Freddie Hubbard, the legendary jazz trumpeter whose powerhouse technique set new standards for brass virtuosity in the hard-bop era, died early Monday morning at Sherman Oaks Hospital in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. The cause of death was complications from a heart attack Hubbard suffered on Nov. 26, said an official news release from DL Media, the trumpeter’s publicity firm. He was 70.
Hubbard was born April 7, 1938 in Indianapolis. He performed and recorded with fellow Indianapolis jazz stalwarts Wes, Buddy and Monk Montgomery before moving to New York in 1958. On the strength of sideman work with Sonny Rollins, Slide Hampton, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones, among others, he began recording an influential string of albums for Blue Note in 1960. Those recordings helped cement that label’s reputation for peerless hard bop and establish the trumpeter as the most important stylist since Lee Morgan-a player Hubbard would replace in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1961.
His sound and technique proved an irresistible paradox: Rapid-fire bebop phrasing and high-note acrobatics complemented an enticing tone-bright, impassioned and instantly identifiable-and a deep penchant for melody. In addition to stints with Quincy Jones and Blakey in the first half of the ’60s, Hubbard released two essential leader sessions for the Impulse! label, in 1962 and ’63, and contributed as a sideman to historic albums like Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth, John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass, Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil and Herbie Hancock’s Empyrean Isles and Maiden Voyage. Because his ascent coincided with the development of the jazz avant-garde, he also participated in some of out-jazz’s best-known recordings, among them Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, John Coltrane’s Ascension, and Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch!
Later in the 1960s his own albums made divergent shifts toward increasingly involved post-bop, the avant-garde, and commercial material, and by 1970 he’d begun defining the sound of Creed Taylor’s CTI label. His early recordings for the label, Red Clay, Straight Life and the Grammy-winning First Light, represent some of the best recordings in a sadly unsung nook of jazz history, and Hubbard offered a very different brand of fusion than that led by Miles Davis and his ilk: rooted in hard bop and leaning heavily on R&B and funk, these recordings were accessible more for their polished production, ambitious arrangements and unimposing sonics than any great dumbing down of Hubbard’s music.
As the ’70s wore on, that accessibility turned to unabashed commerciality, resulting in a series of Columbia sessions that forced critics to question Hubbard’s motives; somewhat ironically, those sessions have taken on new importance for younger music fans interested in obscurities, DJ culture and steady-groovin’, back-in-the-day nostalgia. (Hubbard’s abilities, in contrast, remained unchallenged, due to his habit of performing fierce straightahead material even if his studio work was smooth-soul fluff, as well as his stint holding down Miles Davis’ spot in the V.S.O.P. Quintet, a tribute of sorts that included the remainder of Davis’ second great quintet.)
In the 1980s Hubbard suffered setbacks due to substance abuse but returned to Blue Note for a series of worthwhile albums, two of which were purposefully simpatico match-ups featuring Hubbard with trumpet phenom Woody Shaw. After suffering severe injury to his upper lip in 1992, Hubbard would never recoup his storied chops, and in recent years incurred other health problems unrelated to his embouchure.
Nonetheless, he was crowned an NEA Jazz Master in 2006, and the spring and summer months of 2008 found Hubbard in a relative comeback period. He joined his manager, fellow trumpeter David Weiss, in the New Jazz Composers Octet for a generally well-received album, On the Real Side (Times Square), on which Hubbard played flugelhorn. He celebrated that release and his 70th birthday with performances at New York’s Iridium club and Yoshi’s in San Francisco. As recent statements to JazzTimes and the Associated Press revealed, Hubbard seemed satisfied with his performance legacy and newly enthusiastic about his work as a composer.
Hubbard is survived by his wife, Briggie, and son, Duane. Check back here for updates on funeral services and a New York City memorial tribute.