Bobby Hutcherson: The JazzTimes Interview

The bricklayer's son returns to Blue Note with a killer album

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Joey DeFrancesco, Billy Hart, Bobby Hutcherson and David Sanborn at the SFJAZZ Center, Feb. 2014
By Scott Chernis
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Bobby Hutcherson (left) and drummer Billy Hart at thr SFJAZZ Center, 2014
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Joey DeFrancesco, Bobby Hutcherson, David Sanborn and Billy Hart, 2014
By Scott Chernis
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Bobby Hutcherson recording for Blue Note Records, June 1965
By Francis Wolff

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Onstage, Bobby Hutcherson comes across as a genial trickster with a sly sense of humor that guards an acute emotional intelligence. He’s not much different offstage, where he can fully indulge his natural gifts as a raconteur whose anecdotes often end with unanticipated punch lines. Which, come to think of it, is much like a Hutcherson solo that loops around, digresses, reveals unexpected harmonic insights and then concludes with a dramatic, resonating flourish.

Hutcherson, 73, has been slowed by emphysema in recent years and is tethered to an oxygen line. But his playing remains smart and gorgeous, if more selective, as heard during a sold-out four-night February run at the SFJAZZ Center. That stand saw the vibraphonist alongside alto saxophonist David Sanborn, organist Joey DeFrancesco and drummer Billy Hart—the same cast featured on Enjoy the View, the forthcoming Blue Note album credited to Hutcherson, Sanborn and DeFrancesco. The album, Hutcherson’s first for Blue Note since Manhattan Moods, his 1994 co-release with McCoy Tyner, is a worthy addition to his era-defining discography for the 75-year-old label: an enviable list of leader and sideman projects featuring the likes of Jackie McLean, Eric Dolphy, Grachan Moncur III, Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, Grant Green, Andrew Hill and Tony Williams. Two days after the 50th anniversary of Dolphy’s epochal Out to Lunch! session, I drove from Berkeley to the house Hutcherson shares with Rosemary, his wife of 41 years, in Montara, a town on Highway 1 about 20 miles south of San Francisco with breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean.

In a conversation that focused on his early years, a few themes emerged, particularly the abiding self-confidence that comes from the boundless love and support he received from his mother, even when circumstances seemed to suggest her faith was misplaced.

JAZZTIMES: YOUR DAD WAS A SKILLED BRICKLAYER, A STONEMASON, BUT THERE WAS A LOT OF MUSIC AROUND THE HOUSE.

BOBBY HUTCHERSON: My brother Teddy was about 14 years older than me, and he and Dexter Gordon went to the same high school in Los Angeles, Jefferson. My brother was a cheerleader and Dexter was in the marching band. They hung out a lot, and they would come back home together. Of course I was too small to really participate, but I got to hear them hang out, and they would play music.

My sister Peggy was the one who was really into the music. She started singing in junior high school. She started working with Sonny Clark, who was living in Pasadena, doing dances and stuff. She later started taking lessons from a guy named Tex Thomas and going out to jam sessions where she met Gerald Wilson. Eric Dolphy was playing in the band, and she became Eric’s girlfriend. Later, my sister started going out with [saxophonist] Billy Mitchell. He and [trombonist] Al Grey had started their own group and came over to the house, and at that point I had bought a vibraphone. He said, “Listen, our pianist has just left the group, and we have a two-week gig at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco. Can you play with four mallets and handle the piano parts?” I lied and I said, “Oh yeah, I can do that. No problem.”

My sister went on to sing with Ray Charles. She left Ray Charles because she was going out with the pilot of his plane. He had his own plane. And she decided one night to go up and sit with the pilot one morning around 4:30 in the morning. And there was Ray Charles flying the plane. She says, “Mr. Charles?” And he says, “Peggy, is that you?” She says, “Yeah. Are you flying the plane?” “Oh yes, I do this all the time. I wait until everybody falls asleep; I don’t want to get them nervous. As soon as everybody falls asleep they bring me up and I fly the plane. I even land it.” She says, “No kidding.” So she goes back to her seat and put in her notice to quit the band right away. But she’s on the recording “Let’s Go Get Stoned.”

THE TWO-WEEK STAND IN S.F. WAS YOUR FIRST TRIP OUT OF TOWN?

No, not really. I kind of had my own band, and I’d gone out of town with Charles Lloyd to Arizona and Las Vegas. We had been doing things around the L.A. area. I had this garage where everybody used to come, and we’d have jam sessions there as kids. Herbie Lewis and I had all the instruments in the garage. And all of the musicians coming through the L.A. area heard there was a place in Pasadena to come over and have a jam session and it was my garage: Phineas Newborn, Charles Lloyd, trumpeter Joe Gordon, [saxophonist] Walter Benton, all kinds of people.

HERBIE LEWIS WAS REALLY YOUR FIRST MUSICAL COLLABORATOR, RIGHT?

He and I got a gig at a place called Pandora’s Box over on the Sunset Strip, and all the kids used to come over on the weekend. It was a coffeehouse, no alcohol, and we’d play our little songs and you couldn’t get in this place! It was about a block away from Schwab’s Pharmacy and across the street from Ciro’s, a really great nightclub. A lot of the kids got very jealous of what we were doing. Here we’d be back in school on Monday, and the kids from school got jealous and they set the garage on fire and all of our instruments got burned up.

WAS THIS A RACIST THING?

Oh yeah—we knew, we knew. It was when the high school we went to was starting to integrate. And there was a lot of crossover between the races, and at the same time there were other feelings. My girlfriend, whom I later married, was white. Her parents’ brand new Chevy convertible was in the garage; it was on the other side. There was a partition, and then there was the jazz room. And they threw a torch up on top of the roof. I got the Chevy and my father’s truck out, but not the instruments.

LET’S STEP BACK. WHEN WAS THE FIRST TIME YOU HEARD THE VIBES?

The first time was when Red Norvo came to our junior high school and played a concert at an assembly. I thoroughly enjoyed it because he was having such a good time playing, but it didn’t attract me as something I wanted to do. I saw Lionel Hampton on some of those old pictures playing with Benny Goodman, and still I wasn’t drawn. But then I heard Milt Jackson on a record; I guess I was around 12 years old. School was out, and I was walking down the street past this music store, and the guy was playing this record with Milt Jackson and Monk, Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke: Miles Davis [and the Modern Jazz Giants] playing “Bemsha Swing.” I was walking down the street in Pasadena and I said, “Boy, that’s going just the way I’m walking.” I turned around and bought the record, brought it home and wore it out. I told Herbie Lewis, who had a little trio in junior high school, that I’m thinking about buying a vibraphone. He says, “Oh good, because if you buy a vibraphone you can play in our group. We can be like the Modern Jazz Quartet and make money and meet girls.” “Oh, that sounds great!”

FROM WHAT I RECALL HEARING, YOUR DEBUT ON THE VIBRAPHONE WASN’T EXACTLY AUSPICIOUS.

I worked with my dad that summer and saved up my money. I got the instrument and called Herbie: “I’ve got a vibraphone!” “Oh good, because we’re going to play a concert in two weeks.” I said, “Herbie, I just got the instrument, I know nothing about it.” I had it set up in my bedroom. I just walked around and looked at it. He says, “All these different combos are going to have a competition at the Pasadena City College auditorium. It’s going to be a concert.” I said, “Herbie, I’ve never even touched it.”

He said, “Don’t worry. We’ll take a black felt pen and write down on each bar which note to hit next.” “You mean like, one, two, three?” “Yes.” “How many songs do we have to play?” “Maybe two or three songs.” “Isn’t that going to be an awful lot of numbers on these notes?” “Listen, we’ll practice every day until you get it.”

All the kids in school heard that I just got the vibes and I’m playing this concert. “Have you heard Bobby’s playing in this concert already?” They all came to boo or applaud. My mom was my biggest fan. “Oh, my son—have you heard about my son? He’s so great, he’s done this unbelievable thing. He’s playing already.”

My dad was like, “You’ve got to be kidding me. I want him to be a bricklayer.” That’s where my dad was coming from. I got to where I could kind of remember the notes. It was hard because in the second or third tune, it was like 297, 315, where’s 316? OK, so I had it all figured out. We came to the combo concert, and the stage manager comes up to us. We’re getting ready to go on and he comes up and says, “You’re going on next. You get out there and break a leg. Oh, Bobby, by the way, I saw a bunch of stuff written all over your bars so I took a wet cloth and wiped it all off.” “You didn’t!” “Yes, I did. Now get out there and play!”

Well, the curtain opened and my heart was going like this [motions thumping action with his hand]. My mom is sitting there [beatific smile]. My father’s saying [mutters], “I told him he should be a bricklayer.” And all the kids are sitting there. Well, I hit the first note; I remembered that. But from the second note on it was complete chaos. You never heard people boo and laugh like that. I was completely humiliated. But my mom was just smiling, and my father was saying, “See, I told you he should have been a bricklayer.”

THAT’S ROUGH. IT’S A WONDER YOU DIDN’T SELL THE VIBES.

The thing was, at that point I had to make a decision: Am I going to lay down here on the canvas? Because I just got knocked out. I just got a Sunday punch and everybody saw it. This guy who used to give me a really hard time in school came up to me and said, “See? You’ll never be anything.” I had to say to myself, “OK, what’s it going to be?” At that point me and Herbie started studying, not formally. We started doing everything we could to learn about music. We used to go over to [pianist] Terry Trotter’s house and do all these scales. Next thing I know, our little group got that job at Pandora’s Box on the Sunset Strip.

YOU GOT TO NEW YORK CITY WITH BILLY MITCHELL AND AL GREY AND ENDED UP JAMMING WITH HERBIE LEWIS AGAIN. WHAT KIND OF MATERIAL WERE YOU GUYS PLAYING?

Well, at first it was just Herbie and Grachan [Moncur III]. Then Grachan called Jackie McLean and he came over and we’d play. That’s when Jackie said, “I’ve got two weeks lined up at the Coronet in Brooklyn. Let’s do this.” Herbie had to go back out with the Jazztet, so Jackie got Eddie Khan to play bass, and he brought Tony Williams from Boston.

AT THE CORONET, WERE YOU PLAYING SOME OF THE TUNES YOU RECORDED ON MCLEAN’S ONE STEP BEYOND?

Oh yeah, we were playing that stuff. The Coronet had a big long bar, and everybody would be sitting there at the bar and we’d be playing all this crazy music and they thought it was great: “Ah, look at these kids up there playing all this weird stuff.” Jackie was with Blue Note and he called up [label co-founder] Alfred Lion and said, “Alfred, come on down here. I want you to hear this.” So Alfred comes here and says, “Oh, I want to record it.” So we went into the studio.

HAD YOU BEEN PLAYING ANYTHING LIKE THIS BEFORE? WHAT DID YOU MAKE OF THE MUSIC?

I just threw myself into it. Al Grey and Billy Mitchell had just broken up and I’m driving a taxi. I was going to do anything to not have to go back home and say that New York kicked my ass. Because that’s what everybody would have said: “You couldn’t make it in New York City.” I saw this opportunity and I’m just going to go for it. Luckily, what was in my favor was I was playing four mallets, and I was playing chords. It gave me something more than just sitting there playing melodies. I’m playing these chords and everybody’s soloing, and that made it different. Especially, we’re in Brooklyn at the Coronet, which is a real gangster-like club, and here we are playing some out stuff. The crowd used to love to hear Jackie get on the microphone and announce what we were playing. Jackie would say, “OK, we are now going to play ‘Frankenstein’s Mama,’” and the crowd would go crazy. “What?! OK, did you like that? Now we’re going to play ‘Ghost Town.’” We had a great time.

WHEN YOU GOT TO BLUE NOTE A LOT OF YOUR PEERS HAD STUDIED MUSIC FORMALLY, IN COLLEGE OR OTHERWISE, BUT YOU WERE SELF-TAUGHT. WHEN DID YOU GET INTERESTED IN WRITING?

Joe Chambers told me when we got together, “Your cycle isn’t complete. In order to complete your cycle you have to write; that way you can document what was going through your mind and where you were harmonically, theoretically, historically, to kind of show the things that you were thinking about and how you were feeling.” Andrew Hill said the same thing too: “You’ve got to write.” He said the first 10 tunes will come easily; after that you have to work really hard to get the next tune. I think the first five tunes came easy, but it got a little harder to figure out how to put the next idea out. Because I didn’t have enough; I’m a self-taught musician.

There are a lot of ways to learn how to play and a lot of ways to learn how to write. And I had to realize that to do something different, you have to have these theories. Some writing is just a melody that you sing as you’re doing something, that seems to come to you and it says these words to you. Some things are theory, like John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”—you can hear that that’s a theory. Are you working on a theory to create a maze or a puzzle, to be able to go in this side and get through the maze? Are you just looking for little situations, small motifs, little questions and answers? Are you looking for secondary melodies to come in, completely different from [the primary melody] but they will all add up? It doesn’t even have to be melodic; it can be a rhythmic statement that bounces around. There are so many ways. Then there’s the sound of the elements—the sound of wind, the sound of rain, how the notes and melodies are contained in a sunny day or a rainy day.

YOU’VE COMPOSED ON THE GUITAR AS WELL.

I just bought a guitar and I used to sit around and play chords. I wrote the song that bought this house, “Ummh,” on the San Francisco album, on guitar. I took the guitar into the studio and everybody was in there and I said, “I wrote a tune.” They said, “Where is it?” “I didn’t write it out. Let me play it for you.” I played it for them, and everybody got their part.

IN 1963 YOU RECORDED YOUR FIRST SESSION AS A LEADER FOR BLUE NOTE, THE KICKER, WHICH WAS RELEASED DECADES LATER, AND IT INCLUDED AN ORIGINAL OF YOURS. BUT YOUR NEXT ALBUM, DIALOGUE, THE FIRST ONE THAT BLUE NOTE PUT OUT, DIDN’T HAVE ANY OF YOUR TUNES?

Alfred wanted me to do something different. He introduced me to Andrew Hill. I went over to Andrew’s house. He sat me down and he called Laverne, his wife, who played organ, and said, “Laverne, bring some of those tunes you’ve been writing.” A lot of those tunes were Laverne’s.

REALLY? THE TUNES ON DIALOGUE CREDITED TO ANDREW HILL?

Oh yeah—that’s his wife’s writing. Laverne was quite an organist. All the Afro-American musicians from the East Coast were playing on the chitlin circuit. It was mainly made up of organ players and tenor saxophonists. I played it with Al Grey and Billy Mitchell. But she wrote tunes that wouldn’t necessarily be played in those venues.

YOU RECORDED DIALOGUE ON APRIL 3, 1965, AND THEN COMPONENTS TWO MONTHS LATER. ONE SIDE OF THE ALBUM IS ALL YOUR TUNES AND THE OTHER IS ALL COMPOSITIONS BY JOE CHAMBERS.

Yeah, Joe was amazing. He had a brother who passed away who was [a classical composer]. He wanted [his brother] to be very proud of him, and he was. Joe talked a lot about composition, about space. He talked a lot about the space between the beat, about whether or not to keep a steady, constant tempo. A good drummer understands that you should be able to speed up in the tune and slow down in the tune, and is able to control that. A lot of people think of playing time as just [motions a steady beat with his right hand]. It’s too rigid; it’s not breathing. A lot people don’t understand that. Then the other thing they don’t understand is always playing too loud. You have to be able to shade and play soft.

LOOKING AT THOSE EARLY BLUE NOTE SESSIONS, JACKIE MCLEAN’S ONE STEP BEYOND, GRACHAN MONCUR’S EVOLUTION AND ERIC DOLPHY’S OUT TO LUNCH!, ALL OF THE PLAYERS ARE AMAZING, BUT I REALLY THINK YOU WERE THE STRAW THAT STIRRED THE DRINK.

[long silence] Everything is a world of its own. It’s the same thing with an instrument. Each instrument is a world of its own—not to say that just because you pick up that instrument it’s going to sound the same as somebody else. The music comes from you, and it comes out of your mind and out of your heart into the instrument. I always thought, “Try playing the music without your instrument.” And if you do that, and somebody’s sitting there, can they feel what you’re playing? Then play your instrument. Now, is what you were trying to say, what you were trying to reveal about your thoughts and feelings, is it easier now that you have your instrument?

BUT YOU KNEW SOMETHING DIFFERENT WAS HAPPENING ON A SESSION LIKE OUT TO LUNCH!

We had a rehearsal at Eric’s place right before we recorded, and there was this trumpet player, Eddie Armour, who was supposed to be on this gig. We were going to go and play Pittsburgh and come back and do Out to Lunch! Well, he ends up walking out in the middle of the rehearsal. He packs up his horn and says, “Eric, I don’t like you and I don’t like your music, and I don’t like none of you.” Eric just watches him, and as he starts walking through the door he says, “Eddie, if I can ever help you, please don’t hesitate to call. I’m there for you.” And Eric meant it. Eddie slammed the door, and Eric says, “OK, let’s play.” We started playing the music from Out to Lunch!, and it just went into a whole ’nother thing.

LET’S TALK ABOUT SOME OF THE OTHER MUSICIANS WHO MEANT A LOT TO YOU, STARTING WITH TENOR SAXOPHONIST HAROLD LAND.

What I loved about Harold is his playing changed. It seemed to change when he became a Buddhist. He could hold his air behind chanting. He could do these long columns of air, and he could do different things because of that control. At first I told Joe Chambers I wanted Harold Land to play with us, and he said, “He’s too old! He won’t be able to understand this newer stuff we’re doing.” I said, “No, I think he will. You’ll see.” And all of a sudden he did. You could really hear his playing change on the Now! album. Joe says, “Oh yeah, he’s got it.” Theoretically, at first he was playing linear, playing the line coming through the chords. That’s like playing horizontal. And all of a sudden Harold starts playing vertically, playing these different intervals. It was interesting to hear that change, because at a certain age it’s hard to do that when you’ve been playing a certain way all your life.

ONE OF THE FIRST TUNES YOU WROTE WAS FOR DUKE PEARSON. HOW DID THAT COME ABOUT?

You know the guy that’s in the group that goes about his business, helps to make everything work and go smooth? Never boasts about what he did? Walks into a crowded room, goes about his business and causes everything to take on a certain vibe, leaves and nobody even realizes he was there? That was Duke. A lot of people like to be aggressive, but Duke was the kind of guy who could make you feel relaxed. He could look over at you and say, “Everything’s OK, you’re doing good.” Duke had a beautiful bedside manner. Played beautiful trumpet and great bass [in addition to piano]. We used to have these rehearsals at the studio for the recording, and if the trumpeter or the bassist didn’t show, Duke would play their parts until they got there. He wrote beautifully, and a lot of his music would plead and beg. He was a wonderful young man. Dressed to the max—always had on a beautiful outfit. Always very slick, very clean. He represented all of us very well. It was a thrill to know him.

Originally published in May 2014

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