To accompany the release of ‘Dear Tubby H’, I had the chance to ask some questions to band leader and saxophonist Simon Spillett about the album and what it was that drew him to a musician that should be more well known that he is.
So, for those only familiar with people like Miles Davis or John Coltrane, who was Tubby Hayes?
Who was Tubby Hayes? Primarily a tenor saxophonist, London-born Hayes emerged as a teenager virtuoso on the UK jazz circuit in 1951. Nicknamed ‘The Little Giant’ and self-taught, he displayed an innate understanding of the new style of bebop rare among his colleagues. Things just blossomed from there. He was a bandleader at age 20, took up the vibraphone at age 21, and co-formed the best British modern jazz outfit of its day in the Jazz Couriers in 1957, in which he partnered fellow tenor saxist Ronnie Scott. In 1958, he began doubling on flute, another instrument he taught himself.
In 1961-62, he played and recorded in New York with Roland Kirk and Clark Terry. Legends like Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley would attend his US gigs.
In 1964, he was a last-minute addition to the Duke Ellington orchestra at a concert in London, astounding Ellington and his sidemen.
Throughout the 1960s, he led a series of great small bands channelling the inspiration of Rollins, Coltrane, Miles, and Blakey, as well as heading his own star-packed big band, for which he did most of the composing and arranging. His health began to fail in the late 1960s, and he died in 1973, aged just 38.
He was simply the best UK modern jazzman of his day, hugely respected by his peers and adored by the jazz public. His international fan base included names like Quincy Jones, Stan Getz, Elvin Jones and Dexter Gordon, all of whom considered him a genuine equal. His best albums are probably ‘100% Proof’ from 1966 and ‘Mexican Green’ from 1967.
You’re a sax player; I’m guessing he was/is an inspiration. Do you remember the first time you heard one of his records?
I can’t play music that doesn’t inspire me, so yes, he’s clearly an inspiration. The first record I heard was his big band album ‘Tubbs’ Tours’ (1964), which my Dad had. That was in 1987. I’d have been about thirteen. I was listening to lots of classic jazz, mainly American, like Miles, Mulligan, Brubeck, and Getz, and didn’t know much about British jazz. Tubby sounded like the real deal to me. Over the next few years, I explored further. Around 1990, the year I got my first tenor sax, I borrowed a couple more of Tubby’s albums, taped them into cassette, and it went from there.
Although my favourite is John Coltrane Tubby, he is arguably the biggest inspiration for me. It’s powerful, hard-swinging, authentic bebop-based jazz. The real thing.
This new album, which sees you lead up your own big band, did this come about because you wanted to pay homage to Tubby’s big band music?
The idea just fell together naturally. Tubby left behind many arrangements for big bands which he never recorded for commercial issues, these being played on his bands live, radio and TV appearances. Over the years, I was able to gather some of this material together, and I had the idea of forming an ‘all-star’ big band featuring some of the finest UK jazz players to play this music on gigs, which is what’s happened. We headlined a number of leading British jazz festivals in 2021-2022 (Scarborough, Swansea, Wigan, Swanage, Herts Jazz and the EFG London Jazz Festival), really honing the material. The album, produced by our drummer Pete Cater on his new label Mister PC, was recorded in April, and it fully justifies my original thought: this is music too good not to bring to a new audience.
Is there a feeling of a responsibility to bring the music to new listeners who perhaps don’t realise the breadth of his work?
There is always a responsibility when you’re dealing with ‘new’ music from a jazz legend. Throughout the process, I kept asking myself, ‘Would Tubby approve of how we’re doing things?’ and I’d like to think he would. Personally, I feel honoured to have had this opportunity. I’m a huge fan of Tubby, and consequently, I wanted music he himself had been unable to put onto an album to reach a wider audience. If our album leads listeners to Tubby’s own recordings, then I’m very happy.
And I think the breadth of his approach to the material we play will open some ears – there is classic big band swing as you’d expect, but there are some lovely ballads, a bossa nova and some jazz-rock too, some of which may surprise those who think of Tubby as mainly a bebop-based musician.
Tubby was a true giant of the music, and this is our homage to that brilliance. It is also our way of ensuring his legacy reaches the ears of listeners too young to have heard him live.
So, what’s next? I know you play with your quartet, and getting everyone from a big band in the same venue must be a logistical task, but do you plan to take the record on the road, as it were?
Big bands might be a bit of a logistical nightmare, but we do OK – there’s tremendous camaraderie and spirit in the band, and that really helps. And as busy as the guys get with other gigs, somehow, we keep things together. That always knocks me out.
We have a few gigs with the band in London next year, as well as a planned appearance at a brand-new UK jazz festival. There are also plans for another recording of the big band in 2024, playing some further previously unheard music by Tubby and Co.
I’m also recording a new album with my quartet (pianist Rob Barron, bassist Alec Dankworth and drummer Pete Cater) in October. This will be much more spontaneous than the big band record, obviously, and hopefully prove I can still play the saxophone!
And on top of that, I’m continuing to appear as a guest soloist at jazz clubs up and down the country. The big band, the quartet, and these guest spots – it all adds up to a nice existence, I think.
One last question and it’s a broad one: is there anything left on the musical bucket list? Anyone you would like to play with, record with, appear on stage with?
I’m often asked if I’ve got a musical bucket list. I’m not sure I have. All my goals in music have been a bit less ambitious – ultimately, I just want to play well, improve as best I can, understand my instrument more fully and continue to learn from the people I’m fortunate to play with, who are world-class. Obviously, I’d like to continue with the big band and finally make a quartet record I can be proud of (I’m not happy with my previous ones).
But I suppose if I were to dream a bit broader, I’d like to travel a bit more as a musician – I’ve never been to Paris or New York to pick two cities I’d like to visit. And although I play at Ronnie Scott’s quite often, I’d like to do more there – I think the kind of jazz I play suits the club as it’s very much in the tradition of Ronnie himself.
Other than that, it’s simple: I just want to keep doing what I do and do it better.
Simon Spillett was talking to T. Bebedor