Words Jason Holmes
Portraits Sandra Vijandi
“I love the romance of old Soho, it’s a world I never knew and that had vanished before I was born…”
Martin Freeman tells me upstairs at Little Italy on Frith Street. “…so I look back and, of course, I romanticise it.” We’re across the street from Ronnie Scott’s, the spiritual home of British jazz, and Freeman is cutting a sharp, pensive figure in wayfarers and loafers that wrap a tattoo across the tiled floor and make him look as if he’s travelled back in time from 1966 to take a look at what has become of old Soho. A waiter appears and pours him a glass of mineral water from which he sips.
He’s a BAFTA award-winning actor, yes, but also a man with a deep and not oft publicised love of music that began in his childhood. To those in the know, therefore, his involvement in a new documentary about the life and times of an all but forgotten jazz legend comes as no surprise. Narrated by Freeman, written by Mark Baxter and directed by Lee Cogswell, Tubby Hayes: A Man In A Hurry is a documentary that hopes to do for one of this country’s jazz greats what Searching For Sugar Man (2012) did for Sixto Rodriguez. Half a century ago, Soho was a place of light and dark, of neon and shadows, a world of vice and art, of love affairs conducted against the soundscape of a new post-war music. It was a world in which the crash and burn story of Tubby Hayes took root.
Edward Brian “Tubby” Hayes was a tenor sax master, vibes player and multi-instrumentalist of rare sensitivity and talent. Born in St Pancras in 1935, Tubby led his own groups in England from the 1950s and made his first US appearance at the Half Note in New York City in 1961. Throughout his brief, intense life he played with the very best from Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Roland Kirk to Henry Mancini and played on over 60 LPs, solo and with other artists. His legacy, though largely forgotten by a modern world, cannot be overlooked.
“A certain period of jazz, certainly the Tubby Hayes period, is absolutely knockout,” says Freeman. “And that music, which was new and rooted in all the jazz that had gone before it, was brave and played by men who looked incredible. That aesthetic had a huge influence on me. Men wore suits back then, you know, and I miss that, that sense of tribalism and taste.”
With the documentary comprising 21 interviews with people who knew Tubby, including one with pop art king Peter Blake, the life of this extraordinary musician has been resurrected; and it has taken a genuine music fan like Freeman to help do it. “My thing was the rude boy thing when I was young,” he says. “I’ve been buying records since I was 9 and 2 Tone was my first love. Then I moved onto reggae and r’n’b and soul. I bought my first jazz record when I was 16. It was an old Blue Note sampler that, I guess, I bought from Our Price in Kingston. Then jazz became part of that journey that, I suppose, all of us are on all the time. Once you become a huge fan of music, your search never stops. In fact, it was The Style Council that I went nutty over. That band made complete sense to me.”
It was in the early 1980s when jazz became an informing, constituent part of British pop music that gave freer rein to songwriters of the day. “Jazz is an enormous world, and every branch of that forest leads on to somewhere else. Most good musicians who have been making music for twenty or thirty years always allow influences in. They soak it all up. People like Paul Weller, Van Morrison and Stevie Wonder have made music drawn from many disparate sources. And so because there is blues and gospel in so many forms of American music, hearing jazz as a young man was not alien to me.
“I’d heard of Tubby Hayes when I was younger, but like many of us I didn’t know who he was. He was a white jazz player, he was English, and so I asked myself whether I was going to dig him.” But dig him he did, music for Freeman becoming a riptide that has lent momentum to his creative life, flowing beneath all his performances and through his private life.
“I’ll never get to hear all the music I want to hear. I like all kinds of music because I’ve got too catholic a taste,” he says, clearly not wanting ever to be creatively stifled. “I began visiting Soho in my 20s. The first time I visited Bar Italia was when I met my mum and brother here one day. My mum first came to Soho in the 1950s to spend the whole day and be surrounded by something that wasn’t suburban.” He smirks. “I think she liked a bit of trad jazz back then. But in the past 20 years I’ve begun to feel very at home in Soho. It’s also coincided with how long I’ve been a professional actor. All my meetings were here, all my auditions were here. It’s where struggling young actors would come to hang out. Soho is definitely my engine room because this part of the West-End is truly alive.”
He says there’s a modernist thread that runs through his life and through his engagement with the cultural world at large and adds that “he likes to be the only one”, not ever wanting to be pigeonholed, sub-culturally speaking. Mercuriality, after all, is an actor’s currency. Freeman appears to be a man interested in everything, alive to life’s possibilities while remaining wise enough not to trust any of it to the hilt. He watches the shifting terrain and adapts accordingly, somewhat disaffected by a world that has never quite lived up to its own apparent high standards. “This world of ours is grey, not black and white,” he adds, “and one has to think for oneself.”
With the passing years, he says that he feels mortal but that he’s felt that way since his early 20s. “I know I should take life one day at a time, but whether I actually do is another thing. I’m very fuelled by anger at a lot of things, and not even things that are political. On the one hand I wish that were not the case, but it’s what I am. But usually it’s directed inwards, and somehow it works for me. In my job – which has something to do with self expression – without that sense of the wolf scratching at the door, I’d be bored and I’d not get very far. But I think that goes for anyone in all walks of life anyway. We all need that urge to keep going.”
And then he pauses, smiling ruefully. “Tubby Hayes was a household name for 15 years, but he has been forgotten. And that’s a lesson for someone like me as to how fleeting fame can be. Tubby was riding high for so long and then, without warning, along came four scallies from Liverpool. And the rest is history. It’s a sobering thought, because you never know how long you’ve got.”