Here in Santa Barbara County, we got one last precious, beautiful, and bittersweet encounter with the late, great jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, in September of 2007. Hubbard, who passed away on December 29 at age 70, was a star attraction of the first Solvang Jazz Festival’s Saturday night soiree, a garden party also featuring flutist Hubert Laws, percussionist Airto Moreira, keyboardist Patrice Rushen, and saxophonist Bob Sheppard. Nattily dressed and mostly in high spirits, Hubbard conveyed the aura of a heartfelt hero’s comeback, until he started playing. It was not a pretty sound, and his own disappointment registered on his face.
Folks in the crowd were shaking their heads, literally and internally, and some in the media went overboard in disparaging Hubbard’s musical display (for which I apologize, retroactively).
With a damaged lip and chops diminished to a shadow of his former glory, Hubbard lived out the last chapter of his musical life in a strange twilight zone. Efforts at a comeback-with arranger-trumpeter David Weiss‘s help-met with mixed reviews, at best. In the nakedly challenging forum of jazz, and especially the cruel mistress of playing trumpet, there is no place to hide.
With Hubbard now officially a part of history, we have a truer, hindsight-clarifying perspective on the man and his contribution to music and culture at large. Hubbard’s real problem in his career’s final phase was the daunting prospect of the high standards he set for himself. A genuine lion on the instrument, he stood alongside virtuosic masters like Clifford Brown, Fats Navarro, and Lee Morgan, and could also shift into lyrical, enigmatic gear, akin to Booker Little and Miles Davis (whose role he assumed in the VSOP project of the ‘70s, stopping at the Santa Barbara County Bowl back when jazz was part of the agenda there). Hubbard made a tasteful stab at jazz-funk fusion, in the days of “Red Clay,” but slid into commercial turf and various abuses from the ‘70s on.
I did a Jazz Times cover story on Hubbard in 1997, along the lines of “whatever happened to Freddie?” At his suburban home in Van Nuys, Hubbard was a warm and generous conversationalist, rueful about the state of things in his current musical life, but open and nostalgic about his otherwise remarkable ride.
Discussing his lip trouble, he commented that “playing jazz, as compared to a classical instrument, is different. In jazz, you use more pressure and your embouchure keeps changing, where it’s not straight like in classical music. You play these phrases (sings a swinging riff), you turn it around and move your lips sideways. It’s a little more wear and tear. That’s what I got into.”
At one point, Hubbard interrupted our interview and called out to his wife who was in another room, “mail come? Check come? Hallelujah.” He seemed relieved. “I feel ok now. See how money can give you a lift. Can you imagine be a jazz guy and all of a sudden somebody says `here’s $1,500,’ and you’ve been making $350. You’ve got a chance to get a car and get some clothes and get an apartment. That’s what happened when the cats came to us in the ‘70s. They said `Freddie,’ you can move out to California, get a big house, a Mercedes, and a couple of stocks.’ You tell me a person who wouldn’t go for that, a poor black guy out of the ghetto in Brooklyn, living over there with them crazy folks. I jumped on it, man.”
While Hubbard appreciated the big money when it came, his deep relationship with the musical muse never ceased and became a haunting point. He was terrible as a sell-out. And he was concerned with passing on the legacy to subsequent generations. “In jazz music, we’ve got to get the kids to fill in this gap,” he said. “The music will get weaker, because they don’t have anything to fall back on, unless they go to these cats and find out what was happening, discuss it with them. They need to know about the history. I’m not going to say that I started this music. I started out copying what Clifford Brown played and what Miles played. You’ve got to let people know where you got your shit from.”
He also spoke about a reissue of the famed 1965 Night of the Cookers “showdown” with trumpeter Lee Morgan. “Trumpet battles are more fierce than anything. It’s almost like going in the bullring. You got to say, ok, I’m going to go after this and blow my brains out. No one is going to hurt later. We got up there and both got to blowing on one song, just finding the hidden pocket. I said `hey, man, you got this. Let’s take this out.’ We were just trying to outdo each other. But he played some good music.”
As afternoon yielded to evening, the interview was winding down and I mentioned to him that I had jammed on “Red Clay” as a teenager. “Did you play it in Db or in C?,” he asked, the man with a head still full of music, with or without the help of his mouth. “They wrote it in the fake book in C. Db minor has that blues scale. C minor is a regular old pentatonic sound, but the Db minor, to me, was my religious tone.”
“A guy gave me that horn (points to a horn) and says `find your center tone’ (hums a low Db). When you find your center, you can hold it. It’s like ‘Trane with his chanting, `ommm.’ I said `what are you, high or something?’ It’s that electrical thing, it resonates. Guys from Tibet and all that do that. It’s got something in it. I did that circular breathing thing, and I haven’t done it since. It scared me to death. It’s supposed to be a form of yoga, mind over matter.”
Of course, that’s just the tail end of a long and inspired story of one of the great ones in jazz.
TO-DOINGS: Santa Barbara’s 2009 jazz concert dance card officially opens next Wednesday at UCSB’s Campbell Hall, in high and historicist style. The Blue Note Records 70th anniversary project is much more than just a record label’s birthday present to itself. Blue Note remains one of the most important archival entities in American cultural life, and is still active and with its dignity more or less intact (a challenge in these lean times in the recording industry). Yes, Norah Jones pays the bills, but the label, on Bruce Lundvall‘s watch, insists on putting out fine albums by, say, Joe Lovano and Bill Charlap-who is the more-than-capable leader of the now touring “Blue Note 7,” also featuring the wondrous Nicholas Payton on trumpet, saxists Ravi Coltrane and Steve Wilson, bassist Peter Washington (also in Charlap’s trio), and drummer Lewis Nash. As heard on the fine album Mosaic: A Celebration of Blue Note Records, the band smokes and muses on revisited and re-arranged themes from the vast Blue Note catalogue.
Let’s not forget that some of Hubbard’s finest work was as a Blue Note artist. History keeps coming back to the head.