Nobody ever played more trumpet than Freddie Hubbard, in the sense of a guy picking the horn up the way a very angry bulldog would pick up a side of beef and shaking the notes out of it. With Hubbard, playing the coldest and toughest of the brass instruments was an irreducibly carnal experience. He put his whole body into it and all of his soul, which is why one of his great early albums was called The Body and The Soul even though it was built around the old article-free standard “Body and Soul.”
The way the big man from Indianapolis played the horn was tied up in a very old-fashioned conception of masculinity: he was not sure how to play in any other way except as a demonstration that he had something physical to prove. He had a rich, opulent tone that Stanley Crouch liked to compare to ripe fruit. He could be genuinely affecting on ballads. His own compositions, which he stopped writing early in his career, were fiercely complex things that never lost sight of basic melodic virtues. So there was a lot to like about the guy besides the physicality of his playing, but sooner or later, usually sooner, it always came back to that physicality. He sometimes grew almost comically excited when another very good trumpeter was on the bandstand or even somewhere else in the room. Very soon he would be pushing toward even higher registers and even denser flurries of notes, sometimes with an oblique, dissonant relationship to the home key. It was typically in the presence of his most formidable peers that Hubbard would either play something memorably virtuosic — or face-plant lamentably in the attempt. You didn’t get a lot of mediocrity from this guy.
I remember being both thrilled and a little appalled, in equal measure, when I first saw him play live, in Toronto in 1987 in an all-star band that included Joe Henderson, Billy Hart, and the tiny French pianist Michel Petrucciani, who had a bone disease that kept him from growing to adult size. Hubbard unself-consciously picked Petrucciani up and deposited him on the piano bench and then went to the solo mike and peeled one ferocious spray of notes after another. Quite soon he was rocking back and forth in tempo, in exaggerated fashion, a spectacle that was all the more shocking because I had grown up under the competitive influences of Miles Davis and the young Wynton Marsalis, two men who agreed on very little except that the cool way to play the horn was to stand stock-still and display as little outward emotion as possible.
But that’s the thing about Hubbard, usually his blessing and sometimes his curse. There was nothing cool about the guy. He was short-tempered and intemperate. He spent most of the ’70s indulging commercial experiments with funk beats and electric guitars on the bandstand, and assorted career-limiting hedonisms off it. There was still a lot of value to his playing even then, even when he was likely to show up in an ill-fitting big-and-tall suit over a wild print shirt shirt and riff for a few chorses over a static vamp. It was in this period that Billy Joel recorded 52nd Street, the album with a photo of Joel cradling a trumpet on the cover, and because Joel’s musical conception was also bound up in old-fashioned ideas of urban masculinity, of course the guy he hired to actually play the trumpet on “Zanzibar” was Freddie Hubbard. It was also in the 1970s that the members of the great 1960s Miles Davis band started touring stadiums without Miles, billing themselves as Herbie Hancock’s VSOP II band. They hired Hubbard to fill in, and the difference in the front line and the scale of the venue instantly changed the style of the music, making it bolder, louder, weirdly garish, abstract jazz as rock opera. The guys were unapologetic about succeeding or failing on a scale beyond previous precedent for this music. Most nights they did a bit of both.
Freddie got serious about the trumpet again in the ’80s, playing mostly acoustic jazz with a succession of solid working bands and one-off all-star outfits. He seemed to be reaching for something beyond his grasp, a certain bourgeois credibility, an elder-statesman mantle that always fit as poorly as one of those double-breasted suits. He finally blew his lip right off, for all intents and purposes, in 1992 after a few years of audible decline in his ability. He could never play again for any length of time or with any fire. So he wasn’t in the middle of anything new musically when he died Monday night in Sherman Oaks, Calif. But ask any trumpeter and you will hear all about Freddie Hubbard. He was a bad, bad man.
I was going to put up a bunch of Youtubes but you can find them yourself. Standout recordings include Live at the Left Bank and Hank Mobley’s Roll Call from the 1960s, First Light from the 1970s, and Above and Beyond from the 1980s, when Hubbard showed up for a quintet date at a nightclub to discover that Henderson had failed to make the gig; found himself having to fill with a quartet all night long; and took it as a cue to play chorus after chorus of historically jaw-dropping trumpet. Above and Beyond is the record trumpet players tell other trumpet players about. Music shouldn’t always be about chops, and typically there came a point in a Freddie Hubbard concert when even an ardent fan would start to feel like it was time for a rest. So imagine how he feels. Take that break, Freddie. You earned it.