Freddie Hubbard: Virtuoso jazz trumpeter who played with John Coltrane, Art Blakey and Herbie Hancock during a 50-year career
Wednesday 31 December 2008
If Louis Armstrong burst upon the jazz world like a star in 1923, then the trumpeter Freddie Hubbard became one of its biggest comets when he did the same in 1959. The incandescent moment came with the issue of an album, Sister Salvation, made under the leadership of the trombonist and Hubbard's fellow Indianapolitan Slide Hampton. Suddenly, here was a fully formed virtuoso, crackling with a full, brazen technique and bursting with ideas.
As an innovator Hubbard wasn't quite in the front rank with Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. But, although the styles of Gillespie and Clifford Brown can be heard in his earlier work, there was enough originality to mark him as a major trumpet stylist. He was always progressive, moving somewhat disastrously and with controversy into the avant-garde during the Nineties before his career collapsed due to lip and other problems. He returned in recent years, but without his former eloquence. He was still effective in thoughtful ballad performances, but that fierce, unstoppable declamatory voice had gone.
One of six children, Hubbard learned to play several brass instruments as a child before settling, like two of his brothers and a sister, on the trumpet. Before he was 20 he co-led a local jazz quintet, the Jazz Contemporaries, which included the saxophonist James Spaulding, who remained a lifelong friend. In December 1957, in Indianapolis, Hubbard made his first recording at a session featuring the guitarist Wes Montgomery and the other Montgomery Brothers.
The trumpeter moved to New York soon after and his declamatory playing caused an immediate stir. He played for the drummer Philly Joe Jones at Birdland and in April 1959 went on tour for two months with Sonny Rollins. But it was an invitation, at a jam session in 1958, to practice with another tenorist, John Coltrane, that had the most profound effect. "He said 'Why don't you come over and let's try and practise a little bit together.' I almost went crazy. I mean here is a 20-year-old kid practising with John Coltrane. He helped me out a lot and we worked several jobs together."
Already a disciple, Hubbard decided to try and use Coltrane's lightning, multi-note technique on the trumpet. Amazingly he succeeded and became one of the fastest players of all time.
He worked with the trombonist J.J. Johnson in 1960 and joined the orchestra of Quincy Jones in the autumn of that year, touring Europe with Jones before leaving the following March. But he was a dynamo between such waymarkers, often recording two albums a week with a multitude of leaders. One of them was Free Jazz (1960), a groundbreaking album by Ornette Coleman, which placed two quartets together and allowed all the musicians to improvise freely. In later years Hubbard confessed that he was still bewildered by what they had played that day. Among his many distinguished appearances in 1960 was his role on Eric Dolphy's highly regarded album Outward Bound.
In 1961 Hubbard replaced his friend Lee Morgan in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, playing with an intensity and authority that eclipsed the less ambitious Morgan. In Blakey's band Hubbard began a potent musical partnership with Wayne Shorter, then also emerging as a major figure. Hubbard signed with Blakey's record label, Blue Note, and made a series of powerful albums under his own name. In 1964 he left Blakey to lead his own group. He was also a vital voice in Herbie Hancock's Empyrean Isles (1964) and the classic Maiden Voyage (1965).
"For a while I was hung up on chord changes," he said. "Then it went on to a period when I wanted to play pretty things. Then I was in an avant-garde stage when I left Art Blakey and I didn't reach enough people. So I had to change. I didn't even think about pleasing people. If it was pleasing me, beautiful. But that's not life. You can't be totally by yourself."
In the mid-Sixties, aside from a year with Max Roach's quintet, he worked mainly with his own quartets and quintets. Hubbard's own bands used a high calibre of sidemen with the pianist Kenny Barron at the root for a long period.
A foray into experiments with rock began in 1966 but was doomed. He had signed with Atlantic in 1966 and in 1970 moved to the more commercial CTI label. It's hard to imagine Hubbard as commercial, but after his first fine album for the label, Red Clay, he was persuaded to make fusion albums that achieved some popularity but – despite a Grammy for First Light in 1972 – were, in his terms, emasculated.
In 1977 he returned to tour with Wayne Shorter in Herbie Hancock's band V.S.O.P. and by the mid-Eighties, after giving up his forays into exotic musical styles, he was in demand for tours all over the world, often with the tenor player Joe Henderson. He had returned to the more conventional Hard Bop style of his early years.
But in 1992 he split his lip whilst practising and ignored the damage, playing the subsequent week in a club. His lip became infected and the injury much more serious, forcing him to give up playing for a long period. His return was never more than tentative and in his later years the pyrotechnics had gone, to be replaced by a more thoughtful style, often playing ballads and usually on the flugelhorn. He played over the last few years in the New Jazz Composers Octet.
During his career Hubbard appeared on more than 300 albums. His last performance was in June, at a party celebrating the release of his last album, On the Real Side, where he played gentle flugelhorn.
Frederick Dewayne Hubbard, trumpeter and bandleader: born Indianapolis 7 April 1938; married (one son); died Sherman Oaks, California 29 December 2008.
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