1955, although his was to be a remarkably short tenure. Only twenty years of age, Hayes may have been young but he still wouldn’t suffer musical inconsistency. According to Breslaw, ‘We got into some argument about a number he didn’t think I was making it on. He got aggressive and I got aggressive back.’ There’s undoubtedly more than a grain of truth to this memory, but listening back to the few recordings of the band with Breslaw on them it’s immediately clear that his was a style built more on youthful enthusiasm than technical grasp. ‘Lennie was a lovely guy but he just wasn’t working out’, the band’s bassist Pete Blannin remembered. ‘Tubby pretty soon realised that he wasn’t what he wanted so he got Bill Eyden, who was fantastic. We though ‘we’ve got something now’.’

The perfect accompanist

What the band now had can be heard on a handful of sides recorded for EP and 78rpm issue by the Tempo label in the summer of 1955 (available on Tubby Hayes: The Complete Tempo Recordings 1955-59, Acrobat). Throughout them, Eyden is a model of mid-Fifties modernism, his chomping Blakey-esque hi-hat and assertive fills taking what was to all intents and purposes a smallish dance band into the realms of nascent Hard Bop. It was small wonder then that when Hayes and fellow tenor Ronnie Scott finally cast off the veils of commercialism to form the out-and-out Jazz Couriers some two years later, Eyden was their first choice.

The Couriers albums are all now available of CD, and although the general consensus is that the band’s finest hour (well, forty-odd minutes of it anyway) is heard on The Jazz Couriers In Concert, taped when the group toured opposite the Dave Brubeck Quartet in early 1958, Eyden registers most strongly on their penultimate LP, The Couriers of Jazz, taped for the American Carlton label later that year. Available on CD on the Fresh Sound imprint (and partnered with The Message from Britain, of which more anon), its stunning up-close audio quality enables a thorough appreciation of what Eyden brought to Tubby Hayes musical world, and vice versa. Whether it be the full-pelt Couriers at their most characteristic best of ‘Day In, Day Out’, with it’s Horace Silver-ish switches from rhumba-style Latin and four to the floor swing, or the sizzling ride cymbal-fuelled moodiness of ‘After Tea’, Eyden is right on the button, lending the album the feeling of many a contemporary Blue Note session. Indeed, it speaks volumes that Hayes sounds as comfortable here as he did playing on exactly that; the August 1958 date that yielded trumpeter Dizzy Reece’s classic Blues In Trinity on which the drummer was American Art Taylor, no less, a veteran of countless classic recordings with the likes of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. It also says much that listening to these two sessions to back to back, by no means does Eyden come off second best.

As is so often the case in jazz, though, it was a partnership brought to a close by finance and not artistic circumstances. Lured away by richer commercial pickings, Eyden was replaced in the summer of 1959 by Phil Seamen, a player already yoked with a reputation for both brilliance (musical) and anarchy (personal). Hayes had first met Seamen in 1951, the two men later playing together in the bands of Bert Ambrose, Jack Parnell and Tommy Watt and recording together for the Tempo label under the leadership of Jimmy Deuchar and Victor Feldman. Seamen famously detested what he called ‘iddle-diddle’ players – those whose solos consisted of evenly strung semi-quavers – and insisted anyone who he took into his confidence seriously address the finer points of rhythmic subdivision, often through listening to traditional African music. Evidently, he did the same for the young Hayes. ‘He showed me a lot about rhythms and things I hadn’t thought about,’ the tenorist said in 1963, a somewhat pithy encapsulation of their early relationship, a period coloured not only by musical discourse but by the type of off-stage antics that would make a Rolling Stone blush.

Nevertheless, for all his hell-raising, Seamen on-form, on the stand, was something to behold. First off, there was a relaxation to his playing that made nonsense of the old chestnut that British rhythm sections couldn’t swing. In a less PC age, he was frequently described at the one English jazz drummer who sounded both authentically American and ‘black’. Certainly, he was never short of bona fide admirers from the realms of drum royalty; Buddy Rich, Kenny Clarke and both Philly Joe and Elvin Jones rated him as highly as they come.

Secondly, although possessing chops to die for, Seamen rarely if ever ventured outside the borders of good taste, truly listening to those he was playing with, supporting, embellishing, never distracting. This, in the words of one of his colleagues, the pianist Stan Tracey, made him ‘the perfect accompanist.’

Seamen actually didn’t last long as a Jazz Courier, this brevity not through any fault of his own but by the fact the band was already on borrowed time when he joined. Over two days in June and July 1959 they taped their on-record swan song, the appropriately titled The Last Word (released in the USA as The Message From Britain on Jazzland), the impact of which was almost immediately sabotaged by poor engineering, both in the studio and at Decca’s pressing plant. As such, most listeners have heard a murky, indistinct mono version, Seamen’s playing barely registering through the aural fog. However, in 2014, the Fresh Sound label uncovered a first generation stereo master made for the American market and released the album in a pairing with the earlier The Couriers of Jazz. It was like hearing a different record, Seamen’s sparkling ride cymbal emerging into the daylight on the ultra-hip ‘If This Isn’t Love’ and his exchanges with Hayes on ‘Too Close For Comfort’ already a high point of the album, now revealed in greater detail. A slight lift in pitch also made the music sound fresh and perky, adding considerably to our understanding of Seamen’s input.

Big question mark

When the Couriers split in the autumn of 1959, Hayes more or less continued with the same rhythm section, forming a quartet that made what is undoubtedly his first LP-length masterpiece, Tubby’s Groove (Tempo) at the close of the year. Released in mid-1960, this was an album that appeared to promise that the decade ahead would be less one of jazz deference than jazz parity. The American jazz bible DownBeat raved about it, it was voted Melody Maker’s LP of the Month in June 1960, the first ever British jazz release to be so honoured, it sold like hot cakes (a real rarity for a UK-made album at this time) and, above all, it provided a manifesto that fully laid out all of its leaders wares. The co-author had been Seamen, whose blithely swinging attack on ‘The Surrey With The Fringe On Top’, subtle brushes on ‘Like Someone in Love’ and delicious medium groove on ‘Tin Tin Deo’ had made Hayes playing all the more impressive. Fifty years later, an entire further album taped at these sessions (originally intended for possible release on Blue Note) was discovered and released as Tubby’s New Groove on the Candid label. If anything, it’s even more rewarding, Seamen and Hayes combining on a combustible version of, of all things, ‘The Trolley Song’ which might make for a difficult ID in a blindfold test. Was this Sonny and Max? Hmm? Whoever this tenor and drums team were they were world class and that was all that mattered. British jazz was standing proud.

Yet, for all their musical comparability, Hayes and Seamen were very different souls, one businesslike and raring to build an international career, the other erratic and irresponsible. ‘You could never tell with Phil,’ the quartet’s bassist Jeff Clyne remembered in 2007. ‘Sometimes there’d be more anxiety than anything else. I think this was a worry to Tubby because you’d get to a gig and be ready to go and it was ‘Where’s Phil?’ and he’d be setting his drums up just as you go on...the unpredictable things, Tubby just didn’t like it. They were great mates but Phil wasn’t taking care of business.’

A late appearance at the 1960 Beaulieu Jazz Festival clinched the matter. Seamen was sacked on sight, Clyne recalling ‘this terrible row which sort of spilled on stage. I remember we were doing this 12 bar blues and there was a bass solo and I could hear this terrible clamoring going on. This bass solo was going on forever whilst they were sorting this out…about ten choruses before anything actually happened.’

After Seamen himself walked (hardly slumming it; he headed almost straight to Paris to dep for Kenny Clarke), Hayes was left with few choices. He’d just fired the best, and his preferred replacement, Bill Eyden, was now a member of the the Vic Ash/Harry Klein Jazz Five, a band about to set of on a nationwide tour supporting Miles Davis. At Victor Feldman’s recommendation, he briefly hired Tony Mann, all of eighteen years old, whose playing promised much but who, ultimately, lacked the consistency Hayes craved. Eyden eventually returned though, lured by Hayes fuller date sheet and the promise of better fees, taking his place in a band that was, up to early 1962, to be one of the busiest and best around. As Hayes’ career truly fleshed out– a new record deal, TV dates, a promise of much awaiting US appearance – it was to be his rhythm section of Terry Shannon, Jeff Clyne and Bill Eyden who were to provide its backbone. They appeared on the saxophonist’s first Fontana LP – Tubbs - taped in spring 1961, underpinning everything from the hell-for-leather ‘The Late One’ through to the grooving ‘Tubbsville’, Eyden in particular registering a deep impact. A further souvenir of their role as poll-winning live act was the album Palladium Jazz Date (shared with Cleo Laine) on which tenor and drums engage in an almost continual face-off, Eyden clearly relishing the breaks afforded him in the scorching ‘Ah Leu Cha’.

There was a price to be paid for all this world-class ability though; when Hayes finally triumphed in the States in the autumn of 1961 it spelled the beginning of the end for the quartet. By chance, Shannon, Clyne and Eyden discovered the sizable disparity between their wage packets and that of Hayes early the following year and staged what was, in effect, a palace coup. Bereft of a band, the saxophonist was faced with an unprecedented situation; all those he really wanted to play with were now off-limits. Telling the press he was seeking ‘more mature musicians’ the new band he assembled was an odd sort of mix; trumpeter Jimmy Deuchar was an old friend, bassist Freddy Logan more back room boy than front ranker, the young pianist Gordon Beck almost untried. More surprising still was Hayes’ choice of drummer – Allan Ganley – a musician he openly called ‘the big question mark.’

It’s a funny thing,‘ he told Disc magazine shortly after the group’s first rehearsal, ‘we’ve always thought of Allan in terms of the more – what shall I say? – cool musicians. Well, in actual fact, he tells me his ambition has always been to play with guys like Jimmy and myself.’

Character building stuff

Actually, Hayes was being less than transparent. The drummer he’d originally wanted – Ronnie Stephenson – who’d been making a name for himself with the resurgent Johnny Dankworth band, had been snatched away at the last minute by a further financial incentive from his existing leader (as had pianist Alan Branscombe), hence Ganley’s recruitment. Years later, he revealed that another name had been in the mix too. ‘In all honesty, he would have preferred to have Phil Seamen in the quintet but Phil was so unreliable and Tubby wasn’t. He always took care of business. So Tubby got Mr. Reliable, you see!’

Straight-away, Ganley realised that Hayes was testing him. ‘Sometimes I used to dread those fast numbers, I really did’, he said in an interview in 2004. ‘Because I found it real hard going. It wasn’t something you could never relax and sit back on and enjoy. I could play fast then, but it was hard going, no doubt about it. We’d play the theme, whatever it was, and then Tubby would go off and he’d play a million a choruses, then Jimmy, maybe half a million choruses, then the piano and then Tubby wanted a drum solo and by that time your hands were like just about seizing up and then you got a long solo to play. Or eights and fours and then a solo. It was character building stuff.’

It was band-building stuff too. The two ‘official’ Hayes Quintet albums from 1962 - Late Spot at Scott’s and Down In The Village (Fontana) – both reveal the legend of Hayes’s demanding tempos, yet they are very far from all-out-speedathons. Throughout them, Ganley reveals his mastery over a wide range of contemporary jazz drum feels, from the jittery fast-Latin of Horace Silver’s ‘Yeah’ through to the Philly Joe Jones groove of ‘Down in The Village’ (with its, in the words of one writer, ‘flat stick clop’). Ganley’s drums are also astonishingly well-recorded for a ‘live’ album of this period, his snare drum especially registering a Roy Haynes-like crackle. This energy can also be felt on the archive releases Dancing in The Dark (Savage-Solweig) and Live In London Vol. 1/Vol. 2 (Harkit), which again contain tempos ranging from the sublime (‘With The Wind And The Rain In You Hair’) to the ridiculous (‘Opus Ocean’).

Astonishingly though, within a little over a year of its formation, Hayes was expressing frustrations with the group, finding its Hard Bop-centric styling stifling his ambitions. Ganley remembered ‘he was getting into the sort of Coltrane way of playing’, while Hayes admitted to wanting to try ‘different types of material’, both observations supported by the almost absurdly overstretched ‘Modes and Blues’, taped live at Ronnie Scott’s by the late Les Tomkins in February 1964 and issued on the Gearbox label in 2017. Over its half-an-hour course the saxophonist plays a solo that is both uncommonly ragged and unusually vocal. He thought the result ‘pretty way out’. Listening to it now, what is striking is how patient Ganley is with such prolixity; this really was the Loneliness of the Long Distance Drummer.

Conforming to his pattern of changing line-ups every two or so years, Hayes disbanded the quintet in September 1964 content to let go of a successful format less driven souls might have retained more readily. Part of his reason was an increased European work load; another that he just couldn’t find new musicians attuned to his muse, drummers especially. Ganley was a more than capable instrumentalist, able to cope manfully with the exaggerated tempos Hayes demanded and, it had to be admitted, a far more virile sounding performer than when he’d entered the band two years previously. Still, for all that, he didn’t have the daring, the spark, the thrilling, edge-of-your-seat qualities of the drummers Hayes was now listening to on record; Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones (who he admitted ‘is a bit loud’), Tony Williams. But then again, locally who did?

In this country, if you’re looking for a drummer for your band you might go down to a club, stand at the back and think; ‘He sounds good’, he told Crescendo magazine in 1963. ‘You get up on the stand with him – he sounds bloody awful! You can’t tell, really, by listening off the stand.’ Two years later ‘having worked with Albert Heath, Stan Levey, Mel Lewis and people like that in the last twelve months’, he was still pessimistic. ‘It’s a very sad state of affairs here now, where there’s about four drummers, and you can never get any of them. There’s some young guys who can play a certain amount. But there’s a sad scarcity of ones who can really play as much as you need to make the thing, I’m afraid.’

Hayes had made those observations in mid-1965, the year in which his ad-hoc quartet had made dozens of appearances at Ronnie Scott’s club with almost as many drummers. Among them were established veterans (Jackie Dougan, Bill Eyden), young stars (Ronnie Stephenson, Johnny Butts), even younger rookies (Trevor Tomkins, John Stevens) and the odd nobody-else-around choice (Benny Goodman), all of whom gave Hayes what they could. Some, like Eyden, Butts and Stephenson, knew what he was after; others, like the keen but inexperienced John Stevens found themselves overwhelmed. ‘I really felt I wasn’t together enough,’ he later said, ‘because of his strength and speed.’ Indeed, one night Stevens had actually ground to an abrupt halt part-way into a number; Hayes erupted in anger. In defence of these younger players, the saxophonist wasn’t always the easiest leader to second guess. Having fine-tuned a style that was tailor-made for hi-hat chip and sizzling cymbals a la Art Blakey, he now wanted something far looser, something that, for all its cutting-edge hipness, might not quite fit his style. One writer had earlier noted that Allan Ganley’s ‘beat is a little too rigid and inflexible for the more ambitious numbers’, although it fitted Hayes tight up-tempo excursions remarkably well. Now, however, Hayes talked of ‘young Anthony Williams on drums, Ron Carter the bass player and Herbie Hancock...this to me is an ideal rhythm section. It’s very free and lucid...I had to choose a rhythm section to work with, I’d love to work with this team.’ These were high expectations to make, even for Hayes, and certainly there was nobody in his existing musical circle who could have met them. Nor was there anybody he knew who could equal the roar of an Elvin Jones, who he’d played with as far back as 1961 when the American sat in with the Hayes’ quartet at Ronnie Scott’s.

A loose beat behind him

Again, this was an issue flagging up the desperate insularity of British modern jazz. Even by 1965, some eighteen or so years into its existence, local modernism was still dominated by the same round of established figures. The nation’s top jazz drummers now – Phil Seamen, Tony Kinsey, Tony Crombie, Bill Eyden – had been the country’s top jazz drummers ten years before. Where was the new talent? And moreover, where was the fresh impetus of first-hand exposure to the best drummers around? Hayes couldn’t help but think the concentration in importing American hornmen at the expense of its rhythm section players was part of the problem. ‘If we could have Art Blakey, Max Roach, Joe Morello – whoever you name – in the clubs, playing with our musicians...it would do them a lot of good,’ he remarked in 1963. Two years hence, this pipe-dream was still very far from realised. ‘I’d like to get Albert Heath to come over here,’ he told Les Tomkins, ‘he’s in Sweden. He’d probably liven ‘em up a bit.’

Such a plan was thwarted, not so much from local musical protectionism, but by the seemingly never ending reams of bureaucratic red tape laid down by the Ministry of Labour. In the meantime though, while Hayes pondered on importing American greats, a world class drum talent was incubating his gifts barely a hundred miles away, in the heart of the English Midlands.

The remarkable circumstances of Tony Levin’s recruitment to the Tubby Hayes quartet are now almost so fabled as to require no retelling. For the purposes of neatness, however, they occurred, briefly, as thus; on the night of January 14th 1966, Hayes enjoyed an off-evening at Birmingham’s Aero Club sitting in with the band of his friend, pianist John Patrick. The young man at the kit that night had astounded him. ‘The drummer was quite outstanding I thought’ he told an audience in Nottingham a few weeks later. ‘I’d had a few drinks, I wasn’t quite sure if I was imagining things, you know, but the people I was with said ‘Yeah, he sounds good, y’know’’.

Levin had sounded more than ‘good’. In fact, on this night in a provincial club setting, Hayes had found the answer to his prayers; a young talent with all the necessary energy to propel his fastest up-tempo flights yet with the rhythmic imagination to introduce the caprices of the post-Elvin Jones/Tony Williams rhythm section at medium tempo. Offered the job on the spot, Levin had the to renegotiate a day job running the family home furnishing store (‘he still has to rush back and sell all that, beds and carpets and all that kind of thing he sells, and then he makes the gig in the evening’) and his domestic life (aged just twenty six, he already had a wife and two children) with his newly appointed role in the foremost modern jazz combo in the UK. Instantly, he made an impression. ‘Tubbs likes a loose beat behind him’, the new drummer told the Birmingham Sunday Mercury soon after joining the band, later adding that part of his almost seamless fit into Hayes’ musical groove had come from his spending his formative years practising to the saxophonist’s records.

But there was far more to Tony Levin than an ability to cop Bill Eyden and Phil Seamen’s licks; he was bringing a new elasticity into the Tubby Hayes Quartet, providing its leader with all the stimulus needed to prove that, far from being a buttoned-up, rhythmically straight up and down sort of player, as his critics often dismissed him, he was actually capable of far wider ranging improvisations. Two live recordings made by the band over 1966 offer hands down proof of this; Live at the Dancing Slipper 1966 (Harkit) has Hayes and his drummer alternating between go-for-broke bop on ‘What Is This Thing Called Love’ and the oddly abstracted ‘By Myself’, which echoes Coltrane’s transformation of ‘Summertime’; Addictive Tendencies (Rare Music Recordings), taped towards the end of what had been a tumultuous year both personally and professionally for the saxophonist, is even better – almost the culmination of everything Hayes had set out to achieve with his new line-up. Pianist Mick Pyne and bassist Ron Mathewson are consistently brilliant yet this is really the Tubby and Tony show, their sparring on the fast blues ‘Walkin’’ veritably crackling with palpable energy. Rarely had Hayes played with more fizz and rarely had a drummer been able to match his combustible musical temperament so keenly. And if Levin were, on occasion, a touch too overbearing, Hayes didn’t appear to mind. ‘I don’t mind loud drummers myself,’ he told Melody Maker, ‘as long as they’re doing something.’

In the Pyne-Mathewson-Levin rhythm section Hayes now had a team than was, if not an exact duplicate of the Hancock-Carter-Williams trio he so admired, at least cut from the same cloth. ‘You know ‘There Is No Greater Love’ on [the album] Four and More by Miles is the definition of a certain type of swing,’ one of Levin’s most ardent fans, fellow drummer Spike Wells once observed, ‘I think that Mick, Ron and Tony had it down better than anyone else.’ This loose, expanding and contracting beat, pulled about as easily as warm toffee, characterises what is undoubtedly Hayes’ finest album-length statement, Mexican Green (Fontana), recorded in February and March 1967. For a musician making his studio debut, Levin sounds notably relaxed, underpinning the delicious medium tempo groove of ‘Off The Wagon’ before going off like a rocket on his own feature number, ‘The Second City Steamer’, dedicated to his helter skelter trips to and from Birmingham. The biggest surprise, however, was the title track, Hayes’ bold attempt to work with unscripted improvisation, much of the impact of which centred on Levin’s thunderous drumming. Whatever the tempo, this was a band that liked to play it loose, its rhythm section one that could – at long last – handle every conceivable demand their leader placed upon them (a great distillation of their varied repertoire can be heard on the Miles Music album For Members Only, pulled together from various BBC Jazz Club broadcasts made that same year).

Bullying my wrists

Ultimately, though, it was an ill-timed union. By 1968, Hayes drug problems were becoming a serious issue. Gigs were inked in and then cancelled and unreliability became, for the very first time ever in Hayes’ professional existence, a genuine issue. The last straw was ironically laid on Hayes back by an old hero, the American tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley, who purloined Pyne, Mathewson and Levin en bloc for a run at Ronnie Scott’s club in April of that year, leaving the increasingly drug-doped Hayes high and dry. By the time he emerged from this living hell, now having been convicted of possession, his bust splashed across newspaper front pages seen on breakfast tables across the land, it was autumn 1968. His band hadn’t fallen apart so much as disintegrated and so Hayes now faced the upward struggle of building a new one. For a time the drum chair rotated between Levin, Bill Eyden and the maverick Tony Oxley, a player of enormous creativity whose character was so overbearing that not even the equally larger-than-life Hayes could quite handle it. The only constant was Irish guitarist Louis Stewart who anchored a rhythm section that had featured a procession of bassists ranging from interesting (Kenny Napper, Kenny Baldock), inappropriate (Phil Bates) and absolutely perfect (Ron Mathewson). And it was Mathewson who thought he had the answer to Hayes drum woes, recommending a 22 year old philosophy student living in the basement of his West Kensington apartment block; Michael ‘Spike’ Wells.

After practising ‘for seventy-two hours…bullying my wrists into making the ludicrous tempos I knew Tubby would demand’, Wells got the job, stepping from unknown to leading jazz ‘face’ in an instant. In some ways, it was like Tony Levin all over again, in others not. As Wells was soon to discover, while Hayes was an inspiring presence musically, giving the young drummer his head to ‘play what I felt’ - his style build from the same Jones/Williams foundations as his predecessor but far more quirky – in other ways he could prove a disastrous example, his otherwise slick professionalism punctured by instances of drug-addled incoherence, financial ineptitude and public bad behaviour. The band worked regularly throughout 1969, Mick Pyne replacing Louis Stewart mid-way through the year, making club, TV and radio appearances, yet in some ways it was as if Hayes were now invisible, his once dominant musical voice now having to compete with the noisy (sub)talents of the avant-garde and pretentious chart pop. Indeed, even the one thing that might have reassured the public that his day hadn’t yet passed – the release of a new quartet album – was somehow cursed, the tapes for just such a record first dismissed then shelved then lost until they finally saw the light of day, some five decades too late, as Grits, Beans and Greens: The Lost Fontana Recording 1969, in 2019 (Decca/UMG).

Wells’ playing with Hayes had already been captured on several lives releases (most notably Harlequin Records’ Live 1969, a session taped at North Wembley’s fondly remembered Hopbine venue, the tapes of which are shortly to the subject of a definitive, deluxe issue on the Jazz in Britain label), but in pin-sharp sound these unearthed studio sessions brought their dialogue to life as never before. One listener appraising the recordings observed that Wells might as well have been soloing throughout the record so high is his level of invention. Compared to Tony Levin’s playing on the preceding Mexican Green, Wells' drumming is indeed busier, more prominent, chattier; where Levin propelled Hayes forward on vast breakers, his ringing cymbal washing over everything in its path, Wells is more conversational, his snare cackling away, the hi-hat splashing in an out of focus, the entire kit seemingly employed in a manner that is perhaps better fitted to the phrase ‘multi-directional’ drumming than anything played by Rashied Ali.*

In fact, if Grits, Beans and Greens can be said to be Hayes great ‘late’ masterpiece then it’s equally Wells’ great ‘early’ work, its bright, shuffling, bustling, needlepoint detailed canvass co-signed by both saxophonist and drummer. It also plays rather like a summary of Hayes’ ideas to date, the energy-music meets post-bop of 'For Members Only' recalling the spirit of high-speed Tubbs of the early Sixties while the wider, more-rangy, impossible to identify groove that underpins ‘Where Am I Going?’ suggests as direction Hayes might have taken had ill health not shortly after wrecked his body. Again, the veteran saxophonist (all of thirty four) was swift to give credit to the inspiration of youth. ‘Younger guys like [Spike], Johnny Marshall and Alan Jackson have kept up with their jazz,' he said that same year, in which jazz-rock was beginning to provide a seductive alternative. ‘What I really like is the way the rhythm playing has broken up, not just the old ching-ching-ching.’

Spinning ideas

By the time Tubby Hayes regained his sense of purpose, it was 1972, at which point jazz’s subtle rhythmic undertow had very much been sacrificed to nailed down groove. He retained the services of the Pyne--Mathewson-Wells team right until the end of his careers (there’s a melancholy reminder from 1973, just weeks before Hayes’ death, on Invitation: Live at The Top Alex, Acrobat), the three men helping steer their leader through diversions incorporating free improvisation to jazz-funk. If Wells couldn’t make it, Hayes would generally fall back on two favourite predecessors, Bill Eyden or Tony Levin (as can he heard on the Jazz in Britain 2-CD Free Flight, taped at Ronnie Scott’s in autumn 1972) or, if either of those were not around on Alan Jackson, alumni of Mike Westbrook, John Surman and co., who drummed on the tenorist’s final out-of-town gig in Stafford in April 1973, a performance so physically telling that Jackson recalls Hayes played while seated, any lengthy intake of air rendering his skin a pallid blue hue.

In his closing year, Hayes had also squared the circle of his lifelong drum dependency, working both with illustrious contemporaries like Tony Kinsey (he made his ‘comeback’ broadcast with Kinsey’s quartet and was due to be a member of the drummer’s house band on the BBC-TV series That’s Life at the time of his death) and Tony Crombie and with his one-time recruit John Stevens, who engineered the masterstroke of uniting Hayes and Phil Seamen in the free-improv collective Splinters for a few dates in 1972. How Hayes fared in such as setting will shortly be revealed in a a deluxe boxed set of previously unissued recordings (Splinters: Inclusivity, Jazz In Britain) but suffice it to say, that even at its most free, his was a performing style that required determined rhythmic input, something which given the presence of both Seamen and John Stevens it certainly found in spades on these nights.

Hayes brought more than demands to the bandstand though; he brought dialogue, each of the drummers who played for him regularly finding themselves as much drawn out by their leader as fulfilling a prescribed sideman’s ‘role’. Allan Ganley found ‘you couldn’t coast’ with Hayes, a man he thought ‘full of energy. Energy personified he was...and he expected the people that worked with him to be the same.’ Spike Wells agrees. ‘We were all spinning ideas off each other in a rather democratic way and that was what Tubby liked’. Bill Eyden had simply called the years he spent playing regularly with Hayes as ‘the most exciting time of my life.’

Hayes was certainly a catalyst. He was also, in the cases of Tony Levin and Spike Wells, something of a star-maker. And for whomever he engaged to play drums – from the lowliest of semi-pros to the most exalted of studio first-callers – he provided musical challenges that could make even take them well beyond their comfort zone. For example, all of those who played with his small groups were also expected to transfer their skills to his big band too, sometimes, as on 1969’s pulverizing ‘200% Proof’ (Mastermix) which featured both Tony Levin and Spike Wells, two kits at a time.

That Hayes’ music had rhythm running through it was never in doubt. In the late 1950s, he was one of the few British jazzmen to have a sense of ‘time’ as authentic and authoritative as the best of the Americans (hear Tubby’s Groove) while in the late 1960s that same sure grasp of the fundamentals enabled him to ride the rodeo horse of a Spike Wells with joy rather than discomfort. Modern jazz is full of legendary tenor saxophone/drum partnerships – Sonny Rollins and Max Roach, Johnny Griffin and Art Blakey, Stan Getz and Roy Haynes, John Coltrane and Elvin Jones – each characterised by understanding and absolute creative parity. Hayes and his drummers enjoyed the same symbiotic relationship. It’s highly appropriate then to leave the last word to the last one of this illustrious list left standing, Spike Wells. How does he now hear his ‘conversations’ with his former boss? ‘I fed off Tubby's energy and musicality and tried to answer these on the drums’ he says modestly. ‘I think we did have a good rapport - not least because he never criticised anything I did but always encouraged me to do my thing.’ It’s what Hayes had done with all Wells’ antecedents – Bill Eyden, Phil Seamen, Allan Ganley, Tony Levin; given the drummer some, and then some.

* John Coltrane had coined this term to describe Ali’s playing. Interviewed years later, the drummer confessed he had no idea what it meant.


Photo: long distance drummer at close range: Allan Ganley with the Hayes quintet, Oslo, 1963


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