Freddie Hubbard: The Show Must Go On

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Freddie Hubbard
By Nick Ruechel
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Freddie Hubbard
By Nick Ruechel
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Freddie Hubbard
By Francis Wolff

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The blue-neon sign of the Iridium Jazz Club glowed softly behind Freddie Hubbard. The legendary trumpeter wore a yellow-straw fedora, a gold tie and a tailored dark suit with a handkerchief peeking out of the jacket pocket. He was celebrating his 70th birthday in New York two-and-a-half months late by leading an all-star octet that included some of his longest-standing collaborators, among them Curtis Fuller, Louis Hayes and James Spaulding.

On “Jodo,” the first tune of the second set on June 28, the bandleader picked up his silver flugelhorn, which had been resting on Larry Willis’ piano. Hubbard played a short passage that had the slashing phrasing of the original 1965 Blue Note recording.

But the notes that filled that phrasing came out cracked, strangled and far from their intended pitch. Hubbard held the horn horizontally at waist level and stared at it quizzically, as if there were something wrong with it. He didn’t see anything, so he tried the solo again. Again the notes sputtered off-pitch. Obviously frustrated, Hubbard cut his solo short and motioned for his old friend Spaulding to take over.

The evening was meant to showcase the hard-bop great’s return to active duty. He had a new album with the New Jazz Composers Octet, On the Real Side (Times Square), and a spate of newspaper and magazine articles suggesting that he had largely recovered from the health problems that had marred his playing since 1992. But Hubbard himself knew better. You could tell from the way he winced that the notes coming out of his horn were far different from the notes he heard in his head. There was nothing wrong with his ears; his embouchure was the problem.

His sharp ears were obvious as his bandmates soloed on “Jodo.” Hubbard moved gingerly, the result of severe back problems, but he punched the air with the rhythmic accents of his composition. During the head of the next tune, “Little Sunflower,” he barked out that the chord was A, not E. Music director David Weiss looked puzzled, but saxophonist Javon Jackson pointed at the score on the music stand. Hubbard was right. The bandleader cheered on the adventurous solos by Jackson and Willis, beaming with pleasure at hearing his music played as he heard it in his head. But when he picked up the flugelhorn again, there were more winces.

What kind of special agony is it to be mentally sharp, as Hubbard obviously is, and unable to physically execute the sounds you can so clearly imagine? What must it be like to still harbor the fire for making music and yet be constantly dissatisfied with the results?

“What I play is not too bad,” Hubbard said defensively a few days later. “It was all right. It wasn’t like I was 100 percent; I was tired.” Then he grew combative, asserting, “The young cats can’t play what I play. My stuff is way ahead; they don’t play with the chordal sense that I do; they don’t know nothing about that. I’ve got more maturity than they’ve got, even though my chops are down.”

Those chops are what once made his reputation. Between 1958, when he first arrived in New York from Indianapolis, and 1992, when he suffered a devastating lip injury, Hubbard could play the trumpet as fast and as hard, as agilely and as accurately, as anyone on the planet. Just listen to the records he made as a leader for Blue Note and Impulse in the ’60s, the solos he played on records by Art Blakey, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and Wayne Shorter in the same decade, the hits he had with CTI in the ’70s.

On his 1961 album, Ready for Freddie, Hubbard unveiled “Birdlike,” his tribute to Charlie Parker, with a bravura trumpet solo that machine-gunned notes across several octaves at a dizzying, Parker-like tempo pushed along by Elvin Jones. Each note, whether a piercing 16th or a bluesy quarter, was precisely pitched and crisply articulated. When Hubbard played the same song at Iridium this year, he attempted the same solo on flugelhorn, but the pitch was hit-and-miss and the articulation uncertain.

“I don’t have the embouchure and strength I had when I was 25,” Hubbard admitted before the gig. “You realize you’re getting older and can’t do the same thing you once did. Miles once told me, ‘You can’t play like that forever; you have to find something you’re comfortable with.’ That’s what I’m looking for.

“The most difficult thing for me is to say to myself, ‘You can’t do what you used to do,’ and to find a way to play, so I’m still happy with it and the audience is still happy with it. People know what I used to sound like, but they appreciate that I’m still trying. Maybe they’re just coming out to see if I’m still alive. Maybe they’re saying, ‘He’s still alive; let’s see how far he can go.’”

I arrived at the Buckingham Hotel in midtown Manhattan at 5 p.m. and a barefoot Hubbard opened his door wearing nothing but a white Los Angeles Marathon T-shirt and a pair of blue-and-white plaid shorts. He immediately crawled back into bed and did the interview with his head tilted sideways atop two pillows. He catalogued all his physical ailments.

“I’ve been through so much,” he lamented, “in addition to my lip problems. I had congestive heart failure a few years ago, and I also had something cut out of my lung. Last year, all of a sudden, my neck got stiff, and my doctor said I have a pinched nerve between my second and third vertebrae. That’s probably the most serious of all, because it affects the way I walk and move.”

He sounded like nothing so much as an aging athlete, bewildered that the same body that brought him so many triumphs had now betrayed him. It echoed those moments when an aging Cal Ripken Jr. would flail in vain at a grounder to his left, or when an aging Sammy Sosa would swing at a fast ball just after it had passed him.

We don’t usually compare trumpeters to athletes. After all, horn players stand in one place onstage for a few hours a day—what can be so physically demanding about that? Hubbard insists, however, that the bodily toll is similar, especially for trumpeters. And he has the injuries to prove it.

“Just like an athlete,” he argues, “your bones get tired unless you move just right. Like an athlete, you’re trying to be a little bit better than the next guy, so you push yourself a bit harder. A trumpeter pushes that metal mouthpiece against his lip, squeezing it against his teeth; the more he presses the louder and harder he can play.

“I always played with too much pressure because I felt I needed it to get that feel I wanted. You want to stay in the pocket, but the drums are usually so loud that you have to play really hard to be heard over them. That leads to injuries, but like an athlete, a musician can’t wait to get back out there and start playing again. You feel good so you take the jobs, but then it hurts again because it didn’t have time to heal.”

Young musicians, like young athletes, feel indestructible. Both are encouraged by their teammates and managers to shake off aches and pains and to keep playing as hard as they can. For years Hubbard would get blisters on his lips, but he’d keep playing and they’d go away. As he got older, however, he noticed that all the older trumpeters had scar tissue.

“I once asked Miles, ‘What are those spots on your lips?’” Hubbard recalled. “He said, ‘That’s from blowing the horn.’ Then I noticed that Harry James had spots on his lips. I did this ‘Satchmo Tour’ in Russia, and they had this big photo of Louis [Armstrong] behind the stage. I’d look up at that picture and the scar on his lip was in the same place as mine. It drilled me every time I saw it.

“I heard stories about Louis. The crowd would be cheering and hollering, so he would overexert himself. Instead of playing two choruses, he’d play four or five or 10. The same thing happened to me. You get caught up in the moment; you want to play with the same intensity as the drummer, so you play too loud and too long. But lips are very delicate, I’ve learned—there are a lot of different muscles in there. I didn’t realize how hard I was blowing. I thought I was the strongest trumpet player in the world, but that shit caught up with me.”

So what should Hubbard have done earlier in his career? It’s hard to say. If he had played it safe, he’d be healthier and have better chops today. But if he had played it safe, he might never have become the extraordinary player he did. Even as a teenager in the mid-’50s, he wowed his elders.

“I was in the Army in 1954,” recalled Spaulding. “I was stationed at Fort Harris in Indiana, and I met Freddie at a Saturday afternoon jam session at the Cotton Club in Indianapolis when he was 16 and I was a year older. He was one of the most talented musicians I’d ever heard. Even then he was fiery and had a flair about him, that outgoing personality. He had perfect pitch; he’d hear someone’s car blowing in the street and tell you what note it was.”

When Hubbard first arrived in New York from Indianapolis as a 20-year-old in 1958, his prodigious ability quickly landed him jobs with Sonny Rollins, Philly Joe Jones, Slide Hampton and J.J. Johnson.

“Imagine me, a kid, with those giants,” he exclaimed, the astonishment still in his voice 50 years later. “I could hardly play for listening. They’d start and—whoosh—they’d be gone. I’d say, ‘How’d you do that? How’d you come up with that?’ Then I figured out that they did it by listening to the guys before them. A lot of what Sonny and Trane were playing was no different than what Lester Young played; they just played with more intensity.

“Prez would sit there in his chair with his horn out to the side and it was so lovely. That’s what I need to figure out how to do now. Ben Webster was the same way. I played with him once at a jazz festival in Norway in the ’80s, and he’d sit there playing so lightly, but he had tears in his eyes because it was so beautiful. I had tears in my eyes too.”

Like every other young trumpeter in the late ’50s, Hubbard was an imitator of Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Clifford Brown. To distinguish himself from his contemporaries (most notably Lee Morgan, Booker Little and Donald Byrd), Hubbard needed a different sound.

“I started practicing with tenor players,” he revealed. “I’d hear what Rollins and Trane would do, and their passages were so involved, so hip, that I figured it’d make me sound different. But passages that come naturally to a saxophonist don’t come easy to a trumpeter. You need a lot of elasticity, because your embouchure is so different than a tenor player’s.

“You can’t play a trumpet as long as you can a tenor, because the mouthpiece is against your lips while the tenor’s mouthpiece is inside your lips. If you’re going to play lots of choruses like Trane and Sonny, you have to be really strong. When I practiced with Sonny, he’d have me lift weights to build up my strength.”

When he mastered the challenge of playing those long, slipping and sliding tenor passages with the brassy attack of the trumpet, Hubbard had a sound like no one else. He further refined it by eschewing the dominant trumpet tone of the time.

“Most trumpeters back then had a pinched sound, like tee-tee-tee,” he pointed out, “but Clifford Brown had an open sound, more like doo-doo-doo. It’s harder to control an open sound than a pinched sound, so most trumpeters avoid it, but I had played tuba, French horn and E-flat mellophone in school, and I was used to a larger mouthpiece. You have to blow a certain way to get that sound, but I figured it out. It’s difficult to control when you open up that wide, but if you can, you sound like no one else.”

“He always had the confidence to experiment and try things,” Spaulding added. “He was able to funnel all these different trumpet players, all the way from Louis Armstrong down to Dizzy and Miles, until he found his own voice. That’s what I think this music is all about, finding your own voice. When you heard Trane, you knew it was Trane. When you heard Dizzy, you knew it was Dizzy. When you heard Freddie, you knew it was Freddie.”

The combination of the Rollins-like phrasing and the Brown-like openness gave Hubbard a one-of-a-kind voice on the horn. That voice attracted Art Blakey, who made the trumpeter a Jazz Messenger from 1961 through 1966. That voice dominated Hubbard’s own recordings as a leader, most memorably Ready for Freddie, Breaking Point and The Artistry of Freddie Hubbard. That voice earned Hubbard a key role on such landmark recordings as Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage, Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil, John Coltrane’s Ascension and Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz.

“I got into that free jazz for a while,” he admitted, “but it didn’t really fit me. Some of it was good, but I prefer playing with changes. I like that element of surprise, of not knowing what you’re going to hear next, but I didn’t like that it shut so many people out. A lot of people didn’t dig free jazz, because you have to really get into that music to get something out of it. You have to really use your imagination. I wanted to connect with as many people as I could, because the people who did that seemed to make the most money.”

When Hubbard, like many of his peers, began experimenting with R&B-flavored fusion in the early ’70s, it was his distinctive trumpet sound, with its lingering links to Rollins and Brown, that redeemed the simple vamps and pop melodies of the material. Hubbard made a quartet of albums for producer Creed Taylor at CTI Records—1970’s Red Clay, 1970’s Straight Life, 1971’s First Light and 1973’s Sky Dive—that managed to combine artistic and commercial success and even won a Grammy.

But not even his remarkable chops could save records that resorted more and more to formula. Albums such as 1976’s Windjammer, 1979’s The Love Connection, 1980’s Mistral and 1981’s Splash were embarrassments. Hubbard realized he was getting more praise and gigs out of his acoustic projects such as the V.S.O.P. tours where he took over Miles Davis’ trumpet chair to perform and record with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. So he shifted gears and cut some excellent acoustic recordings under his own name: 1982’s Keystone Bop, 1983’s Sweet Return, 1987’s Outpost and 1988’s Eternal Triangle. He had seemingly rebounded.

But this renaissance was cut short by a blister. In 1992 Hubbard was playing New York’s Blue Note club when he developed a sore on his lip as he had so many times before. He ignored it, because he was due in Helsinki to play as a guest soloist with a Finnish big band.

“My lip popped during the TV show,” he remembered, shaking his head, “and got blood all over my white shirt. They said, ‘You have to make the second set,’ and like a dummy I tried to do it. But that just made it worse. I laid off for a month, but then I came back too soon, before it was really healed.”

A growth developed on his lip. It wasn’t cancerous, as first feared, but it had to be removed, and the cutting affected his embouchure as much as the growth had. Soon a pattern developed: Hubbard would rest for a while in an effort to heal, then he’d get restless and try to play again, only to be dissatisfied with the results. So he’d rest some more and the cycle would restart. He was only 54 in 1992, but he had lived a hard life and as he passed 60, his health was complicated by problems unrelated to his lips.

“Trumpet players seem to die young,” he mused. “Is it the playing or the lifestyle? It’s probably both.”

He owed MusicMasters another album in 1993, but everyone was unsure how it could be done under the circumstances. So the label turned to Big Apple Productions, the three-man team of Vincent Herring, Carl Allen and David Weiss, who had been organizing records for Japanese labels. The producers decided to record Hubbard as part of an octet in a tribute to Monk, Miles, Trane and Cannon (hence the title MMTC). The combination of many instruments and familiar material, they figured, would take the pressure off the bandleader.

Weiss, a trumpeter himself, was the least well known of the three producers, but he had a knack for conducting sessions and writing arrangements (he wrote three of the eight charts on MMTC). His success with the Hubbard date impressed some record companies, who asked Weiss to produce demos on some potential “young lions” (this was the early ’90s, remember) before the labels committed to full-scale sessions. Out of those demo projects, Weiss bonded with such young musicians as pianist Xavier Davis, bassist Dwayne Burno and saxophonists Greg Tardy and Myron Walden. They all wrote music, so in 1996 the five friends formed the core of the New Jazz Composers Octet.

“I thought it would be good for the band to hook up with Freddie,” Weiss said, “and good for him too. It would give us some exposure and would give him a band that had rehearsed his material. So in 1999 I went out to California and spent a week with him, picking out older tunes that we could arrange for the octet. We toured together in the summer of 2000, recorded later that year and released our first album together, New Colors, in 2003.”

In the process Weiss became Hubbard’s music director and de facto manager. During the interview at the Buckingham Hotel, Weiss lurked in the background, making phone calls and answering e-mails about the evening’s gig, letting Hubbard know when he had to end the interview and get dressed for the show. At Iridium, the 43-year-old Weiss wore a black shirt with a black suit, his short, sandy hair highlighting his angular face as he directed traffic onstage. He stood between Spaulding and Jackson, handling the ensemble trumpet parts so Hubbard could concentrate on his solos.

But the solos weren’t going too well. So Hubbard announced, “Now we’re going to do the song that has kept me alive all these years. I’m going to show you how I first wrote it.” He sat down at the club’s Steinway grand piano and banged out the opening chords to “Red Clay.” Hubbard’s not much of a pianist, but his low expectations on the instrument allowed him to relax. As he got a primitive blues groove going at the keys, he looked happier than he had all night. He picked out the song’s melody, an obvious borrowing of Bobby Hebb’s 1966 pop hit “Sunny,” and turned it over to Spaulding’s alto sax with a delighted chuckle.

Because Hubbard had so much trouble playing, the evening’s focus inevitably shifted to his compositions, just as it does on the new album, On the Real Side, which is, after all, a collaboration with the New Jazz Composers Octet. For a long time, his virtuosic performances had obscured his writing, but now that the virtuosity was gone, maybe it was time to appreciate his compositions.

“What’s most interesting to me as a musician,” noted Weiss, “are not the popular tunes like ‘Red Clay’ or ‘Up Jumped Spring,’ but rather the more complex pieces like ‘True Colors,’ ‘For B.P.’ and ‘Outer Forces.’ His pieces can be dark and complicated, but they always have real melodies. And Freddie has a unique rhythm to the way he plays, even the way he walks—a swaggering kind of strut.

“‘Lifeflight’ is my favorite on the new record. It’s got a strong melody with an interesting rhythmic counterpoint. When you expand his pieces from a quartet to an octet, all the hip tendencies in the tune, all the unusual grooves and harmonies, get more weight and have more of an impact.”

“When I was younger,” Hubbard admitted, “I was more into proving I could play. I wrote a lot of things, but they got overshadowed by the playing. But I can’t play that way anymore.”

But he can’t seem to stop himself from trying. Again and again at Iridium, he would pick up the more forgiving flugelhorn, his main instrument these days, and try to blast out his diamond-sharp and diamond-hard phrases of yore. Some musicians onstage turned their heads as if uncomfortable with the awkward results. Others, like Curtis Fuller, were so glad to see Hubbard onstage at all that they smiled as they watched him give it everything he had.

“The years have taken a toll,” Spaulding acknowledged, “so I don’t know if he’ll be able to continue or not. We gave him all the support we possibly could at the Iridium. He seemed like he was enjoying it. It’s been a struggle these past few years, but his spirit is still there. I have to admire him for that. I would have shut down myself, gotten a teaching job or something.”

Hubbard remained horizontal on his hotel bed for the entire interview, but he perked up when asked if he ever considered quitting. He propped himself up on one elbow and stared straight at the interviewer in the bedside chair.

“After I had the lip operation, I couldn’t get that sound I wanted,” he confessed. “That was discouraging. I was worried more about how I sounded than in getting healthy. I would get set to get the sound I wanted—I could hear it in my head—but I couldn’t get it to come out. I thought about stopping, but I made up my mind I was going to continue to play. A lot of guys quit, but that’s a mistake unless you’ve got a lot of money stashed somewhere.”

He sank back on his pillow. “Most people in the entertainment business won’t admit they’re getting old. Miles used to wear those young people’s clothes, and people would come for what he was wearing more than for what he was playing. I’m naïve in the same way. I put color in my hair because I don’t want gray hair on my head. I ask myself, ‘Why not?’ I don’t know.”

Originally published in October 2008

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