Most pre-World War II British jazz is little more than a footnote in the overall history of the music, but for sheer longevity, Harry Hayes merits mention. Born Henry Richard Hayes in London in 1909, he was still leading bands into the '80s, and lived to the ripe old age of 92. Across that career, he became part of many of the more important developments in British jazz. He was bitten early in life by the music bug -- he started learning the soprano sax in 1920, at age 11, and was playing professionally in Brighton in 1926. He also played clarinet, but early in his professional career, he settled on the alto sax as his primary instrument. Hayes seemed to have a golden touch when it came to directing his career. In 1927, at age 18, he joined a performing outfit led by pianist Fred Elizalde -- originally a dance band, its membership was soon augmented by jazz saxmen Adrian Rollini and Bobby Davis, and trumpet man Chelsea Quealey, all imported from New York, whose presence transformed the group into what is now generally regarded as the first legitimate British jazz orchestra. And he had the distinction of playing the Spike Hughes Orchestra in the early '30s, which was the first (and for two decades after, the only) U.K. jazz outfit to sell significant numbers of recordings in the United States; and when Louis Armstrong visited England in 1932, Hayes was part of the band put together to play with him, an experience that Hayes later described as "breathtaking." Hayes also played alongside and recorded with Benny Carter when the latter visited England in 1937.
All of this direct and close exposure to American players, and not just their music, appeared to have rubbed off on Hayes who, unlike many of the more visible British adherents of American jazz, freely absorbed the changes that overtook the music in the mid-'40s, this despite a five-year stint the military. Hayes served with the Regimental Band of the Welsh Guards from 1940 until 1944, when he was released from the army -- he immediately formed his own band and picked up right where he left off, also managing to land a contract with EMI soon after. Some of the resulting recordings, with trumpet man Johnny Claes, proved to be among the most substantial early post-war British jazz contributions, notable for their excellent solos and arrangements. Other members of the band included trombonists George Chisholm, Harry Roche, and Lad Busby, the pianist George Shearing, and the tenor player Tommy Whittle. In 1947, Hayes' band cut a landmark recording of Charlie Parker's "Thrivin' on a Riff" -- the latter was done at a Melody Maker-sponsored concert, and Hayes' alto sax solo became one of the earliest British contributions to the then-new bebop style; what's more, that record was one of the hottest pieces of jazz to come out of post-war England, and still held together when reissued a quarter-century later. He was still sufficiently respected in 1952, two decades into his career, for his his band to share a bill -- at the first post-war concert given in England by American musicians -- with Ella Fitzgerald, Lester Young, Oscar Peterson, and the other members of Jazz at the Philharmonic. Hayes also played in other outfits, including the popular radio-based outfit Kenny Baker's Dozen from 1952 until 1958. After a long residence at Winston's Club from 1958 until 1965 -- by which time he had also founded a music store and started giving lessons -- he retired from regular playing. He returned to performing occasionally in the '80s and produced CD reissues of work by his various bands.