To put Freddie Hubbard's stature in perspective, in 2006, when he was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master -- perhaps the U.S. jazz world's highest honor -- he joined only seven other trumpeters: Roy Eldridge, Harry "Sweets" Edison, Clark Terry, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Donald Byrd and Art Farmer. It is probably fair to say that he and Miles Davis were the most influential trumpeters of their generation.
Hubbard was originally from Indianapolis, Indiana, the youngest of six children in a musical family. "I had a sister who played classical piano and sang spirituals," he told he told Julie Coryell and Laura Friedman in their book, Jazz-Rock Fusion: The People, the Music. "My mother played the piano by ear and I had a brother who played the bass and tenor. So the music was hot and heavy. You'd hear somebody singing, somebody playing the piano, and always a record playing."
Indianapolis was a fertile environment for Freddie in his developmental years. He took up the trumpet in junior high school, and also played flugelhorn, piano, French horn, sousaphone and tuba. As a teenager he studied at the Jordan Conservatory with the principal trumpeter of the local symphony, and worked with with Wes and Monk Montgomery. He went on to form band of his own, the Jazz Contemporaries, with bassist Larry Ridley and saxophonist/flutist James Spaulding. Spaulding was to work with him on and off for the next 50 years.
Eventually, Hubbard made the inevitable move to New York City. He arrived in 1958 at the age of 20. His roommate was Eric Dolphy, McCoy Tyner lived down the block, and other neighbors included Paul Chambers, Cedar Walton, Bobby Timmons, Kenny Barron and Wynton Kelly. But, as he told San Francisco Chronicle writer David Rubien, it was initially hard for him to break into the scene. "It took a month before I had a chance to sit in at jam sessions. They wouldn't let me. Finally, I just took my horn and walked up on the bandstand."
Once he had made himself heard, Hubbard astonished fans, critics, and his fellow musicians with the quality and maturity of his playing. He began working with several major jazz artists, including John Coltrane.
"I met Trane at a jam session at Count Basie's in Harlem in 1958," he told Down Beat in 1995. "He said, 'Why don't you come over, and let's try and practice a little bit together?' I almost went crazy. I mean, here is a 20-year-old kid practicing with John Coltrane. He helped me out a lot, and we worked several jobs together." Hubbard also worked with Philly Joe Jones, Sonny Rollins, Slide Hampton, J.J. Johnson, his room-mate Dolphy, and Quincy Jones, with whom he toured Europe in 1960/61. His debut recording -- Open Sesame, on Blue Note, with Hank Mobley, McCoy Tyner, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones -- followed in June 1960. His first connection with Blue Note came about with the help of Miles Davis:
"I was playing like Clifford (Brown), and I met Miles, and he said, 'You like Clifford?' And I said, 'Yeah, I think he's the baddest around.' And Miles said, 'Nah, he plays too much. He's too staccato. He plays too many notes.' Then he said to me, 'Freddie, you play too many notes. Ain't nobody can hear all that s-.' But he got me my first gig with Blue Note records."
Indeed, 1960 was an auspicious year for Hubbard, a great beginning for a distinguished career which really blossomed during the 1960s. He appeared on not one but three classic recordings, Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz, Oliver Nelson's Blues and the Abstract Truth (which included the famous "Stolen Moments"), and Dolphy's debut outing Outward Bound. These very different sessions demonstrated his versatility as much as his virtuosity. The quintessential hard-bop stylist, out of Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan, he also did well in freer settings, even if he was not quite in his element. "Hubbard," wrote Joachim Berendt in The Jazz Book: From New Orleans to Rock and Free Jazz, "is the most brilliant trumpeter of a generation of musicians who stand with one foot in 'tonal' jazz and with the other in the atonal camp." Of these 1960 sessions, Hubbard himself has stated that the Oliver Nelson session is his all-time favorite recording. It is the Dolphy album which is this writer's personal favorite, however. Spurred on by a great rhythm section -- Jaki Byard, George Tucker and Roy Haynes -- both Dolphy and Hubbard astound with the exuberance of their playing, achieving a wonderful balance between hard bop and freer, more dissonant elements. It is a perfect setting for Hubbard; the steadily mounting intensity of his solo on "Miss Toni" is particularly arresting.
1961 found Hubbard working with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in a front line with Wayne Shorter and Curtis Fuller. He stayed with the group until 1964, appearing on eight sessions with Blakey. And there was a string of Blue Note dates under his own name, including, in August 1961, the album that many consider to be his masterpiece, Ready for Freddie, the first of several Blue Note collaborations with Shorter. With all this exposure, he soon established his reputation well enough to win a Down Beat Critics Poll Award, this while he was still in his early 20s. It was a clear indication that he had found his own voice, his own way of working. "I always practice with saxophone players," he told Coryell and Friedman. "I find when you get around trumpet players, you get into competitive playing -- who can play the loudest and the highest. After you develop your own style, you don't want to get into that."
There were more appearances on classic recordings: Takin' Off (1962), Empyrean Isles (1964), and Maiden Voyage (1965) with Herbie Hancock, Out to Lunch! (1964) with Dolphy, Africa/Brass (1961), Ole (1961) and Ascension (1965) with John Coltrane, as well as dates with Shorter, Dexter Gordon, Bobby Hutcherson and others, mostly for Blue Note Records: eight albums as a bandleader, and twenty-eight as a sideman.
It was an extraordinary period for Hubbard, who, after a stint with Max Roach during 1965 -1966, went on to lead his own group, a quintet, usually featuring Spaulding. It was his time with Blakey that gave him the confidence to strike out on his own. "I worked very hard to get as far as I have," he told Leonard Feather. "I think the turning point came when I toured in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in the early 60s. Art spotlighted all his soloists, gave us a chance to talk on the mike, and let us compose for the band. I learned there and then that I wanted to be a leader."
It would be hard for any artist to maintain such a level of accomplishment, and the 1970s saw some ups and downs for Hubbard. He continued to tour and to record -- in fact, two 1970 recordings, Red Clay and Straight Life for Creed Taylor at CTI are considered by many critics to be among his finest, and a 1971 date, First Light, featuring Don Sebesky arrangements, was probably his most popular, earning a Grammy award for ‘best jazz performance by a group.' But after signing with Columbia the quality of his recordings declined. On the other hand, 1977 found Freddie touring and recording with Herbie Hancock's acoustic V.S.O.P. Quintet where Hubbard essentially replaced Miles Davis with the classic Davis ensemble, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. His output in the 1980s included some good quality recordings for Pablo, Blue Note, and Atlantic, but some of his more commercial recordings had undermined his reputation among jazz purists. Personal and health problems also plagued him during this period, culminating, in 1992, with a serious lip injury that forced him to lay off for a considerable period, and, once he resumed performing, found him struggling to regain his earlier form. "I played a very loose, elastic style of playing," he said in an interview last June. "I used a lot of slurs, different moves. I advise any young trumpeter not to do what I did, because that style could be hazardous to your health."
Recent years saw more honors coming for Freddie Hubbard, above all his induction as an NEA Jazz Master. His appearances with The New Jazz Composers Octet, performing David Weiss's arrangements of some of his finest compositions provided a perfect setting for his work in recent years.
James Spaulding recently shared the following thoughts with me about his close friend, Freddie Hubbard:
"He was a beautiful guy and an extraordinarily talented musician. We were musical comrades -- I was in awe of his natural talent abilities. He was so gifted, he had perfect pitch for example, and was a very spontaneous player, but he could read well too, and he wrote music. I was honored to be his foil. Our sounds complimented each others; he would take phrases I would play and vice versa.
"We first met at a Jam Session in Indianapolis, I was in the army and he was still in high school. He was 16, I was 17. He was trying to emulate Clifford Brown, I was trying to play like Charlie Parker. So it was a musical friendship; we made some great recordings together. Hub Tones, for example. So many people tell me how much they liked Hub Tones, and Night of the Cookers
"Overall my experiences with Freddie were very positive. Now and then we had our differences, but essentially we were very close. He went to New York when I went to Chicago. Then, when I got to New York, he was working with Art Blakey. He was very high spirited, and funny -- he could make people laugh. And he was very aware of the political scene, of racism and all that.
"It was difficult for him later on with his lip injury the doctors told him to lay off for a while but he just couldn't do it. He had to keep playing.
"I was with him for his 70th birthday celebration in, it was at Yoshi's in San Francisco. I was part of the octet there playing his music, and then we played happy birthday -- the fans loved him. There were tears in his eyes. But he was very ill -- heart problems, diabetes. Perhaps he knew he would not be around too much longer. I'm still not fully accepting of his physical presence no longer being here; right now it's too hard to internalize."
Hubbard has left an impressive legacy. His trumpet-playing can be found on over 300 albums, many of them enduring jazz masterpieces. (His last record, On the Real Side, with the NJCO, came out in June.) According to David Weiss: "He played faster, longer, higher and with more energy than any other trumpeter of his era." His influence on other trumpet players cannot be measured. According to Wynton Marsalis "He influenced all the trumpet players that came after him," he told the Associated Press earlier this year. "Certainly I listened to him a lot. . . . We all listened to him. He has a big sound and a great sense of rhythm and time and really the hallmark of his playing is an exuberance."
Freddy Hubbard is survived by his wife, Brigitte, and his son, Duane. A memorial tribute in New York will be planned in the new year.