Fred Shuster – “Freddie Hubbard: When Your Chops Are Shot” (1995)

December 5, 2010 at 7:33 am (Music, Reviews & Articles)

An October 1995 DownBeat article on jazz legend Freddie Hubbard…  

Trumpet great Freddie Hubbard greets a visitor to his cozy split-level Hollywood Hills home with a friendly handshake that belies the worry in his eyes.

At age 57, after a career that dates back to the glory days of bebop, the growth of Blue Note records and the emergence of fusion and jazz-rock, Hubbard finds himself unable to play for long stretches, the result of a split lip that became infected when he refused to curtail a series of engagements two years ago.

In sports and in dance, performers often “play through” injuries, attempting to put mind over matter in order to get through an important date. In years past, Hubbard, like other trumpeters, relied on sheer willpower to downplay a bothersome lip or some other impediment. This time, the obstacle proved too great. He’s been off the road for 18 months, and it was only with much effort that he managed to complete sessions for his current album, MMTC (Monk, Miles, Trane, & Cannon), his first studio date in 10 years.

Hubbard traces his problem to a series of shows beginning in late 1992, when he flew to Europe on a gig with Slide Hampton’s band, alongside fellow trumpeters Roy Hargrove and Jon Faddis. “I started playing high notes with Faddis and got carried away,” Hubbard says seriously, sitting at a wooden desk in his office/practice room at home. “High notes aren’t my forte. I came back, went to Philly and played with some guys without warming up. That’s when my top lip popped. Then I went to New York and played the Blue Note for a week. That’s when I should have stopped cold.”

But Hubbard didn’t stop there. Instead, he went back to Europe for a big band date, and soon after realized his lip had become infected. When he returned to Los Angeles, a doctor performed a biopsy, fearing cancer. “I said to myself, ‘Man, I’m going to get a day job. This is terrible.'”

Hubbard says, adding also that he was drinking too much and partying with “the rock crowd.” In addition, he conceded that he missed several gigs due to these problems.

Cancer was ruled out, but Hubbard was left with upper lip tissue so sore he was unable to play with the steely verve and confidence he was famous for. “People looked at me and said, ‘Is he doped up? Is he messed up on something?’ But it happens to most trumpet players during their career,”

Hubbard says. “it happened to Louis Armstrong. Miles quit for five years. Eventually you just say, ‘damn, let me put this thing down and give my chops a rest.’ I’ve always played with a lot of energy–maybe too much. So, I had to change my embouchure by going back to the basics and learning to warm up and play soft. I used to just pick up the trumpet and blow hard. I had to go back, get some books and consult with classical trumpet teachers. I couldn’t play a note for a while because it was so tender. It’s so frustrating not being able to blow the way I blew.”

Actually, for a project that was so difficult to finish, MMTC is a sturdy effort. The MusicMasters release includes four Hubbard originals, plus John Coltrane’s “Naima,” Thelonious Monk’s “Off Minor,” Miles Davis’ “All Blues,” and Charles Lloyd’s “The Song My Lady Sings.” The album features alto saxophonist Vincent Herring and drummer Carl Allen, both of whom were responsible for laying down many of the tracks so Hubbard could record his parts in various sessions over a 10 month period.

“It was the hardest date I ever made,” Hubbard says. “It took a long time to finish. I had to dig really deep, but I think when people hear it, they’ll hear the feeling I put in to it.”

The album is obviously dedicated to four influential artists: Monk, Miles, Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley. “I met Trane at a jam session at Count Basie’s in Harlem in 1958,” recalls Hubbard. “He said, ‘Why don’t you come over and lets try and practice a little bit together.’ I almost went crazy. I mean, here is a 20 year old kid practicing with John Coltrane. He helped me out a lot, and we worked several jobs together.”

In fact, Hubbard, who estimates he’s played on some 300 records overall, recorded several albums with Trane, including Ole in ’61 and Ascension four years later. By the time of that second album with Trane, Hubbard was in the midst of a productive contract with Blue Note, for whom he had recorded his debut as a leader, Open Sesame, in 1960. Hubbard has fond memories of the time.

“During that period, man, I was doing two albums a week and playing at clubs at night,” he says. “There was a lot of energy. I was between Lee Morgan, Kenny Dorham, Donald Byrd, Blue Mitchell, Richard Williams, and me in New York at the time trying to maybe get where Dizzy and Miles were at. We were eager beavers, man. Those Blue Note sessions were like school. We’d rehearse three days and take the music home like homework. That’s why those sessions sound pretty good today.

“I remember on my first album we did 32 takes of ‘All or Nothing at All.’ At the end of each tune each time, me a [drummer] Clifford Jarvis would trade eights. Thirty two takes of the entire song – that’s the solos, the head, everything. Now, you know I must have been young. I think about that kind of stuff and say, ‘No wonder I can’t play right anymore.'”

Much has been made of the so-called rivalry between Hubbard and the late Lee Morgan during those heady New York years. But Hubbard sets the record straight. “Lee was the only young cat that scared me when he played,” he says. “he had so much fire and natural feeling. I had more technique, but he had that feeling. People seemed to like him more than they liked me at the beginning. But we’d follow each other around, buy sports cars and chase the same chicks. It was a different period then. Today, it’s all business.”

Despite the recent period of inactivity, Hubbard’s music has turned up in various places. For example, his 1970 recording of “Red Clay” was used as the groove beneath the rap outfit A Tribe Called Quest’s album cut “Sucka Nigga.” And Hubbard’s melodically inventive trumpet can be found on rapper/producer Guru’s current bop-meets-hip-hop project Jazzmatazz Volume II: The new Reality. The trumpet master has also recently completed work on the soundtrack to a film called The Big Gun, and there are plans for a series of weekend dates at a small North Hollywood jazz club.

Meanwhile, Hubbard has some tips for young trumpet players. They’re lessons he admits to learning the hard way: “Don’t make the mistake I made of note taking care of myself,” he says. “Please, keep your chops cool and don’t overblow.” If you’re going top play hard, be sure to warm up. And I’d advise everyone to get some health insurance, because you never know when you’ll need it. I used to work all the time. I’d go to Europe for two days, come back and go to Japan, then fly to New York.”

But what if a trumpeter truly expresses his or herself by shrieking? “Don’t do it,” Hubbard replies firmly. “Because when you reach my age, you lip’s going to give out. No question. And it can lead to cancer.”

Hubbard remembers his acclaimed stint with the fiery Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, “and I’d get carried away trying to stay right with the momentum. And you shouldn’t do that. I used to try and play like Coltrane and solo for 30 or 40 choruses. It all caught up to me. If you’re going to play this kid of music, you’re going to have problems at some point. That’s the thing about jazz” you’ll be blowing when maybe you should have stopped 20 years ago. Then, you look up and you’ve got a big knot in your lip.”

Hubbard is encouraged that younger players often use larger mouthpieces than the ones he started on. “These players may not quite have the feeling yet, but they’ll last longer. Over the years, I’ve had blisters, but when you’re young, you just blow them away. My mistake was, I should have taken off longer than a few months. I went back to playing before the tissue had healed. The result was, I’d get through half a set and just poop out.”

He picks up a horn given to him by Donald Byrd and blows some runs that aren’t as fast as he would like, but which reflect a warm. newly thoughtful tone. His lip is not vibrating like it once did, Hubbard explains, and he must slowly build the muscles back up to full strength. “I had to change my whole approach and let the air flow,” he says. “It’s less work. I can play for a while, but not for two long. You never think anything’s going to happen. But if I can’t work, where’s the income going to come from? Luckily, I’ve made so many albums, I have royalty checks coming in. But it’s not enough to live on.”

Hubbard says he’d like to teach while his lip tissue heals. A book of his transcriptions is due out soon and he believes he can impart some valuable information on developing musicians. “Your own personal style on any musical instrument some in time,” He states. “I used to try and play like Miles, and Miles caught me copying him one night at Birdland. He said, ‘Hey man, why don’t you play some of your own stuff.’ So, I finally did, because I had copied all his solos.”

The trumpeter advises young players that after they copy and transcribe solos and practice them to “go off and really search inside and try and get something of your own. Because if you don’t have your own sound, you’ll be forgotten. Jazz isn’t like pop, where you can sell millions of records with a hit. Your spirit and soul aren’t important in pop music. But jazz is like classical music. If people like you, they’ll remember and you’ll last forever.

Hubbard, who was raised in Indianapolis and played his first sessions there with the Montgomery Brothers, moved to New York in the late ’50s. In the ’70s, he left for Los Angeles at the prompting of Quincy Jones. “It’s a different groove out there,” says Hubbard, who lives with Brigitte, his wife of 23 years. “People are more relaxed, and they’re not so concerned about going down to some basement to hear music. You get a chance to experiment. Jazz has changed. The old days will never come back. We used to have jam sessions after gigs, play till four in the morning and then go someplace and blow some more. That’s not the way it is now. You have to wake up early and go to the studio.”

Hubbard said his own favorite work is on Oliver Nelson’s 1961 date Blues and the Abstract Truth. He won a Grammy award in 1972 for First Light on CTI. “Young players only get the exposure to the greats like Miles, Trane and Monk through records,” he said.

They’ve had no real experience with the real essence of those guys – the way they help their instruments, the way they acted, what really caused this music. Most of the cats trying to play hardcore contemporary jazz don’t have their own style. Or there are some people like Wynton [Marsalis] who play the horn, but don’t play no hip jazz. They’re just into playing the instrument good. They’re not creating ideas.”

Still Hubbard has words of praise for younger players like Vincent Herring, who “reminds me a lot of Cannonball. He’s got that cheerful type of feeling in his playing. He’s on of the few young cats on the scene today that has his own voice. A lot of the kids are just copying what we did in the ‘ 50s and ’60s, so there are very few guys I see today who will be considered innovators.”

Asked if he had any last words for Down Beat, Hubbard was quick to respond: “Tell ’em the hub’s coming back. Give me another six months and I’ll be ready!”

Fred Shuster

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