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Freddie Hubbard

(4.7.38 – 12.29.08)

What was it like to hear Freddie Hubbard live in a club when he was really on? It was the most unbelievable thing you ever heard, and you remembered it for the rest of your life. He had the greatest sense of time ever in the history of mankind. You know, the guy had everything, the full package. Freddie was, at one point in his career, the undisputed heavyweight champion. And to go from that to where he got at his lowest point, it was rough. Even though I was never actually in his band, I was around him enough and talked to him enough to know it bothered him a great deal. But, you know, his musicianship never left him even if his technical facility did.

The first time I played with Hub, it was at a Friends of Jazz concert in Pennsylvania in the late ’80s. The gig was totally magical and he was in unbelievably great shape. Shortly after that we were doing one of those Japanese concept records [Manhattan Projects’ Piccadilly Square, recorded in December 1989]. It was me, Roy Hargrove, Donald Brown, Carl Allen and Ira Coleman, and Freddie was supposed to play on just two tracks. We laid down three tracks before Freddie showed up and, you know, we all thought we sounded good. We listened to the playback and we’re all patting ourselves on the back, complimenting each other. And when Freddie showed up, he took his horn out to warm up and he instantly sounded super-human. I looked at Roy and we both just felt like kids, man. Nobody said anything, but it was just so obvious when he starting playing, the difference of the level between Freddie and the rest of us. It sure was unbelievably impressive when he did that, and Roy just put on some dark shades. I’m sure he felt like I did but even more so, being a trumpet player. It was terrifying, man! But it also made me do a little soul-searching, like, “Man, am I really trying to play music on that level?” It was truly scary but very important. Because what it did was it let you know where the bar was.

Today everybody wants to say that so-and-so is a genius and all that. Well, Freddie Hubbard was a bona fide genius. You know, music was a toy to him. Stuff that we had to work on, he didn’t have to work on it. He was hearing everything and he just had some magical gifts. My students and I always talk about, “What are you thinking of when you play? How do you play through these chord changes? How do you figure that out?” He was free of all that shit, man. It was a non-issue for him. Talk about the definition of a free player … Freddie Hubbard was free.

I used to study with Phil Woods and he’d always say to me, “You never heard Bird.” And I’d think, “What the hell do you mean I never heard Bird? I memorized about 80 of his solos!” And then Lou Donaldson would say, “Yeah, you never heard Bird.” And again, I’m like, “What the hell do these guys mean?” And now I know exactly what they meant. Because no matter how much you heard Hub on a recording, and no matter how great he sounded on those recordings, unless you heard him live you really don’t know. Sometimes these young trumpet players today say they love Freddie, but they don’t know, man. No recording ever really captured that Hub magic. And now I find myself saying to young guys, “No, man, you never heard Hub!” And they wonder what the hell I am talkin’ about. But there’s nothing you can do or say to really give them that impact of who Hub was. There’s nothing like that out there right now.

I used to spend so much time trying to think about what was Freddie Hubbard’s attitude, what allowed him to play the way that he played, past the technical things and the mechanics of music. It’s a certain kind of cocky attitude that he brought to the bandstand. He had a certain kind of arrogance on the outside, but Freddie was really humble to the music. You know, there’s the public Freddie Hubbard and the private Freddie Hubbard, and they’re very different things. And if you really got to know him, you’d find out that this guy, who everyone thought was the most arrogant, cocky guy in the world, was actually so humble to the music. I’m elated that I had a chance to play with him and just be around him. I’m a better musician for having heard somebody on that level and been able to stand next to him. Just being in Hub’s presence put an influence on me for the rest of my life.

Originally Published