Freddie Hubbard's story has the elements of a mawkish Hollywood melodrama -- the wide-eyed 20-year old kid from heartland America (Indianapolis, Indiana) moves to the Big City and immediately starts showing up all those sophisticated New York trumpet players with his uncanny speed, range, endurance, and huge, rich sound. A brash, swaggering, relentlessly swinging hard bop trumpeter in the mould of his hero Clifford Brown and his peer Lee Morgan, he ended up replacing Morgan in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and his elemental fire ignited what many consider the greatest edition of that band. As a first-call sideman, he made indelible contributions to some of the greatest albums ever recorded -- if you are a young jazz musician learning to play, there is no question that Freddie Hubbard is tearing it up on some of your formative recordings. His albums as a leader during this time are all very fine, but I think (somewhat controversially) that his first truly classic record under his own name -- the first time he played as well as he did on everyone else's records -- is 1970's electrified Red Clay. Freddie's playing had become too blisteringly intense to be adequately supported by a purely acoustic rhythm section, and this early jazz-rock record feels like the most natural setting for his unbound virtuosity.
It's tempting to trace the origin of Freddie's downward spiral to his move to Los Angeles in the 70's -- as he says in this NPR profile:
You know, lifestyle out there is different from mine than in New York. I mean, I was in the Hollywood Hills, above the Bowl. I could look at the ocean on this side. I can hear the concerts free at the Bowl. And I had a big swimming pool. I had parties all the time, and the trumpet just was in the corner a lot of the time, when it should have been on my lips.
Under the influence of record mogul Creed Taylor, Freddie made a series of increasingly overproduced records featuring somewhat dubious studio arrangements by Don Sebesky. (That version of the theme from The Godfather off of Sky Dive is a camp classic.) But despite the Hollywood lifestyle, Freddie's power as a trumpet player remained undiminished, and he did some of the most impressive playing of his career in the late 70s, "standing in" for Miles in the reunited supergroup VSOP, and in the 80s, going head-to-head with his greatest disciple, Woody Shaw.
Freddie's style was fully bound up in his superhuman virtuosity -- he played longer, louder, higher, and faster than just about anyone. With Freddie, it was always full-throttle, balls-to-the-wall all the way. He seemed practically invincible, still playing like a brash and restless 20-year old well into his 50's. But then in 1992, during a hit in Philly, he split his lip, badly. True to form, he kept on playing, trying to fight his way through his injury. It didn't work. The lip became badly infected and doctors, fearing cancer, recommended a biopsy. No cancer was found, but Freddie's embouchure was ruined.
Here's where that Hollywood melodrama would show a sentimental montage of Freddie's struggle to regain his ability to play. Along the way, he would learn Important Life Lessons about what was truly precious to him as a musician and as a human being. The sequence would end with a triumphant return to the bandstand, perhaps with Freddie playing a simple, beautiful, heartfelt melody ("Up Jumped Spring" would be perfect here) -- and we would see that his injuries might have cost him his blazing technique, but they couldn't take away his indomitable spirit.
Sadly, Freddie never had that Hollywood ending. Despite his best efforts and the encouragement of trumpeter David Weiss, Freddie never really found a way to be Freddie Hubbard again. His post-injury output is heartbreaking. You can hear the ideas percolating in there, clamoring to be released, but he just couldn't find a way to execute them.
I never had the chance to hear Freddie play live. But I did see him receive his NEA Jazz Masters award at the 2006 IAJE Convention, which was deeply moving. You could tell it was deeply moving for Freddie as well. The presentation began with a nicely produced biographical video, including a roll call of all of the classic records he played on. The ballroom was packed to the rafters, mostly with young jazz students, who gave him a roaring standing ovation. He didn't need to play. He could just be Freddie Hubbard.
In his own words -- Freddie talks about his lip injury, his work with David Weiss and the New Jazz Composers Octet, and Louis Armstrong, Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, Maynard Ferguson, Wynton Marsalis, Richard Davis, and others.
Must-read remembrances from around the blogosphere:
It’s funny to think that though he’s the quintessential hard bop trumpeter, he was a key participant on three of the most important documents of the 60s avant-garde: Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, John Coltrane’s Ascension, and Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch. And though he might have sounded a little out of place in the ensemble “freedom” of Ornette or Trane, he absolutely tears it up in the angular world of Dolphy. Out to Lunch features some of the most otherworldly trumpet playing on record, a combination of virtuosic post-bop technique and new music risk taking that still sounds thrilling.
Freddie Hubbard was one of the most skilled practitioners of this art. The joy and freedom in his playing came in part from this complete mastery of the instrument. It always sounded effortless. In the high range his control of air was so sublime that his lines sometimes defied the laws of physics and harmony, resolving in odd ways just by dint of his total domination of the instrument. Freddie grabbed the opportunity of those alternate fingerings to pop in and out of chromatic chord and scale ideas. His attack was always precise and his dodging and darting lines flowed like water through a sluiceway.
A lot of people can play the trumpet well. Technical mastery is far from the reason Freddie Hubbard is the most imitated player of the last half-century. It was what he did with that mastery -- the inventiveness of his harmonies and the ingenuity of his rhythmic propulsion. Freddie's impact is so profound that you often don't have to mention him when noting a young player's influences. Freddie is always there. He had a lot to say, and we all soaked it up.
Freddie had that rare combination of tremendous chops + tremendous spirit. I think I can speak for many trumpet players here: Freddie Hubbard is our Coltrane. Like Coltrane, much of Freddie's music represents the highest possible creative manifestation of instrumental virtuosity. When he was at his best, his technical mastery was entirely servile to his supreme artistic sensibility, demonstrating by example that true freedom didn't happen by simply breaking rules, but by developing a strong command of one's instrument coupled with a firm sense of tradition and an ability to fully translate personality to sound, breaking through the tradition rather than breaking from it.
“Without A Song” from the same album [The Hub of Hubbard] shows how how Hubbard’s time is so good that he can swing he band (which constantly verges on falling apart) from the trumpet on down.
The compulsion to power his way through good times and bad resulted in glorious music and monumental frustration. I last spoke with Freddie in 2006 at a reception for National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters. He was in good spirits, if rather subdued, and seemed to have accepted that his chops weren't coming back. We sat around remembering good times together in New Orleans and he favored me with a few unprintable Art Blakey stories. Later at a post-function concert that evolved into a sort of jam session, he was asked to sit in. He declined.
He was not ideologically an avant-gardist; his compositions such as "Up Jumped Spring" had a lyrical playfulness. But he also excelled at expressing urgency with tunes such as "Crisis" and "Breaking Point."
In the late '80s I got caught trying to walk out of the Blue Note without paying. I had hoped the $18 in my pocket was enough, but it wasn't. But that's how badly I needed to see Freddie Hubbard.
It wasn't just Hubbard's ferocity on the trumpet that got me. It was his bands. And at that time I was discovering just what it is that jazz bands do. Hearing Hubbard with Benny Green or Billy Childs on piano, Javon Jackson or Don Braden on tenor, Ronnie Burrage on drums — this was just too hot to handle. I must have heard him at the Blue Note four or five times.
Among his classic dates were Open Sesame, Hub-Tones, Goin' Up and Ready for Freddie, which in my opinion is an underappreciated game-changing jazz album. On this 1961 album, we hear three Hubbard originals, one by Shorter and a standard, "Weaver of Dreams." The importance of Ready for Freddie rests in its tension. Unlike previous hard bop albums, the tracks here break new melodic ground and set the stage for Shorter's Speak No Evil recorded three years later. We hear Hubbard and Shorter feed off each other creatively, with Bernard McKinney on euphonium, Art Davis on bass and Elvin Jones on drums. We also hear a brilliant McCoy Tyner, who had just finished recording six powerful albums with John Coltrane. On Ready for Freddie, Hubbard's hot metal sound is countered by Shorter's velvet sledgehammer, and there's a clean articulation throughout.
Overlooked in that timeline are Hubbard's years with Atlantic Records in the second half of the '60s – a period that I was introduced to on a terrific two-LP set called The Art Of Freddie Hubbard. Like his closest peer, Lee Morgan, Hubbard found himself with one foot in hard bop and another in freer music that was heavily influenced by the Black Consciousness movement. For Hubbard, that played out on tracks like "Black Soldier" from the album Sing Me A Song of Songmy, which featured him reciting words by Turkish poet Fazil Husnu Daglarca accompanied by a string orchestra and some processed electronics. More predictably, he also worked with genre-spanning sidemen like Bennie Maupin, Carlos Garnett and Freddie Waits, as well as a tight quintet sparked by Kenny Barron and Louis Hayes.
To fully appreciate Hubbard's range, consider for a moment the stylistic ground he covered in just 10 years – 1963-73 – and try to think of another artist who stretched so far without sacrificing his own signature voice. A giant to be sure, which makes the last 25 years of his life all the sadder.
Mainstream media obits:
Mr. Hubbard was once known as the brashest of jazzmen, but his personality as well as his music mellowed in the wake of his lip problems. In a 1995 interview with Fred Shuster of Down Beat, he offered some sober advice to younger musicians: “Don’t make the mistake I made of not taking care of myself. Please, keep your chops cool and don’t overblow.”
Howard Mandel, NPR's Morning Edition -- as mentioned above. Be sure to check out the audio to hear Freddie talking about the style of articulation he pioneered:
"[D]uring that period, I was changing the style of the trumpet. I was trying to play the trumpet like a saxophone. Instead of saying, 'Dah, dah, du, du, di, di, di, do,' I was saying, 'Diddly, do, du, do, dah, do, wham, bam, be,' playing more intervals. And I was trying to make those as long glissando runs, like 'trun, da, dun, dun, da, lun, da, da, da, da, da,' and trumpet players don't do that."
Hubbard says that the low point in his career came in the early 1990s. After he split his lip and lost the ability to play, he started drinking, suffered an ulcer and almost died.
"I started drinking Jack Daniel's to feel good, you know? Jack Daniel's and Coca-Cola," Hubbard says. "And I had an ulcer. I went over in London and I fell out. I've never passed out, but I lost four pints of blood. And the doctor said, 'You're going to clean up your body, because otherwise you're looking to go.' So I said, 'Well, I'm not ready to go, so let me cool out.'"
Hubbard was born Frederick DeWayne Hubbard in Indianapolis on April 7, 1938. He was the youngest of six children in a musical household and first played the tonette and then the mellophone.
"I had a sister who played classical piano and sang spirituals," he told Coryell and Friedman. "My mother played the piano by ear and I had a brother who played the bass and tenor. So the music was hot and heavy. You'd hear somebody singing, somebody playing the piano, and always a record playing."
"I met Trane at a jam session at Count Basie's in Harlem in 1958," he told the jazz magazine Down Beat in 1995. "He said, `Why don't you come over and let's try and practice a little bit together.' I almost went crazy. I mean, here is a 20-year-old kid practicing with John Coltrane. He helped me out a lot, and we worked several jobs together."