Trumpeter Freddie Hubbard ailing

L.A.-based jazz consultant Ricky Shultz (who directed one of this year’s most innovative label rollouts for Resonance Records) writes: “Freddie Hubbard suffered heart failure last Sunday and is in ICU. One of Freddie’s past bandmates spoke with his wife yesterday a.m. He is being worked on to revive certain organs’ function. I’m told there were some encouraging signs but his condition remains critical. Share some love with all that great Freddie music and keep him in your thoughts.”

Trumpeter Hubbard has been a jazzman’s jazzman and a jazz listener’s, too, bringing bravura chops and visceral feeling to acts of creative daring as a form of popular entertainment (and sometimes art) for 50 years. What follows is my feature article on Freddie Hubbard in “authorized” form, slightly different than the version published as the cover story in Down Beat last June:

On the second of four nights at Freddie Hubbard’s record date with the New Jazz Composers Octet in December 2007, the star trumpeter didn’t commit a note. He improvised poses, faces and witticisms, but no lines on his horn. He didn’t even venture into the isolation booth Tony Bennett’s sound engineer had prepared for him…


. . . Still, some of Hubbard’s best music
in a decade was being realized at the well-appointed Bennett studio in
Englewood, New Jersey, thanks to producer-arranger-trumpeter David Weiss, the
expertly focused NJCO ensemble and guest tenor saxophone soloist Craig Handy,
who tore through a couple of intense, adventurous takes of Hubbard’s classic
“Theme For Kareem.” A longtime Hubbard associate and member of the NJCO when it was formed 12 years ago, Handy enjoyed propulsive support from pianist Xavier Davis, bassist Dwayne Burno and drummer E.J. Strickland, being launched even higher by tautly harmonized, tightly pivoting written parts that gained orchestral weight and colors from crafty balances of baritone saxophone and
trombone, alto and tenor or soprano saxes and trumpet. But the trumpeter thickening
the blend was David Weiss, not Freddie Hubbard.

“Man, I’m standing in a pool of
blood,” gasped Handy, perched on a stool, to the musicians in the studio around
him after one breathtaking run-through.

Hubbard, listening to a playback of
“Kareem” in the control room, approved, saying, “He sounds like Joe
Henderson.” Henderson had been the soloist on Hubbard’s bounding theme when it
was first recorded — with Hubert Laws, Kenny Barron, Ron Carter and Jack
DeJohnette — at the sessions resulting in his Columbia album Super Blue in 1978. I was observing back
then, on assignment for Down Beat,
and Hubbard was undeniably that date’s driving force, leading his one-time
dream team with a level of power, precision, originality and personality few
jazz trumpeters have rivaled. Flash forward almost 30 years to Bennett Studios,
Weiss, Handy, the New Jazz Composers Octet . . . Hubbard is a changed person.

He absorbs himself in the football
game on tv, joshes with the NJCO’s frontline members Myron Walden, Jimmy Greene, Norbert Statchel
and Steve Davis, confers quietly with Weiss, mugs through a photo shoot, but
does not command the scene with his instrument, because he’s grappling with a
challenge as old as jazz.

Ever since Buddy Bolden, the
hottest trumpeters to survive burning youth have confronted physical
degradation as they age. King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Red Allen, Roy Eldridge,
Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Miles Davis, Don Cherry and Maynard Ferguson all
amended their performance practices to contend with their problems. Musical
fire and youthful inspiration are by themselves not enough to sustain
productive second and third acts of long creative lives.

The sheer physical wear a brass player experiences,
compressing flesh and muscle against steel to shape a stream of air for hours
at a time compares to the physical exertions that professional athletes endure.
However, athletes compete in games of intermittent action scheduled with days
between and months off over perhaps a couple of decades. Jazz musicians
typically plunge on set after set, night after night, with less physical
training, caution or preparation, and have seldom enjoyed comparably
front-loaded savings accounts. Factor in the stresses that attend independent,
nomadic artistic daredevils, and you know that even players at the highest peak
of the jazz profession teeter on a perilous brink.

“Don’t ask me the usual stuff – ‘When were you born? What
was it like to grow up like I did in the Midwest?” Hubbard, during a food
break in the studio’s lounge, warns me about our upcoming interview. “It was
terrible, what do you think? And I had the time of my life!”

So how about now? Yes, that’s the question.

Hubbard turned 70 April 7, 2008, 50 years after coming to
New York from his native Indianapolis to launch one of the most prodigious
careers in modern music. He has been successfully treated for a number of
serious health problems and has stabilized his finances after tax problems cost
him his Beverley Hills home a few years ago. With On The Real Side, the recording that came from his December
sessions and follow-ups done in California ready for release, and gigs in the
offing, he was eager to regain the glory of his reputation. “I’ve got to get
back in the mix,” he said with offhand earnestness during an interview in his
midtown Manhattan hotel room just before Christmas, following the Bennett
Studio
sessions and a five-night engagement with the NJCO (sans Handy) at
Iridium.

That booking was a happy one in terms of audience attendance
and affections. Festive crowds showed up throughout the run, and took pleasure
in the Octet’s renditions of the trumpeter’s signature compositions including
“Up Jumped Spring,” “Lifeflight” and “Skydive.” Hubbard introduced the pieces
with brief anecdotes – like how he composed “Lifelight” to commemorate the
helicopter airlift that took his wife from a near-fatal car crash to a hospital
emergency room — and played flugelhorn, which is relatively forgiving of his
inconsistent strengths. The NJCO fleshed out each number – as it does throughout
On The Real Side — with spark-plug
solos by Walden, luxuriously bluesy statements by Greene, incisive bari sax and
flute touches by Stachel, mellow and/or bruising trombone by Davis and dynamic
grooves dug by the rhythm section. Hubbard held the spotlight, but Weiss –
unfailing alert, adding tone, imposing tempo — kept it all together.

“Nobody has ever player higher, harder and faster longer
than Freddie,” Weiss said after the show about his hero. He has assisted
Hubbard on two previous albums besides releasing three of his own and two more
heading the NJCO. “Some physical diminishment is a fact of life at 70 – he’s
only human. But Freddie really cares about the music. He’s always listening to
the new guys, talking about what they’re doing and serious about what he’s
doing. He always tries to blow new melodies.”

Clearly, Hubbard has never turned away from music. During
his weeks in New York he was intent on going to the Blue Note club to hear
trumpeter Chris Botti. (“What’s Botti got?” he wondered aloud, several times).
And he is in no danger of being forgotten. He knows he’s charismatic,
exploiting a chameleon-like ability to take on spooky facial resemblances to
Oliver, Armstrong and Gillespie, and imitating Miles’ voice dead-on. He is
beloved even by fans and critics who scold him for not having taken better care
of himself. He acknowledges that lip surgery he had in 1992 has made his return
an uphill battle requiring a feat of re-definition.

The growth he had removed 16 years ago was not cancerous –
but neither was it benign. The cutting itself hurt his embouchure. His ability
to project and hold a clear tone was damaged, so his fast finger flurries often
result in blurts and blurs rather than explosive phrases. His ideas are still
intriguing, complex when the material incites it, engaging when simple or
pretty is called for. His ability to execute, though, is undependable.

“On some nights, he shocks us – we don’t realize what he
still has in him,” Weiss said. “But we don’t work often enough for him to
really build up his endurance.”

Working gives Hubbard a lift, so he was in a good mood for a
sit-down. “Feeling better, that’s what makes me want to play again,” Hubbard
said. “A few years ago, I didn’t care. I figured I’d made enough records. But
then I thought, ‘What am I going to do? I can’t sit around forever.’ I got to
making a decision: I want to stay here for a while, I want to be here on this
planet.”

If he’s going to be on the planet, he’s going to want to
play. It is what Hubbard has excelled at, over and above something like 99 per
cent of improvisers who’ve picked up their horns over the past half century,
never mind brass players in classical ensembles. “I hate when guys compare
classical and jazz musicians,” he said, “because we do things different in
jazz. He [the classical trumpeter] plays a passage straight, lays out 20 bars
then comes back in. But in jazz we’re playing all the time. So it’s more work.
I’ve met a lot of classical trumpet players who say, ‘How do you play that
long? What are you trying to do? If I did that, I’d been dead a long time
ago.’”

Not Hubbard, though; he’s exalted in stamina almost from the
start, which is perhaps why it’s so hard for him to pull back. He emerged in a
brass age dominated by Gillespie and Davis, in the wake of Fats Navarro and
Clifford Brown, just a little behind Kenny Dorham and Donald Byrd (respectively
12 and six years Hubbard’s senior). Almost an exact contemporary of Lee Morgan
and Booker Little, the young Hubbard was embraced virtually from the moment of
his East Coast arrival for his bravura technique, unbridled enthusiasm and
impressive adaptability.

That’s not how he remembered it. “Chet Baker was the first
trumpet player I liked, because he could play soft,” Hubbard said, smiling
fondly. “I always wanted to play like that. But I got to listening to Clifford
and started blowing too hard.”

He recounted being shy and insecure at first, too. “Where I
first lived, in the Bronx, I didn’t go out of the house for about a week,”
Hubbard said. “I was scared to go downstairs. Imagine a hot summer, July 1958.
I’d never been around so many people, such tall buildings. It was a total shock
- all this stuff I’d seen in the movies! But then I started meeting nice
people, and I couldn’t stop hanging out.”

In short order Hubbard met and started working with Philly
Joe Jones, Sonny Rollins, Slide Hampton, J.J. Johnson and Art Blakey, among
many others. He debuted as a leader on Blue Note in 1960 with Open Sesame, which led to his first
string of swaggering, soulful, melodic and ferocious small group albums. 

Quickly hailed as a hardbop and post-bop master blaster,
Hubbard became one of Blakey’s stirring Jazz Messengers – check him out on Buhaina’s Delight, from late in 1961 –
and a sometimes blistering, sometimes pensive front line partner to Dexter
Gordon, Jackie McLean, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Max Roach, among others.
He was enlisted in avant-garde projects by John Coltrane (Ascension), Ornette Coleman (Free
Jazz
), Eric Dolphy (Out To Lunch),
Andrew Hill (Compulsion), and
electronic composer Ilhan Mimaroglu (Sing
Me a Song of Songmy
). He also maintained a taste for lyrical,
popularly-attuned instrumental music, which he exploited from the mid-’60s
through the early ’80s in productions on Atlantic, CTI and Columbia Records.

Ready For Freddie
was the title of one early recording triumph; throughout his lengthy prime it
seemed Hubbard was always ready for a colleague’s call, fearless and
stouthearted, equipped with sharp phrases and fully articulated high notes. “I
was pushing a lot,” he said, thinking back. “I always wanted to play like a tenor
player, to be as loose as they are. I used to practice with them all the time.

“A saxophonist’s pressure is inside, on their teeth,” he
continued. “For trumpeters, it’s against flesh. Which I finally realized, after
a few blisters.  All of the older cats
had scar tissue. They’d tell me what salve to put on my mouth, how much
pressure to use. They all told me I was playing too hard, but I looked at them
and saw they all had scars on their lips, so I thought that was the natural
thing if you play jazz. You ever see Louis’ scar? It was like a crater!”

Observing his elders, Hubbard noticed that they had routines
to gain momentary relief. “Miles would put the horn up by his shoulder and cock
his head like he was having trouble hearing – but he was taking time to rest.
And when Dizzy had his United Nations big band, he’d be dancing around and
playing conga drum maybe more than trumpet.”

Hubbard attained unusual sales success with the early-’70s
CTI albums Red Clay, Straight Life and Sky Dive. In the mid-’70s, he rejoined former Blue Note stablemates
Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams (not
coincidentally, Miles Davis’ last all-acoustic band) to form the supergroup
V.S.O.P.
His stint with Columbia was marked by several flawed efforts, and when
his U.S. commercial viability suffered a subsequent downturn, he established
himself in Japan. When Wynton Marsalis emerged as the Young Turk trumpeter in
the early  ’80s, Hubbard conspired
on three ambitious albums with another prematurely dethroned brassman, Woody
Shaw.

“When I was on top and moved west from New York, I left the
doors wide open. Woody, he was the next cat, ” Hubbard said somewhat sadly.
When Shaw died in 1989 at age 45, he was all but blind and had suffered the
loss of his left arm after a fall in the New York subway.

“Wynton: I admire him, he used to come to the clubs to hear
me, and he’d sit in and he had some stuff,” Hubbard said. “But he started
saying about the guys who came before him, ‘That ain’t nothing, I’m going to go
all the way back and promote Louis Armstrong.’ Well, he copied off my records,
he copied off Miles. I don’t think you should be a trumpet player and ignore
what I played, or Clifford or Lee Morgan or Woody or Miles played, just so you
can get to Louis and play a little classical music and try to sway peoples’
minds. When I was a kid in Indianapolis our jazz community believed everything
had to be modern. If you couldn’t play bebop like Charlie Parker and Dizzy, you
weren’t hip. Going back to Louis, that was forbidden among the cats I grew up
with. Who wanted to go back and play that?”

Residing on the West Coast, Hubbard did studio dates, movie
work and one-time all-star projects, also maintaining his own band. He
described that period with a mix of satisfaction and regret akin to rue. “I had
my home in the Hills for 19 years,” he said, “but I was never there. No telling
who was swimming in my pool.”

And all too soon the rigors of jet-set touring spelled by
stints of L.A. highlife caught up with him. Initially he denied his injuries
and illnesses, but after a while they became irrefutable, and they have
persisted. “The doctors tell me, ‘You ain’t 30 no more, you’re 69, so just cool
out with the drinking and partying and you’ll be all right,’” he said. “There
ain’t nothing wrong with me now. I’ve had specialists like sports doctors
advise me, but I think I’m going to go further, maybe get some acupuncture. Get
more physical therapy.

“I always thought of myself as young,” Hubbard mused. “I
thought I could still play like I was younger. I still have to get it through
my thick head I can’t do that, even if I tried, even if I did exercises every
day.”

Weiss has characterized Hubbard’s former soloing as “five
choruses, balls out.” Having had to modify that style, Hubbard is ambivalent
about the result.

“The thing is, as you get older you have to mature,” he
shrugged. “I know some audiences – not the younger ones so much – may not be
satisfied when they hear me, because they’ve seen me when I could really play. There
are also people who come to hear me who haven’t heard my stuff live before.
It’s new to them, and they wonder, ‘Wow, can he do that?’

“I’ve done it before in a small group, but when you play
with eight pieces, there’s heavy sound coming behind you, and you want to get
on top of it,” he went on. “Now, I like these kids [the New Jazz Composers
Octet]. I’m going to stay with them to get my chops back. I hope we can put it
together to do some college gigs. If we could do one-hour sets, I could blast
and be cool. If I’ve got to do two shows a night for three or for nights, well,
I can’t get with it.”

As for those “kids” themselves, Weiss believes they enjoy a
productively symbiotic relationship with Hubbard. “He needs us, but we need
him, because he makes us better,” Weiss said. “He scares us – I mean his
history, his gravity, his jazziness, his presence — and that’s good
motivation. There aren’t enough elders around to put the fear into younger
musicians anymore.”

Listening to the elders when they were younger – Hubbard on
“Theme for Kareem,” for instance, when he was 40  - one might ask who was scaring them then. Hubbard possessed
enormous creativity in an era when jazz bubbled, boiled, steamed and courted trouble
as the most daring, spontaneous expression of creativity America had. In 2008
Hubbard completed his album by painstakingly overdubbing his solos, employing
digital technology for the purposes of revisiting, revising and reviving
touchstone jazz repertoire.

Now in regard to change and aging, it’s up to Hubbard’s
audience as much as to the man himself to recognize that the myth of eternal
youth is just a myth. The triumph of Hubbard’s current career is by definition
in the present, whenever he’s onstage, whatever he commits to recording. How many
70-year-olds front a relevant little big band? His presence is itself evidence
of victory over odds and adversity. The glories of his younger era remain on
videos as well as several dozen albums still in print. 

“I have to make up my mind I’m not going to play that way
again,” Hubbard said. “I’ve got to find a way to play a little easier, spot it
a bit more. Come in and play eight bars, let the band play, then take it out.
High energy? Most trumpet players out here play a couple of choruses, then sit
down. Cats used to say, ‘Blow! Blow!’ Now people don’t want that.”

But I don’t think he believed it.


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Comments

  1. craig katznelson says

    Really nice article–explains and reminds me of what i love to listen to. cti-record was my first jazz album. on my advent set-up. all the players mentioned here are my mainstays. enjoy -love to read any more. Hope freddie pulls through.
    HM: Glad you liked this article, Craig. As for articles like it: my interview with George Benson was recast for Future Jazz (out-of-print but available directly from me, or used on Amazon.com) and I’ll look for my piece on Freddie recording Super Blue, published by DB in the late ’70s — maybe I can post a pdf.

  2. says

    Great article. I’m really grateful I got a chance to see (pre-surgery) Freddie in the late 80s when I was in high school–he showed up late for an outdoor concert, blew everybody’s minds for a couple of tunes, announced he had to catch a plane and took off. He played so beautifully for those few tunes that I didn’t mind at all.

  3. says

    I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.
    Alena
    http://www.freegrantguru.com
    HM: Thanks Alena, I’ll keep blogging so there’s something fresh and (I hope) enjoyable to read.

  4. Brad Hart says

    Thank you Mr. Mandel. I’m sad to here about Freddie Hubbard being hospitalized, but am very glad to hear the news is not all bad. I wish him the best and a successful recovery so he may enjoy his life remaining. As others have said, I’m glad and grateful that I got to see Freddie in earlier versions and was ‘wowed’ by his fire and power – and his restraint, even. I’m also glad I followed the link to your blog. Thank you for your care, diligence, and respect to our beloved jazz ‘lifestyle’. I don’t usually comment on what I read, but I feel compelled after reading this. I will avail myself of your archives and current writings. Thank you, again Mr. Mandel.

  5. Wayne Humbyrd says

    Thanks for the article. I can barely put into words what Freddie Hubbard means to me as a player. I have heard Freddie “LIVE” 5 times in my life. The last being in Tulsa Oklahoma of all places in the late 80′s early 90′s. I was a Dominos Pizza franchisee with 3 stores in the area so I made arrangements to feed Freddie and his band between shows. Freddie ordered a pepperoni and green pepper pizza. I got to go back stage, hang with him in his dressing room. Watched the second show from stage right. Was a magical night for me. I have worshiped at the “jazz trumpet throne of Freddie” my whole life. Recently I have been somewhat critical of the his comeback attempt as it breaks my heart to hear him sound anything less than the GREAT Freddie Hubbard of years past. I liken it to Michael Jordan trying to play in the NBA at 40. Still has his moments but for the most part not the same player. I had gotten an email from Davie Weiss who I must admit got me look at it from a different perspective. While it still pains me to hear Freddie, who am I to criticize or deny him of his true love, playing jazz, regardless of how he may sound. If HE is cool with it, than I will be as well.
    Freddie, we love you and wish you all the best. You ARE THE GREATEST JAZZ TRUMPETER EVER!
    HM: Update on Hubbard’s condition, from trumpeter and New Jazz Composers Octet leader David Weiss, as of Dec. 17: “Freddie was having trouble breathing and was taken by ambulance to Sherman Oaks hospital on Wednesday, November 26. He did have a heart attack. He was unconscious for a couple of days, induced by his doctors who thought the treatment they were giving him would cause him too much pain if he was conscious. He has been awake for around two weeks now. He is still hooked up to breathing apparatus but again is conscious and coherent. He is getting stronger every day but has a ways to go.” One thing about Freddie Hubbard is that he’s a lion, and does not give up. I’m sure we’re all pulling for his recovery.

  6. Anthony Williams says

    I’m very saddened at the passing of a truly great jazz trumpeter, Freddie D. Hubbard. My very first jazz album was “First Light” by Mr.Hubbard, it blew me away, it was and still is a masterpiece. I had the privilege of seeing and hearing Freddie Hubbard at the Greek theatre in the 80′s at a Creed Taylor concert along with other CTI artist, it was the greatest experience. Freddie you will be greatly missed. May God continue to bless you and comfort your family.

  7. Anthony Williams says

    I posted a blog on Dec. 30, 2008 and I stated that I saw Freddie Hubbard at the Greek Theatre in the 80′s at a Creed Taylor Concert along with other CTI artist.I have a correction to make regarding The date and the venue. The concert was Presented by CTI and KUDU Records at the Hollywood Bowl on Sunday, July 30, 1972 at 7:00 P.M… The concert was called “CTI SUMMER JAZZ”.The starring line up included Esther Phillips, Hubert Laws, Grover Washington Jr., Stanley Turrentine, Milt Jackson, Johnny Hammond, Joe Farrell, George Benson, Hank Crawford, Eumir Deodato, Freddie Hubbard, Airto, Jackie & Roy, Ron Carter, Jack DeJohnette, Bob James, co-M.C.’s Leonard Feather and Rick Holmes of KBCA 105.1 FM… That was the greatest concert I have ever been to and I still have the program. Rest in peace Freddie Hubbard.

  8. says

    As a former trumpet player who still loves all the great players, I just learned of Freddie’s passing about a week ago! I was shocked and sad to hear of this. It’s too bad these great, jazz trumpet players don’t get the recognition they deserve in the mainstream public eye.
    I didn’t hear of Maynard’s passing until last year. There just isn’t enough appreciation of the great talents. Freddie was such a huge trumpet star. I loved his sound and style. He’s one of the greatest jazz legends of the last century.

  9. says

    It is very tough losing a loved one and especially a skilled musician. I know more of these dreadful days will come when other greats I grew up with also pass. At least he left some great music that you will remember for a long time.