Undeniably one of the great bebop, hard bop and post-bop trumpeters, Freddie Hubbard contributed his unique sound to many pivotal sessions. A bright, piercingly penetrative tone in the school of Miles Davis, Lee Morgan and Clifford Brown, but with unmatched pace, DownBeat simply named him, “the most powerful and prolific trumpeter in jazz.”
Frederick Dewayne Hubbard was born in 1938, into a musical family living in Indianapolis,
I had a sister who played classical piano and sang spirituals. 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.
It was therefore natural that Hubbard took early to music, in particular the tuba and French horn, playing in the school band at Arsenal Technical High. Switching to trumpet and flugelhorn, he followed the recommendation of Lee Katzman, former trumpeter with Stan Kenton, to study at the Arthur Jordan Conservatory of Music with Max Woodbury, the principal trumpeter of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Meanwhile, his piano-playing brother, Earmon, Jr., was turning his head to jazz and the amazing Bud Powell.
Ever precocious, the teenage Hubbard worked with brothers Monk and Wes Montgomery, appearing on The Montgomery Brothers – And 5 Others (1958), as well as forming a band, the Jazz Contemporaries, with bassist and manager Larry Ridley, saxophonist and flautist and lifelong friend James Spaulding, pianist Walt Miller and drummer Paul Parker. Still only 20 years old, he moved to New York and linked up with the likes of Philly Joe Jones, Sonny Rollins, Slide Hampton, Eric Dolphy and J. J. Johnson, was invited to jam by John Coltrane, and toured Europe with Quincy Jones between 1960 and 1961.
Playing sideman on only a handful of recordings, for example, Paul Chambers’ Go (1959) and significantly, Tina Brooks’ True Blue (1960) along with Duke Jordan, Sam Jones and Art Taylor, Hubbard was very soon making his debut as leader for Blue Note, following a tip-off from Miles Davis. Open Sesame (1960) also featured saxophonist Tina Brooks and bassist Sam Jones, but this time with McCoy Tyner taking the piano stool, and and Clifford Jarvis behind the drums.
Twenty-two years old and Hubbard’s debut as leader shows a few cracks, but they are far outnumbered by all that is good. For example, the opening title track flies has exceptional soloing by Hubbard, but its Brooks, an immaculate saxophonist with a rough edge and Tyner on piano that you remember. But, not for long; there is some incredible maturity, patience and control on display from Hubbard on the slow ballad ‘But Beautiful’. His solo drifts on the gentle current of Jones’ bass. The final glissando descending to close is the stuff of goose pimples. The following ‘Gypsy Blue’ allows us longer with Jones who solos well, and there’s a lovely long fade-out to the five-note theme. Latino rhythms takeover for the upbeat ‘All or Nothing at All’, one of the times Hubbard sounds squeezed, but the more experienced sidemen carry the tune forward, including a moment where Jones lays out, leaving just drums and piano, which works very well. The album closes with a straight ahead bop, so lastly of note, is the penultimate track, a bouncy cover of ‘One Mint Julep’ originally a hit for R&B vocal group, The Clovers, and a gospel blues in it’s original form, but given a little pace, plus sparse arrangement, and it sounds more like a Herbie Hancock classic. A nice piece of early jazz funk.
More albums followed at a blistering pace: Goin’ Up (1960), with Tyner and Hank Mobley; Hub Cap (1961), with Julian Priester and Jimmy Heath, and considered by many to be his magnus opus, the great Ready For Freddie, also noteworthy for beginning a long-term collaboration with Wayne Shorter. Other important, early recordings include: Eric Dolphy’s Outward Bound (1960) and Out To Lunch (1964); Mobley’s Roll Call (1960); The Quintessence (1961), as a member of Quincy Jones’ Orchestra; Jimmy Heath’s The Quota (1961); Kenny Drew’s Undercurrent (1961); Dexter Gordon’s Doin’ Allright (1961), and Bill Evans’ excellent last studio recording for Riverside, Interplay (1962), featuring Percy Heath, Philly Joe Jones and Jim Hall.
A pivotal period for Hubbard’s development of his sound was during a stint between 1961 and 1966 when he replaced Lee Morgan in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, initially a sextet with Blakey, Shorter, Hubbard, trombonist Curtis Fuller, pianist Cedar Walton, and Jymie Merritt on bass. This lineup recorded, Mosaic (1961), Three Blind Mice (1962) and Buhaina’s Delight (1963). Merritt dropped out on tour in 1962 and was replaced by Reggie Workman to create the powerhouse of hard boppers that would record Caravan (1962), Ugetsu (1963), Kyoto (1964) and the legendary Free for All (1964).
Heading into their third year, this lineup of the Jazz Messengers is arguably the one that pushed the limits of hard bop the furthest. With such innovators working together, within a cultural and political landscape in turmoil: anti-segregation protests were rife, John F. Kennedy’s assassination only three months previous was accelerating the passage of The Civil Rights Act through Congress, US troops were skirmishing in Panama, and the Beatles were invading America, taking their first US singles number one spot, and appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show for their first live performance on US television. If all these external forces did exert themselves on the Free for All session, then the saying, “Pressure makes diamonds” (attributed to George S. Patton), has never been truer. Art Blakey is the driving force, as ever. On Wayne Shorter’s title track, he circles and harries his soloists, pushing them further, nudging them with rolling snare fills that tumble three, four times and end in a thunderous crash that carries the others forward on a shockwave. It is testament to their combined genius that the music holds together so tightly, given the tumultuous complexity urging them on. Indeed, Blakey’s extraordinary polyrhythms can be heard no where better than here, on the title track, and on Hubbard’s piece for the times, ‘The Core’, named because he believed that these musicians, “got at some of the core of jazz – the basic feelings and rhythms that are at the foundation of music”, but also dedicated to the Congress of Racial Equality, a group in the news for their efforts in registering black voters in the Deep South,
“Hubbard’s admiration of that organization persistence and resourcefulness in its work for total, meaningful equality. They’re getting at the core, at the center of the kinds of change that have to take place before this society is really open to everyone. And more than any other group, CORE is getting to youth, and that’s where the center of change is.“
With the ascendance of “free form” music in response to the emerging tensions within American society, the more traditionalist Hubbard found himself hired for sessions that would often leave him bewildered about the new sound. As well as the Eric Dolphy dates, another early encounter had been a baptism of fire, invited to play on “Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation by the Ornette Coleman Double Quartet” in late 1960, after Ornette Coleman had heard him playing with Don Cherry. Never particularly comfortable stepping “out there”, Hubbard would often invent a way in which he could knit together a contrasting melody from the otherwise discordant chaos.
Elevated from sideman status, for The Blues And The Abstract Truth (1961) Hubbard notably takes equal billing with Bill Evans, Roy Haynes, Eric Dolphy, Oliver Nelson and Paul Chambers. And rightly so, because his solo on ‘Stolen Moments’, that kicks in with a rising call and flutters along with exquisite vibrato across a Dmin7 chord, is an all-time legendary moment in jazz.
Hubbard’s soloing in ‘Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum’ on Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil (1964) also warrants mention. Playing alongside Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Elvin Jones, displays an extraordinary strength in his use of dynamics and funky note bending whilst navigating some pretty challenging territory. His ever so short-but-stunning statement, starts as if it’s going to climb out of control, but descends softly, gets mellow, and then bends down into a bluesy section and the most astonishing modulation. A cooing croon.
Similarly, the difficult chord changes in ‘Dolphin Dance’ on Hancock’s Maiden Voyage (1965) would floor a lesser musician, but Hubbard toys with them and moulds them into some beautiful melodies. ‘Eye of the Hurricane’ on the same album has him creating some outlandish effects, almost blowing raspberries, before the big sax sound of George Coleman cuts in for his short but compelling solo. The extraordinary ‘The Egg’ is a freer, experimental piece that expands from comparative constraint, initially spelt out by Hancock’s simple three-part rhythm, Tony Williams’ repetitive march-like rolls and Carter’s bass pulse. Hubbard blows capaciously across the top before running into a mire of metaphysical weirdness, bowed by Carter, and contrasted against a sweet trickling serenade from Hancock. It picks up into a brief angular bop, and subsequent collapse into a tumbling implosion. William’s sparse soloing leads out.
While not as adventurous, Hubbard had already made his own progressive movements beginning with Hub Tones in 1963. With its stylish 60s cover design by Reid Miles, using a photo of Hubbard by Francis Wolff, it is most definitely an album stepping out into the modern era. Modal is in. The lineup is superlative: Hubbard, Spaulding, Reggie Workman, Jarvis, and Herbie Hancock returning the favour for Hubbard appearing on Takin’ Off, his debut made the previous year. Hubbard employs an intriguing use of Harmon Mute on ‘Prophet Jennings’ to better marry with Spaulding’s flute. Timbres mellow and meld into a honeyed stream. It’s an excellent session, everyone plays exceptionally well, including comparative unknown Jarvis, who had already sat in on Hubbard’s debut Open Sesame, and takes a great solo on the standout title track. Hubbard’s own solo is also notable for the complex twists and turns he negotiates at speed. It’s about as edgy and “out there” as Hubbard went in his own sessions. Hancock’s showcase is on the slow ‘Lament for Booker’, for Booker Little who had died from kidney failure a couple of years earlier, still only 23 years old. Hancock uses a soft, open phrasing with rare flurries to conjure a fitting, poignant atmosphere. The closer, ‘For Spee’s Sake’ is a great workout and includes a deep-down solo by Workman, and Hubbard and Jarvis tradeoffs.
Having already played on Africa/Brass (1961), Olé Coltrane (1962) and The Believer (1964), Hubbard was asked to play on Ascension (1966), John Coltrane‘s most avant-garde and controversial mid-60s recording. In the midst of a revolutionary, extended frontline of three tenor saxophones (Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp), two altos (Marion Brown and John Tchicai), and another trumpeter (Dewey Johnson), Hubbard manages to produce forceful solos in keeping with Coltrane’s atonal intent, while retaining a soulful elegance that both complements and contrasts in differing measures.
Hubbard picked up on the popularity of funk and dance in the early and mid-1970s, producing his commercially most successful albums, Red Clay (1970) where Hubbard uses an amazing, ascending lip trill during the run in, Straight Life (1971), the Grammy-winning First Light (1972) and Sky Dive (1972).
Despite good reviews, jazz purists were less accepting, and it wasn’t until 1976, when Hubbard toured and recorded in Herbie Hancock’s V.S.O.P. quintet with Shorter, Carter and Williams, essentially filling Miles Davis’ boots, and playing in the modal style of the latter’s legendary 1960s quintet.
Hubbard led his own group for concert tours and festivals during the 1980s, often with Joe Henderson, sometimes Bobby Hutcherson. At other times, he made guest appearances with Woody Shaw, then Benny Golson and also reunited with Art Blakey for a concert run in the Netherlands. Having played on a Billy Joel album in 1978, Hubbard also added trumpet and flugelhorn to Elton John’s Reg Strikes Back (1988). An all-star visit to Japan followed in 1990 with Elvin Jones, Sonny Fortune, George Duke, Benny Green, Ron Carter, and Rufus Reid, plus singer Salena Jones.
In 1992, Hubbard’s, at times, ferocious playing intensity eventually caused him to split his lip whilst practising, but failing to have it treated, he continued his week-long club gig. Consequently the lip became infected which did require long-term attention and by the time he managed a return, his embouchure was permanently compromised and much of his previous power had ebbed away. In its place Hubbard used his lifetime of experience in creating some gentler, but beautiful playing, predominantly on ballads, and often on the more forgiving flugelhorn. He continued to perform and record from 2001 onwards, until further health issues and a subsequent heart attack left him hospitalised, where he died in late 2008, aged 70. He had received the NEA Jazz Masters Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2006.