Henry (Harry) Hayes

HARRY HAYES, who has died aged 92, was an early exponent of British jazz, a virtuoso saxophonist and a saxophone teacher of distinction.

Everything about Hayes was meticulous, from his smooth tone and elegant phrasing to his debonair appearance. He was once characterised in a Melody Maker headline as the "Beau Brummel of the Alto Sax", and even in extreme old age he presented a handsome and imposing figure.

Henry Richard Hayes was born at Marylebone on March 23 1909, the son of a bookmaker. At the age of 11 he won a scholarship to the local grammar school and his parents rewarded him with the gift of a soprano saxophone and a copy of the Otto Langey Tutor. He took to the instrument immediately and became a professional musician at 16, taking a job at the Regent Dance Hall, Brighton. In 1927 he joined Fred Elizalde's Orchestra, reputed to be the hottest British dance band of its day, at the Savoy Hotel. Although still a teenager, Hayes received the then astronomical salary of 18 a week.

A list of the bandleaders for whom he played, and the West End night clubs where they appeared, reads like a society roll-call of the period - Sidney Lipton, Maurice Winnick, Geraldo, Ciro's, the Cafe de Paris, Grosvenor House. This was a world inhabited by top professional musicians, and jazz formed a very small part of the nightly repertoire.

However, in 1932 Hayes received a call to join the band being assembled, under the leadership of Billy Mason, to accompany Louis Armstrong on his first overseas visit. This tour remained one of Hayes's most cherished memories, and his admiration for Armstrong, both as an artist and a man, knew no bounds. The opposite was the case with Armstrong's manager, a Chicago gangster named Johnny Collins, who made the musicians queue outside his hotel room to be paid, and generally treated them with contempt.

In the same year Hayes took part in a memorable series of recordings by Spike Hughes and his Dance Orchestra, perhaps the most effective big-band jazz played by British musicians until then. Indeed, the inner circle of leading professional players, which included Hayes and fellow saxophonist Buddy Featherstonhaugh, produced the first generation of truly idiomatic British musicians: "To be a big-band musician in those days was good," Hayes recalled in 1992. "You got paid to learn."

In 1939, Hayes joined Geraldo's Orchestra, which became the official BBC Dance Orchestra the following year. He was called up in 1940, serving in the Band of the Welsh Guards, but continued much of his recording and broadcasting work with Geraldo, whose 1940 version of Sweet Sue, featuring a solo by Hayes, is startlingly fiery for the period.

Released in 1944, Hayes led his own band at Churchill's Club, which included the young George Shearing on piano. In the same year he signed a contract with HMV Records and began the series of small-band recordings which established his reputation with the wider public.

Based loosely on the small bands drawn from Duke Ellington's orchestra, these featured such players as George Chisholm, Kenny Baker and Tommy Whittle, and often included compositions by Hayes himself, notably Five Flat Flurry, Dubonnet and Blue Charm. It was not generally realised that Hayes rarely improvised his solos. He would devise them in advance and even sketch them out on paper.

When the first records by Charlie Parker and other bebop pioneers began arriving, brought over in the late 1940s by musicians serving on transatlantic liners, they caused consternation in British jazz circles. "When I heard Parker for the first time I realised at once that I was obsolete," Hayes confessed. But the feeling cannot have lasted long, because Hayes was among the first to come to grips with the new style.

Throughout this period Hayes also taught the saxophone, developing a comprehensive teaching method, complete with graded, printed exercises. "The system was so effective", one former student recalled, "that we all ended up sounding like Harry." He would also provide "personalised hot choruses" at five shillings each, or five for a guinea.

Hayes continued to play and to lead bands into the 1960s. For eight years he was musical director at Winston's Club, where he accompanied such cabaret stars as Danny La Rue, Ronnie Corbett and Barbara Windsor.

For part of that time he also led the band for the show Tunnel of Love at Her Majesty's Theatre. In addition, he opened a musical instrument store in Shaftesbury Avenue. In 1965 he retired from regular playing to concentrate on his retail business, which had grown to include three record shops in Fulham. He continued to perform occasionally, his last appearance being at the Birmingham Jazz Festival in 1992.

Harry Hayes was married twice, the second time to the singer Primrose Orrock. Their marriage lasted 57 years until her death in 1999. They had a son and a daughter.