Earlier this year I saw Freddie Hubbard, one of the world’s greatest trumpet players, at Yoshi’s in San Francisco. It was a living, breathing disaster. If you’d like, you can read about the show here, but if you ever listened to this man and felt the transport in his trumpet playing, I warn you—it will only make you sad.
In his prime, Freddie Hubbard’s solos were the very definition of speaking through playing. His notes were words, his runs long sentences. He was sad, funny, and fearless, all without opening his mouth. I have spent cumulative hours with my eyes shut listening to his solos, being taken on beautiful journeys no oral storyteller could match.
There are so many amazing albums that Freddie Hubbard played on I don’t know where to start. I also keep discovering them in my own collection. The hallmarks: Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth, Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage, Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch. The standards: John Coltrane’s Olé, Art Blakey’s Mosaic, Tina Brooks’ True Blue, Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil. The big-band avant-garde: Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, John Coltrane’s Ascension. His own: Open Sesame, Hub-Tones, The Artistry of Freddie Hubbard and yes, Red Clay. All of them superb.
Freddie Hubbard died today at age 70, a month after suffering a heart attack. He had a really terrible curtain call in life, and it was torture to watch someone whose playing I loved so much struggling so viciously. It was worse that he was so cantankerous and volatile—just truly heartbreaking. Here’s hoping he found some peace. He’s still my pick over Miles Davis any day, hands down.
A memorial tribute for Freddie Hubbard is planned next month in New York City. In the meantime, here he is with Art Blakey, Wayne Shorter, Curtis Fuller, Reggie Workman, and Cedar Walton, in 1962. He always blasted hilarious grand entrances in his solos when he was able, and this one’s no exception.
Freddie Hubbard, four days shy of his 70th birthday, staggered out onto the Yoshi’s stage last night with a flugelhorn and a menacing scowl. Mean and disorderly, he waved his arms to stop “Now’s The Time,” barking at the band. How dare they?
The guys had been killing time, waiting for Hubbard to show up long after he’d been announced. First couple silent minutes on stage had been rough. What the hell else were they supposed to do? Hubbard—pissed off, cantankerous—counted off a tune, placed his legendary lips into his mouthpiece, and leaned into the microphone for yet another painful struggle to get any kind of sound out of his horn.
A few notes here. A contorted face of disgust. A few notes there. A disappointed survey of his valves. A few notes—no, wait, just a garbled line of noise, actually.
Hubbard hobbled to the back of the stage, thrusting his hand to no one in particular to start the next solo, and sat down, shooting bitter glances around the depressing scenario.
I was one of the best fucking players, he thought. Look at me now. Can’t even string four notes together. This busted lip, what a goddamned farce. Make Bobby Hutcherson play a ballad—that’ll spare me a few minutes, at least.
“I haven’t done anything in the last five years,” he muttered to the crowd, “except get operations.” Limping around the stage as if to collapse at any second, he accused other members on the bandstand of having more money than him, asking about Hutcherson’s yacht. “I got 300 records,” he boasted. “Buy twenty of ‘em and I’ll stay alive.”
“Hub-tones!” someone yelled. Hubbard’s already-sinister frown turned vicious. “Too fast,” he grumbled.
Leave the trumpet for five years, man, and it leaves you, he thought. All these fucking people, only here to say they saw me before I kick off. They don’t wanna hear me play just like I don’t wanna try anymore. Let’s end this shit. “Red Clay.”
Probably better if they can’t even hear me, he thought. An idea hit.
The bassline kicked in, and Freddie Hubbard, without a doubt one of the greatest and most versatile jazz trumpeters of all time, puckered his withered lips against his horn, hunched over, and angrily mimicked the motions of a trumpet solo the only possible way he could: in absolute silence.