Beginning his life in one major American city and jazz center and ending it in another, Hayes Alvis occupied the low end of the band's sound spectrum but ran up a high number of recording credits with several all-time jazz greats. In fact, it seems like the bassist and tuba player worked with only the very best, leaving the second-rate bandleaders for someone else to scuffle with. He actually started out playing drums, but during a two year term of employment with Jelly Roll Morton from 1927 to 1928 he oomphed over to tuba and double bass. From 1928 to 1930, he played the low horn in the innovative bands of Earl Hines. This pianist and sometime scat singer was always looking for new arrangers from amongst his sidemen, part of the reason the Hines bands always seemed to have a supply of fresh, innovative charts. He took an interest in the notes Alvis spent his time scribbling during rehearsals, and recorded his arrangement of "Blue Nights" on a 1929 Victor release.
After moving to New York in 1931 to collaborate with one of the top New Orleans clarinetists, Jimmie Noone, Alvis performed on both his axes with the Mills Blue Rhythm Band from 1931-1934, rejoining for another stint in 1936. A half-dozen re-releases of this big band's work are available on swing revival labels such as Classic, and are ample evidence that this was an overlooked band with great versatility. Alvis specialized in bowed bass solos in this band and is sometimes credited with one of the earliest recorded double bass solos on the 1932 track entitled "Rhythm Spasm." He also played some baritone sax with this group. There were quite a few excellent jazz musicians in this outfit, including guitarist Lawrence Lucie, trumpeters Shelton Hemphill and Henry "Red" Allen, and trombonist J.C. Higginbotham. Alvis liked hanging with this crowd well enough to even act as the group's road manager, probably less of a responsibility than providing the bass lines, although surely more dangerous. From the mid-'30s, he stepped up to perhaps the greatest jazz big band, Duke Ellington, staying with the group from 1935 through 1938 and becoming part of one of the Duke's great rhythm sections. On drums was the dynamic Sonny Greer. Ellington experimented with twin bass lines during some arrangements from this period, with Alvis and Billy Taylor doubling up in various combinations of bass and tuba. Score another point in the innovative bass involvements for Alvis, as this seems to be the first time two basses were used at once in a jazz group. He was also part of a vocal trio backing up one of Ellington's best vocalists, Ivie Anderson, on the record "I've Got to Be a Rug Cutter."
Stints followed with alto saxophonist and composer Benny Carter, pianist and Hines disciple Joe Sullivan, and then several years with another of the music's reigning megalords, Louis Armstrong, in whose combo he replaced the rambunctious bassist Pops Foster. This dream gig ended in 1942 with a pair of Army boots and everything else that went with it. He played in an Army band led by arranger Sy Oliver through 1945, and then joined a rhythm section with pianist Dave Martin, which kept him busy through 1947. Following a seemingly endless run as a house musician at New York's Café Society, he wanted more of the spirit of liberty one might obtain through the insecurity of freelancing. The work offered to him became more and more related to attempts at swing revival, including New Orleans jazz bands led by Wilbur De Paris in the late '50s. One of his final playing relationships was once again with a jazz giant, in the form of the charismatic and mightily cooking Kansas City pianist Jay McShann. Alvis' last great band was the trio with McShann and guitarist Tiny Grimes, which toured Europe in 1970.