a column by
Freddie Hubbard, 1979 Michael Wilderman ©2008
For years, there have been more substantive articles about jazz in the obituaries of The Washington Post than in any other section of the paper. Freddie Hubbard got a column and a half in their New Year’s Eve edition’s obits – and a photo – more space than I thought would be allotted. Perhaps it was the timing. The days between Christmas and New Year’s Day tend to be slow, news-wise; the Post’s Metro section that day was a mere six pages, and devoted comparable space to articles about the sale of a popular Annapolis coffee shop, the refusal of bond for two robbery suspects, and the filing of a lawsuit by atheists to bar prayer and references to God from Barack Obama’s swearing-in.
Still, Post staff writer Matt Schudel’s summary of the great trumpeter’s meteoric rise, his tarnishing career moves, and the injury-triggered decline of his last years included important pieces to the puzzle that was Freddie Hubbard. One quote stood out as a sign that the 70 year-old Hubbard’s passing on December 29th from complications following a hear attack is much more of a changing-of-the-guard moment than one might initially think. It is from a 2001 Ted Panken piece for Down Beat: “Hubbard projected the persona of trumpeter-as-gladiator, an image of strength, force and self-assurance.”
Hubbard is not jazz’s last giant, but he is arguably its last great gladiator. Even though he was on board for such epochal collective statements as Free Jazz and Ascension, Hubbard was a more in his element sparring with Lee Morgan on Night of the Cookers (1965; Blue Note) than on the historic Coltrane date, recorded just weeks later. Hubbard’s gladiator’s mantle would have to be crammed onto Sonny Rollins, who famously left the arena for more than two years beginning in the late ‘50s and has, with precious few exceptions, avoided playing with anyone even remotely near his stature for the past 40 years. There’s really no other survivor of the cutting contest culture of the late 1950s and ‘60s that matched Hubbard’s competitive, even pugilistic zeal and his ability to use it to thrilling musical ends: Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter are too Zen; Hank Jones is too elegant and James Moody is too … Moody (granted, Moody and Jones’ IPO CD, Our Delight, was one of 2008’s pure joys).
Opinions vary about how long Hubbard reigned, even though everyone agrees that his capacity was permanently diminished after he split his upper lip in 1991, which never fully healed. Some critics draw the line with Hubbard’s foray into fusion in the 1970s. But, the idea that Hubbard was in decline throughout the ‘80s is not supported by his recordings. The case in point is a blazing 1982 Keystone Korner performance of “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise,” the opener of the overlooked Above & Beyond (Metropolitan), released 16 years later. All of what made Hubbard great is here: the riveting rhythmic bursts; the long twisting lines; the sudden, pivoting slurs and high notes – all executed at breakneck speed and with impeccable tone and articulation. As annotator Stanley Crouch said of the set in general, Hubbard “does mighty battle;” Hubbard is clearly the victor when the applause commences at the conclusion of this 18-minute tour de force.
There are also two versions of a snare-laden Hubbard original recorded a quarter-century apart that should quiet any remaining doubters. Hubbard first waxed “Nostrand and Fulton” in ’62 for inclusion in Here to Stay, a Blue Note session made legendary because it was not released at the time, despite having a catalog number and cover art, and being listed or pictured in ads and on the back covers of other albums. The tune is a daunting back and forth between blunt declamations and gliding phrases in waltz time, yet Hubbard and a quintet with Wayne Shorter, Cedar Walton, Reggie Workman and Philly Joe Jones gave the tune a convivial hue instead of fully exploiting its tensions.
When Hubbard revisited the tune in 1987, the tempo was faster, the edges between the bars in 3 and 4 were serrated, and the gloves were off. The occasion was his second album with Woody Shaw, now included in The Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw Sessions (1985 and ’87; Blue Note). As Michael Cuscuna recounts in his booklet notes, Hubbard calling the difficult tune was a surprise, and the blue chip band with Kenny Garrett, Mulgrew Miller, Ray Drummond and Carl Allen struggled with it in rehearsals. My hunch is that Hubbard didn’t want to be one-upped, even as a composer, and the inclusion of such Shaw-penned gauntlets as “The Moontrane” and “Tomorrow’s Destiny” prompted the throw-down. The first take was issued, and it’s a battle royal with both trumpeters scoring points. Still, you have to be a little charitable to call it a draw, even if you’re a huge Shaw fan; Hubbard had the clear advantage going in and doesn’t relent.
Necessarily, recklessness is hard-wired into such gladiatorial intensity. Hubbard’s recklessness culminated in the infected blister that formed on his upper lip in ’91, which he disregarded until it was too late. By then, Hubbard had been warned for 30 years by Art Blakey and others that his bad habit of not warming up before hitting the bandstand at full bore would catch up to him. Most probably, he was cautioned similarly about other manifestations of this recklessness, be it drink, drugs or taxes (the non-payment of which resulted in Hubbard losing his house). But, the jazz culture that made Hubbard great heard his recklessness as daring. The late ‘50s and ‘60s were a period when the artistic bar was raised on an almost weekly basis, when new players were constantly shaking up the established order, and you were only as good as your last solo. This recklessness was subsequently part and parcel of the thrill of a vintage Hubbard scorcher like the title tune from Hub Cap (1961; Blue Note) or a ballad like “But Beautiful” (from Open Sesame; ’61; Blue Note) (if there’s any aspect of his art for which he received too little praise, it was the way he torched ballads).
Even though the brilliantly competitive spirit Hubbard exemplified is integral to the evolution of jazz virtuosity, it now seems all but extinct in a genre preoccupied with flame-keeping (without a real sense of what ignited the flame in the first place) and pursuing a generation for whom jazz can be anything. Currently, there’s no credible mechanism for jazz to nurture and crown new waves of gladiators. Competitions like the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz’s lack direct parrying between contestants. Polls don’t come close to representing consensus, mirroring only what the polled have heard on recordings during the past year.
Jazz needs a playoff system more than college football. What we have now makes the perplexing algorithmic BCS look like the Council of Trent. The allure of playoffs in sports is that is an all or nothing proposition: Win or go home. What you’ve accomplished to date is merely fodder for the announcers. Sure, there’s the “on any given day” proviso; but that’s just a basis to argue for a rematch. There’s something conclusive, if only temporarily, about two persons – be they boxers, rappers or trumpeters – testing their strengths and resources, one against the other. It produces a triumphant clarity that cannot be achieved through any other means.
In jazz, however, triumph does not belong only to the individual. The lineage of his instrument takes a big chunk of the glory. Hubbard’s reached rather directly back through Clifford Brown, Dizzy Gillespie and Roy Eldridge to Louis Armstrong; however, his place on the flow chart can be likened to the point on the map where a river becomes a delta. Jazz’s ongoing alluvial diversification is its virtue going forward, but its downside is that musicians’ relationship to the tradition will become increasingly diffuse and indirect. It is alarming to the degree that one accepts the proposition that the aforementioned trumpet lineage has completed an arc with Hubbard’s passing. This is not to suggest that Hubbard’s contemporaries and his successors are not important, but they have distinctly different personae: Don Cherry was a pilgrim, Lester Bowie a trickster, and Wynton Marsalis a pitch man. Without its gladiators, jazz is more prone to become stuck in its own silt. That’s why someone needs to pick up Freddie Hubbard’s mantle before it gets lost in the mud.