Bobby Hutcherson: The JazzTimes Interview
The bricklayer's son returns to Blue Note with a killer album
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.”
Originally published in May 2014