Freddie Hubbard - Biography

By Stuart Kremsky


In his prime in the Sixties and Seventies, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard dazzled critics and audiences alike with his full tone, utter confidence, and bravura brass style. Hubbard’s bold trumpet work and sensuous flugelhorn playing put him along the top ranks of harp bop brassmen. Writing in The New Grove Dictionary Of Jazz, Barry Kernfeld describes his  improvisations as “combining imaginative melody with a glossy tone, rapid and clean technique, a brilliant high register, a subtle vibrato, and bluesy, squeezed half-valve notes.” Trumpeter and arranger David Weiss, who worked frequently with Hubbard from 2000 until his death, lauds his “fat sound [and] incredible range” and asserts that he “boasted the most prodigious technique in the history of jazz trumpet.” A ubiquitous presence on the  New York scene, Hubbard was a hard bopper at heart who nevertheless participated in three of the most acclaimed recordings of the Sixties jazz avant-garde: Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz, Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch, and John Coltrane's Ascension.


            Frederick Dewayne Hubbard was born on April 7, 1938, in Indianapolis, Indiana. As a boy, Freddie began on  mellophone and then moved to trumpet in his school band. After a period of study with Max Woodbury, first trumpeter of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, in his teens Hubbard became a regular performer in the Indianapolis area. There he came into contact with the locally-prominent Montgomery brothers, guitarist Wes, vibist Buddy, and bassist Monk Montgomery. Hubbard made his first recording on The Montgomery Brothers and Five Others (Pacific Jazz), recorded at the end of 1957.


            The following year, Hubbard formed his first band, the Jazz Contemporaries, with bassist Larry Ridley and  saxophonist James Spaulding. Later in 1958, he decided to try his luck in New York. He quickly found work, beginning with John Coltrane’s final Prestige session (The Believer, 1958) and then 1959 sessions with Paul Chambers and Slide Hampton. Over the next couple of years, he worked in bands led by Hampton, Philly Joe Jones, Sonny Rollins, J.J. Johnson, and recorded with Johnson and Eric Dolphy. Hubbard toured Europe in a Quincy Jones big band in 1960 and 1961.


            Hubbard’s playing naturally came to the attention of Blue Note Records, and he made his first album as a leader for the label in June 1960, when he was just 22. Open Sesame featured a quintet with saxophonist Tina Brooks and pianist McCoy Tyner. His second album, Goin' Up, was another quintet date, this time with Hank Mobley on tenor, and the top-notch rhythm section of Tyner, Chambers and Philly Joe. His recorded work began to accumulate rapidly in this period, including important sessions with Randy Weston (Uhuru Afrika, 1960 - Roulette), Ornette Coleman (Free Jazz, 1960 - Atlantic), Oliver Nelson (The Blues and The Abstract Truth, 1961 - Impulse), Dexter Gordon (Doin’ Allright, 1961 - Blue Note), and Coltrane (Africa Brass, 1961 - Impulse; and Olé, 1961 - Atlantic). His own third album for Blue Note, Hub Cap (1961), recorded in the spring with a sextet including trombonist Julian Priester and tenor man Jimmy Heath, was followed up in August with Ready For Freddie, another sextet with Tyner, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and drummer Elvin Jones that is widely considered one of Hubbard’s finest recorded efforts. Hubbard had joined Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers earlier that summer, alongside Shorter and trombonist Curtis Fuller in the front line.


            Over the next few years, Hubbard toured and recorded with the Blakey group while still finding time to work on his own Blue Note projects and play on recording sessions with Fuller, Shorter, Heath, Benny Golson, Herbie Hancock, and others. Hubbard remained in the Blakey band until 1964. He was a member of drummer Max Roach ‘s groups for a couple of years, then left to form his own group in 1966. Hubbard continued to be a much in-demand sideman, working with saxophonists Mobley, Charlie Rouse and Sam Rivers, and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch (1964 - Blue Note), Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil (1965 - Blue Note ), Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage (1965 - Blue Note), and Coltrane’s Ascension (1965 - Impose) are some of the influential albums that Hubbard appeared on during this period.


            As the jazz scene changed in the later Sixties with the advent of fusion, Hubbard experimented with more commercial directions. But widespread success eluded him until he signed with producer Creed Taylor’s new CTI label.  Fresh from an package tour of Europe in December 1969, which yield the posthumous release Without A Song: Live In Europe 1969 (2009 - Blue Note), Hubbard returned to New York to record Red Clay (1970 - CTI), which became the best-known and largest-selling album of his career. The quintet mixed familiar faces from the Blue Note period like Hancock, playing exclusively electric piano, and tenor saxist Joe Henderson with bassist Ron Carter and newcomer Lenny White on drums. Follow-ups like Straight Life (1970 - CTI) and the Grammy-winning First Light (1971 - CTI) balanced Hubbard’s often fiery playing with Taylor’s market instincts. This era of high visibility and good sales ended when a series of forgettable releases on Columbia in the mid-Seventies managed to please no one.


            Hubbard rehabilitated himself with jazz audiences and critics when he took Miles Davis’ spot in Hancock’s VSOP band, a reunion of Davis’ mid-Sixties quintet with Shorter, Davis, and drummer Tony Williams. The group toured the world, releasing a number of live albums in the late Seventies. During the Eighties, Hubbard continued to tour and record extensively. His own hard bop-styled groups often featured tenor saxophonist Dave Schnitter and keyboardist Billy Childs. There were also encounters with such stars as Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson on The Trumpet Summit Meets The Oscar Peterson Big 4 and The Alternate Blues (both 1980 - Pablo), periodic reunions with Art Blakey and Joe Henderson, and guest appearances with vocalists Dianne Reeves and Chaka Khan. Hubbard returned to Blue Note for a friendly competition with trumpeter Woody Shaw on Double Take (1985) and The Eternal Triangle (1987). Fusion and big band albums on Fantasy (Splash, 1981), Elektra Musician (Ride Like the Wind, 1981) and Blue Note (Times Are Changing, 1989) were critically drubbed and commercially unsuccessful.


            By the latter part of the Eighties, Hubbard’s once-mighty tone had grown erratic. A series of personal problems, including a serious lip injury in 1992, forced Hubbard to mostly withdraw from performing in the middle of the decade. He knew some of his difficulties were self-inflicted, offering this advice to young musicians in a 1995 interview with Down Beat’s Fred Shuster: “Don't make the mistake I made of not taking care of myself. Please, keep your chops cool and don't overblow.”  Hubbard spent several years trying to recover his skill. It was clear on his return to the scene, that while his playing retained some key attributes of his vaunted lyricism and style, he had lost much of his power. During this period,  he much preferred the slightly less demanding flugelhorn. Hubbard was honored in 2006 by the National Endowment for the Arts with a coveted Jazz Masters Award. He made his final recording in late 2007 with On The Real Side (Times Square), a 70th birthday tribute. Following a heart attack in November 2008, Hubbard spent a month in intensive care. He died in Sherman Oaks, California in December 29th at the age of 70.




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