Tuesday, December 30, 2008

In Memoriam: Freddie Hubbard

I'm saddened to learn that Freddie Hubbard, the brilliant jazz trumpeter who dazzled audiences and critics alike with his virtuosity, his melodicism, and his infectious energy, died on Monday at the age of 70 in Sherman Oaks, California, due to complications from a November 26 heart attack.

It's been a bad year for musicians, with 2008 marking the loss of Issac Hayes, Bo Diddley, Eartha Kitt, Odetta, Miriam Makeba, Richard Wright (Pink Floyd), Levi Stubbs (The Four Tops), blues guitarist Jeff Healey, country singer Eddy Arnold, two of Jimi Hendrix' former drummers (Mitch Mitchell and Buddy Miles), and producer Teo Macero. I never took the time to eulogize any of them, but I refuse to let the passing of Freddie Hubbard go without paying my respects.

One of the great jazz musicians of all time, Hubbard was part of that pantheon of trumpet players who changed the music permanently, a group that also includes Louis Armstrong, Dr. Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Shaw, and Hubbard's contemporary, Miles Davis. However, his career, while marked by brilliance, was often overshadowed by that of Miles, as well as by an ill-advised foray into the disco-pop-funk music of the 1970s.

Frederick Dewayne Hubbard was born on April 7, 1938, in Indianapolis. In high school, he studied French horn and tuba as well as trumpet, and after taking lessons at the Arthur Jordan Conservatory of Music, he performed locally with, among others, the guitarist Wes Montgomery and his brothers.

Hubbard moved to New York in 1958, rooming with the innovative altoist Eric Dolphy, and almost immediately began working with groups led by the saxophonist Sonny Rollins, the drummer Philly Joe Jones, and Slide Hampton, J.J. Johnson, and others. His profile rose in 1960 when he joined the roster of Blue Note Records, a leading jazz label, and toured Europe with Quincy Jones (1960-1961).

That reputation rose further the next year when he was hired by the veteran drummer Art Blakey, widely regarded as the music’s premier talent scout, to play alongside Wayne Shorter in the Jazz Messengers, a valuable training ground for young musicians. Under Blakey's leadership, Hubbard developed his own spin on a style that was informed by Dizzy Gillespie and Clifford Brown. Critics took notice of his unusual mix of melodic inventiveness and technical razzle-dazzle. Leonard Feather called him “one of the most skilled, original and forceful trumpeters of the ’60s.”

A blazing trumpeter with a beautiful tone on fl├╝gelhorn, Hubbard fared well in freer settings but was always essentially a hard-bop stylist. Although he was not an avant-gardist by temperament, he participated in three of the seminal recordings of the 1960s jazz avant-garde: Ornette Coleman’s “Free Jazz” (1960), Eric Dolphy’s “Out to Lunch” (1964) and John Coltrane’s "Ascension” (1965). He also played on Oliver Nelson's classic "Blues and the Abstract Truth," highlighted by the song Stolen Moments, and started recording as a leader for Blue Note that same year. He played on "Maiden Voyage" with Herbie Hancock, as well as albums by Wayne Shorter and many others. However, many of his sidemen, notably Shorter and Hancock, soon left Blue Note to record at Columbia with another trumpeter, forming the classic Miles Davis Quintet of 1964-1968.

After leaving Blakey’s band himself in 1964, Hubbard worked for a while with another drummer-bandleader, Max Roach (1965-1966), himself an alumnus of an earlier Davis quintet. In 1966, as Davis' new quintet were recorded their landmark albums, Hubbard formed his own group, featuring altoist James Spaulding.

Four years later, he began recording for CTI, a record company that would soon become known for its aggressive efforts to market jazz musicians beyond the confines of the jazz audience. In 1970, Hubbard recorded the first of a trio of recordings for the CTI label that would give him his due recognition as one of the great trumpet players of jazz. "Red Clay,” contained some of the best playing of his career and, except for slicker production and the presence of some electric instruments, were not significantly different from his work for Blue Note.

The following album, "Straight Life," is probably my personal favorite Hubbard recording. By this time, Miles Davis had disbanded the classic quintet of the 1960s, going for a more aggressively electronic, funk/rock sound, freeing Herbie Hancock and bassist Ron Carter to join him on this date. Tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson, guitarist George Benson, and drummer Jack DeJohnette, all of whom had also played for Miles' at one point or another, rounded out the all-star lineup.

“Straight Life” was primarily a jam session, with the contributors expelling their creative juices freely through two long jams (Straight Life and Mr. Clean) and a more contained ballad in a trio setting (Here's That Rainy Day). The video above is of Hubbard performing the title cut, Straight Life, during the 1975 Downbeat Awards, backed by what is fundametally the fusion band Return To Forever: Chick Corea on keyboards, Stanley Clarke on bass, Lenny White on drums, and the percussionist Airto.

The follow-up album, "First Light" (1971), featured Don Sebesky string arrangements and was Hubbard's most popular recording, winning a Grammy Award in 1972. But after the glory of the CTI years, during which producer Creed Taylor did an expert job of balancing the artistic with the accessible, Hubbard, like many other jazz musicians of his generation, began courting an even larger audience (and greater profits).

It's hard to fathom what Hubbard's precise motivations were for what followed. In the 70s, fusion/funk bands like Return To Forever, Weather Report and Mahavishnu Orchestra (mostly consisting of the alumni from various incarnations of Miles Davis' bands) were filling concert halls and selling gold records. Guitarist George Benson had abandoned jazz, and largely guitar playing, and had become a multi-million-dollar pop crooner and nearly a household name. I can't fault Hubbard for wanting some of that profit. Or perhaps he was under pressure from the labels, from his family, or from his own pride, to keep up with the times and make some more money. Or perhaps after years of exchanging musicians back and forth with Miles Davis and even being perceived as "the other trumpet player," he decided to give up on jazz altogether and just go for the money. In any event and for whatever reason, Freddie Hubbard sold out.

In the mid-1970s, Hubbard signed with Columbia and began recording albums that put less and less emphasis on improvisation and relied more and more on glossy arrangements and pop appeal. His music featured rock and funk rhythms and a repertory sprinkled with pop and R&B songs like Paul McCartney’s Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey and the Stylistics’ Betcha by Golly, Wow. The reference that the announcer makes to "his own brand of Liquid Love" in the above video alludes to an album of this period, marred by a singing performance by Hubbard (a la Benson?) and a cover of Midnight At The Oasis. But as his performance at the Downbeat Awards showed, even during this period, he was still capable of playing with the fire and intensity of the former years - he had just been holding back.

His audience did indeed grow during these years and the records sold well for the most part, but were attacked, or in some cases simply ignored, by jazz critics. His standing in the jazz world diminished as he released one dud after another; "Windjammer" (1976) and "Splash" (a slightly later effort for Fantasy) are low points.

Within a few years, Hubbard was expressing regrets about his career path and largely abandoned his more commercial approach to return to his jazz roots. In 1977, he toured with Herbie Hancock's acoustic V.S.O.P. Quintet, reprising his former role in Maiden Voyage and other Hancock compositions, as well as filling in for the then-ailing Miles Davis on Hancock's contributions to the 60s Quintet. By the 1980s, on recordings for Pablo, Blue Note, and Atlantic, he showed that he could reach still his former heights, even if much of the jazz world had given up on him.

Most of his recordings as a leader from the early 1980s on, for Pablo, Musicmasters and other labels, were small-group sessions emphasizing his gifts as an improviser that helped restore his critical reputation. With the deaths of Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis in the 90s, Hubbard seemed perfectly poised to assume the role of veteran master. However, his career came to an abrupt halt in 1992 when he damaged his lip. By Hubbard’s own account, he seriously injured his upper lip that year by playing too hard, without warming up, once too often. The lip became infected, and for the rest of his life it was a struggle for him to play with his trademark strength and fire. As Howard Mandel explained in a 2008 Down Beat article, “His ability to project and hold a clear tone was damaged, so his fast finger flurries often result in blurts and blurs rather than explosive phrases.”

After an extended hiatus, Hubbard nonetheless resumed recording and performing, primarily on fl├╝gelhorn rather than on the more demanding trumpet, although he was never again as powerful a player as he had been in his prime. Hubbard, once known as the brashest of jazzmen, mellowed in the wake of his lip problems. In a 1995 interview with Fred Shuster of Down Beat, he offered some sober advice to younger musicians: “Don’t make the mistake I made of not taking care of myself. Please, keep your chops cool and don’t overblow.”

Hubbard was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2006. I will miss him.

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