Sunday, January 18, 2009

Waking and skydiving: a royal send-off for Jazz's first chair trumpet player, Hub-style (Frederick DeWayne Hubbard, April 7, 1938 - December 29, 2008)

Minutes after I had passed the Inglewood Forum, former home of the Los Angeles Lakers, I parked in the Faithful Central Bible Church overflow lot and sat in my car, trying to eat some lunch. But I was too anxious to have an appetite. At the invitation of a friend who had performed and recorded with him, I was there to attend funeral services for Freddie Hubbard, the most accomplished trumpeter of his generation. I had read about and seen photos of the jazz funerals in New Orleans when musicians marched along behind the casket playing their instruments, entertaining their departed friend as well as onlookers, but beyond that I had no idea what to expect. Until that Tuesday (Jan. 6th) afternoon, I had attended but two funerals in my life, my father's in 1986 and my mother's sixteen years later. Both were difficult lessons in life and filled with the pain of losing a parent. I'd watched parts of televised funerals for Jack and Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Princess Diana and Ronald Reagan, all painful on different levels. In Freddie Hubbard I had lost a jazz hero, but I wasn't sure what to feel. With Miles and Tony Williams, Joe Henderson and then a little over a year ago, Joe Zawinul, each one's death seemed to be a greater loss than the last. It felt like the architects of post-bop, jazz-rock and jazz-since-1968 were starting to disappear. This one felt different, though. More personal. Instead of heavy dreariness and anguish, it felt lighter, as though something were resolving.

It was eerie, because just a few hours before I learned of his death I had gone online to order a pair of CDs he played on. Originally produced by Lenny White in 1982 with a band that consisted of Freddie, Lenny, Joe Henderson, Stanley Clarke and Chick Corea, the resulting recordings were released on the subsequently problematic Elektra Musician label. I had managed to collect them all on vinyl but despaired of ever seeing a digital reissue. So when I chanced to hear that the Wounded Bird label had released them on CD a few months earlier, I was stoked. This is some of the best group playing I've ever heard from any of these guys. Truly great, truly inspired stuff. Freddie is smoking hot and shooting sparks, but better than that, he's teamed up with four high-flying jazz heavyweights who aren't intimidated by him, whose bop musicianship is such that they are all capable of playing with him, not behind him. And man, oh man, do they swing.

I was tracking the shipment of the CDs three days later, on New Year's Day, when I saw the email inviting me to attend his funeral.

Standing outside the church, I was taken aback by the enormity of the building. Built not in the grand old tradition of a European cathedral, this building had been constructed instead with the long, low, utilitarian lines of an airplane hangar. I was perplexed. Why here?, I thought. Shouldn't there be flocks of doves and the peal of big brass church bells for a state funeral like this? Freddie D. Hubbard was not only a hall-of-famer, he was jazz royalty.

The mysterious atmosphere of the occasion deepened when I approached the church entrance and was stopped by a professionally outfitted pair of photographers who posed me and took several shots. Not because I was some kind of Big Noise, however. Nearly everyone was being stopped for a photograph, for reasons that would soon become clear. When we had finished I commented to one of them that it was a tough day to be trying to manage a smile. He shrugged it off and said, "Yeah, but it's better than suffering". The tone in his voice betrayed not the slightest trace of sorrow. He was talking about Freddie, of course. Not me. I think. Either way, his cheerful demeanor was a little disconcerting.

photo by Massimo Vitali

When I entered the building I noticed that the lobby was jammed with people queued up to sign the guest book in the lobby. In fact, no one was failing to sign it. As I stood in line I read through the program that a young usher had handed me, feeling waves of cultural cluelessness evaporate off of me as I did. Just reading the names of the pall bearers was cause for startlement. This was indeed going to be a jazz funeral. Although I was just beginning to understand what that might mean. Looking around the lobby I was a little concerned that there were so few people of white European descent who had turned out. It perplexed me that I was the only Caucasian in this roomful of African-Americans, but it probably meant only that this occasion had brought out more musicians than fans. I could think of several L.A.-based jazz artists and jazz fans who might have turned up, but it appeared there hadn't been much publicity for the funeral services. Their absence could be explained by the odd black/white sociology of jazz that has been a source of amusement and bemusement to me for years, but more likely the problem was the tradition in which white Europeans have been steeped, the terrifying Calvinistic theology of a bleak, dust-to-dust-and-then-you're-off-to-Heaven-or-more-likely-Hell existence that inevitably includes a funeral, accompanied by a dark suit and feeling depressed. Obviously they had never attended a funeral like this, either. Whatever the reason, it was of only passing concern to me, and even less to the people around me. As our eyes rested upon each other's, the light of recognition I saw on the faces of these strangers was as spiritually inviting as any I've ever experienced. These were people who loved Freddie Hubbard as much as I did. I was in a house of God. When I spotted George Duke coming through, happily hugging and greeting people as he went, it dawned on me. Freddie had already arrived in Heaven and I'd been invited join him. The party had already started.

I've since learned that this divine musical portal's location a few blocks off Manchester Ave., though new to me, has been known by many for a very long time. Three years ago the Faithful Central Bible Church was the site of Billy Preston's memorial service, occasioning a eulogy from Little Richard and a heart-rending version of "You Are So Beautiful" sung by Joe Cocker to the song's author. This memorial service was getting me hipped. I was learning. The differences between my white European Protestant tradition and the Black American Protestant tradition were certainly not in terms of numbers or scope of acceptance. It was a difference in cultures. In my culture, a tabernacle bespeaks carved stone and gargoyles and a huge pipe organ that consumes one end of the building. In this one the definition of a tabernacle is taken from the original Hebrew meaning of a portable sanctuary, usually a large, sturdy tent used by the Israelites as they fled through the Egyptian wilderness. Although now in 2009 the culture of wandering is a thing of the past, the austerity and pragmatism is not. And it has worked. This ministry has succeeded well enough that they purchased the legendary Inglewood Forum when the Lakers moved to the Staples Center some years ago, so that their Sunday services can be delivered to 17,000+ worshippers.

Soon after arriving in New York from his hometown of Indianapolis (where he had studied the mellophone, French horn, tuba and finally the flugelhorn and trumpet with Max Woodbury, principal trumpeter of the Indianapolis Symphony) Freddie Hubbard became regarded by knowledgeable jazz fans with a level of astonishment and admiration that bordered on reverence. Unquestionably the most technically proficient trumpet player of his generation, he influenced every horn player who ever heard him. The day Miles Davis met him he supposedly walked into the club where Freddie was playing and stood off to the side listening for awhile, then finally walked up to him and said, "Freddie, you're trying to play too many notes!"

I walked around a bit and found a place to sit as people continued to stream in and fill the seats of the cavernous room, and as they did I looked around. Portable, interlocking chairs, not pews, were laid out in a semi-circular pattern and directed at a massive stage with full stage lights and a large PA system. One of Freddie's horns was overturned and stood on its bell atop the pulpit, posed in profile just like the cover of his Grammy-winning LP First Light. As my eye glided across the people in the front rows I saw George Duke again, and then noticed a few more familiar faces. Bassist Stanley Clarke towered above the others, and right next to him was his old friend, drummer Lenny White. As the man in the next seat pointed out saxophonist Javon Jackson, a small group of people came walking briskly up the aisle on my right, led by Hubert Laws and his beautiful wife.

Just after Freddie's wife Brigitte plus son Duane and his family had been seated, Bishop Kenneth Ulmer, himself a pianist who had once played with Mahalia Jackson when her accompanist failed to show, strode to center stage. After a short prayer he announced in commanding tones that "Today we are here to celebrate a life well-lived." Celebrate, he said. Well-lived. Damn, I thought. This is how to give a send-off to Jazz's first chair trumpet.

After Dave Weiss, Freddie's manager and an accomplished trumpeter himself, led a brass choir of Chuck Finley, Sal Marquez, Richard Grant and George Bohannon in playing a somber composition called "Lament", bassist and producer extraordinaire Marcus Miller walked quietly up to the pulpit and began the delicate but necessary task of lifting the pall of grief from the room. I could tell from the slight bounce in his step as he approached that this funeral, unlike either of the ones I had experienced or the others I had seen televised, was going to be radically different in at least one respect -- it was going to contain at least some element of fun.

The eulogies I've read or heard in the past have tended to be either maudlin attempts to be profound, or unrelenting orgies of grief. But this cool cat was interested in neither. Marcus said he had only met Freddie on two occasions, but felt he had really gotten to know him through his music. It was funny to hear this from a jazz musician. I had communicated this same sentiment to some of the musicians I know, including Airto Moreira, who expressed amazement one day when I told him I felt as though I knew many musicians so well through their music that I considered them my friends. Marcus said that "if there is one word that describes Freddie Hubbard, it is BAD". No question at all, Freddie was bad, badder and the baddest.

When George Duke stepped up to the mic, any vestiges of funereal gloom were annihilated with his opening line: "The first thing I want to say about Freddie is, he was a nut!," he exclaimed, getting a big laugh from the crowd. He then went on to describe Freddie Hubbard's seemingly limitless sense of humor. He also expressed admiration for the way Freddie had been able to create and maintain a distinctly un-Miles style and sound in an era that Miles so clearly dominated, thereby clearing the way for many other trumpeters and their unique styles.

Hubert Laws began his remarks by reading a passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes that addressed the value of a good name. His words flowed like a biblical jazz solo by first stating a theme and then going on several 8-bar excursions before returning to the theme, taking a very creative route to get there. He said that while studying at Juilliard with the famous horn instructor, Julian Baker, he discovered in the man the condescending dismissal of jazz that is often found with classical musicians. So he invited the professor to go to Birdland one night to see Freddie Hubbard. It worked. Hubert says that this night at the New York jazz club changed the way Baker looked at music and resulted in his having a newfound respect for all of jazz, based only on the experience of hearing Freddie Hubbard play. Hubert had spread the good name of Freddie Hubbard and as Julian Baker talked to his colleagues and forwarded Freddie's good name, he began bestowing goodness on the name of Jazz.

In his eulogy Bennie Maupin told the story of going to work for Freddie when the great trumpeter hired him to play in his band. "Every musician knew that if you were going to play with Freddie Hubbard," he said, a smile curling at his lips, "you had to be ready to be humbled. He played so fast. So when I first started playing with him I would go to bed at night and I'd hear that trumpet in my head. When I woke up in the morning, I'd hear that trumpet! Finally I got the drummer, Freddie Waits, to agree to practice with me. We would practice three hours a day, every day. Finally, something clicked, and I had it." As Bennie told it, one night he and Waits just took off, and were in control of the music. Hub stopped the band. "Wait a minute!," he shouted, "This is MY band!' " When the crowd in the church stopped laughing, Bennie continued. "It was the highest compliment he could have paid me. By saying that he gave me a great gift. Of course, I had never played that fast before, and I've never played that fast since."

As the musicians were setting up for "Birdlike" from Hubbard's masterwork recorded on Blue Note, Ready for Freddie, Dave Weiss looked expectantly toward the back of the church and said "Is that Christian McBride? Is Christian here? His plane was delayed. Oh good, he's here. Can you play?...we have a bass for you up here. Please?" Weiss's pleas sounded like he was planning to try to push the band at something approximating the same pace of the original piece of music. But even with the aggressive drumming of Roy McCurdy driving the bus, it was going to be tough matching the frenetic hard-bopping drive of Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, Wayne Shorter, et al. As expected, Christian McBride just walked straight up to the stage and lent a hand to the boys. They danced and flew and pulled off a beautiful rendition that ended with Christian's breakneck, bravura solo. Of course.

The next surprise was one of those electric moments when a giant strides through your midst. I'd seen Reggie Jackson do it when he stepped into the batter's box. As he would grip his fat-barreled black bat and cock it over his shoulder, he would draw the attention and energies of 50,000 people and rivet them to their seats. I'd heard the story of Bob Dylan coming into the Palomino in L.A. one night and disrupting his friend George Harrison's performance -- stopping it, actually -- just by taking a seat. Or all the stories about how Miles would walk through the doors of a club to check out a particular musician and electrify the entire room for the 15 minutes it took to order a drink at the bar and leave. With no forewarning, Herbie Hancock had appeared from somewhere near the front of the crowd. As he walked up the steps to the stage the entire assemblage of mourner/celebrators became suddenly more animated, more alive, talking more and moving more, as though the oxygen supply in the room had suddenly doubled. When he got to the pulpit he just stood there and smiled that killer grin of his, smiled and looked out at the 500-600 people who sat transfixed by him. Like Reggie Jackson, Herbie was up there to be the straw that stirs the drink. He proceeded to preach a little old-time religion... speaking passionately from his lifelong Buddhist faith, he spoke of how Freddie Hubbard would always be alive. Freddie would always live in his heart, just as Miles Davis always would. A spirit isn't something that dies. "That's not going away," Herbie said. Then he recounted a story about playing with Freddie one time in Japan. "It was raining cats and dogs. It was the kind of rain that felt like bricks hitting the roof. The stage was covered, so the musicians were staying dry, but everyone in the audience was getting soaked. Do you know that not one body moved?" Herbie's story took on fantastical proportions as it was being told to a church full of citizens of Los Angeles, a city where you see baseball fans dribble through the Dodger Stadium turnstile well into the 2nd or 3rd inning of a game, then leave if the sun goes behind a cloud. Herbie said the rain poured and poured, but no one made a move to leave. So Freddie decided to help them out, help strengthen their resolve and give them courage. In the middle of a solo he stopped and played one of his patented high notes and held it, and then stopped... to which the crowd responded by shouting a resounding YEAH! Then Freddie played two long high notes, holding each one, and then abruptly stopped. And once again the crowd thundered another deafening YEAH-H-H-H-H-H-H-H! "Freddie was uniting the crowd," Herbie continued, "uniting them against the elements. No one left. Freddie loved to pull humanity together. Freddie pulled the crowd together. They'd shout back, and he'd embrace them and pull them together."

Sid Miller, Jr. came to the pulpit and read a couple of the messages that had been sent. One was from Bruce Lundvall, President of Blue Note Records, lauding Freddie's brilliance and proclaiming his pride in having signed him to recording contracts twice, first at Columbia and then later at Blue Note. Another was read from the great guitarist and singer, George Benson, whose message said, in so many words, that he'd like to be there but the loss was too great to bear.

Then another ripple of energy ran through the crowd and heartened them as Hubert Laws appeared in an aisle off to the left of me and walked toward the stage, holding Stevie Wonder's right hand and guiding him. As the buzz of the crowd grew louder, other musicians were taking their positions in various places on the stage. Dave Weiss was back, so were Roy McCurdy, Phil Ranelin, George Bohannon, Bennie Maupin, Christian McBride. The brilliant young saxophonist Javon Jackson appeared from somewhere.

After a brief onstage discussion of what to play, someone said "let's just jam" and that's all it took. Stevie Wonder grabbed a gigantic chromatic harmonica and started to blow. The others in the band were comping along respectfully and trying to settle into a groove when Stevie blew up with a solo that parted the clouds, ascending higher and higher, then higher and higher, sounding like a cathedral's carillon. In Stevie's upper octave Hubert held his flute to his lips for his solo and began to soar, circling and gliding gracefully in and out of Stevie's harp in the synchronous manner I've always imagined Tchaikovsky wanted for that unrequited first performance of his 1812 Overture in the square of Moscow's newly-built Cathedral of Christ the Saviour -- scored for full orchestra and accompanying brass band, chimes and bells from all the surrounding churches, plus live cannon, it would have attracted and flushed every flock of birds in the city. Freddie had Tchaikovsky's bells and doves that I wanted for him, at last.

The jam began to take on increasingly mystical religious proportions when one of the saxophones quoted the melody line that Freddie opens with on "Why Wait", the Stanley Clarke tune from the Griffith Park Collection CDs I had ordered the night before Freddie died. When all the other horns fell into a unison choir, the divinity of the spontaneous orchestration felt like the cornfield scene in the movie Field of Dreams. Phil Ranelin was attacking his trombone solo with short, staccato blasts the same way Freddie often would at the beginning of a solo, going "T-T-T-T-T-T-T-TEST ...T-T-T-T-T-T-T-TEST...T-T-T-T-T-T-T-TEST" into his horn to see if it was ready, and Phil played just like the man was on his shoulder giving directions. It really did feel like Freddie was in the room swinging right along with the rest of the cats in the band. There were moments when it sounded for all the world like Joe Henderson was up there with them, and I half expected to see Tony Williams do a snare fill and take a solo. Besides having a sweet, sweet melody, the song's title of "Why Wait" in many ways also perfectly embodied Dave Weiss' earlier sentiment when he was describing Freddie's constant willingness to "lay it out there", to never hold back, or in the sports vernacular that Freddie loved, "to leave it all on the field". The man never seemed concerned with saving anything for the next set or the next show. He blew his horn with every ounce of strength he had, every time, every night.

The full-tilt approach to life can have its drawbacks. In late 1992 on a gig in Philadelphia, Freddie split his top lip by playing without having warmed up properly, and this on the heels of a European gig playing in Slide Hampton's band, during which he had "started playing high notes with [Jon] Faddis and got carried away." Damaging those two sensitive folds of flesh is bad news for a trumpeter. But it happens, and split lips can be mended just like broken bones. Unfortunately, instead of seeing a doctor and tending to the tedious business of healing his injury, he ignored it and played a week at the Blue Note... and then flew back to Europe for a big band date! He pressed on, Hub-style, and in an act of will, simply toughed it out like an injured athlete who refuses to go onto the disabled list. Talk about holding nothing back and "leaving it all on the field". Problem is, the tear in that little bubble of fat and muscle had become infected, and by the time he finally did get around to getting real medical attention, severe damage had been done. As he took time off to allow the lip to heal over the ensuing months it became apparent that the breach in his golden embouchure was worse than he ever could have imagined.

He said that if he had left the horn alone a few more months and had spent a longer time rehabilitating, he could have averted the disastrous decline that followed. But the story gets muddled at this point, the focus fuzzy, and line between excuse and reason blurred. Like many a person who believes his foolish negligence has cost him his career, Freddie numbed the pain with alcohol and God knows what else. But there's nothing hard to understand about that. Just as you could drive a painter to drink by stopping him from painting, to drive a trumpeter to drink all you would have to do is convince him he can't play his horn. What is hard to understand is how a human being and artist of his calibre could ever have been convinced he'd been defeated.

But that's what happened. As a result, climbing out of the hole he had dug for himself, and reaching the top of the mountain again, took him the rest of his life. The only reason he ever fell at all is that, for a long while, he accepted that he had been defeated. Whether he started it all through self-pity and found it validated by his critics, or listened to his critics for too long and let them grind him down, he had been knocked out, and by a split lip, no less. A damn TKO.

He would have been better off if he had never listened to a single critic. But you know Freddie... he'd listen to anybody. All the talk about the Decline of Freddie Hubbard was only because 1) he had fallen from such a great height, and 2) it was as the result of a disintegration in that aspect of musicianship most easily appreciated by the casual listener, his very advanced technique. Mind you, calling what Freddie possessed "advanced technique" is like calling a Rolls Royce "a car". He was so good when he arrived in New York in 1958 that he shortly found himself getting invited over to John Coltrane's place after jamming with him one night at Count Basie's in Harlem. Word of his prodigious technique spread rapidly when, supposedly after hearing Freddie for the first time, Miles got ahold of Alfred Lion at Blue Note and exhorted him to sign him immediately. Phenomenal technical skills? Legendary chops? He was supernaturally talented, a man, as Quincy Jones points out in the second video below while he's introducing Freddie at the 1975 Downbeat Awards, who had "his own brand of liquid laws". Quincy could have been right -- maybe he was actually surpassing the laws of physics.

But the truth is, the quality he had that inspired us all was his heart, his fiery passion -- his phenomenal technique was never anything more that a means to express it. That's the irony of this sad chapter in his life. It's as if a great lion with a broken foot had been convinced he was no longer a lion.

But I've been listening to the last recording he did, the one he did last year with the New Jazz Composers Octet to celebrate his 70th birthday. I think the proud old lion was on his way back. It isn't Ready for Freddie or Open Sesame, that's a certainty. But comparing anyone's recent work to something earlier isn't only unfair, it's silly. We all change as we live our lives. We all learn to look forward, if we're smart. And it sounds to me like Freddie was starting to look forward again. He was starting to have fun again, especially on the title track "On the Real Side" that he wrote for the new album. There's a sound, a tone he produces that reminds me of all those sunny days and hopeful times that he gave me in his early recordings, and the ones he made such enormous contributions on, like Out to Lunch, Maiden Voyage and Empyrean Isles, Speak No Evil and Blues and the Abstract Truth. It's a faint reminder, but I can hear it, like a weakened pulse that's getting stronger. Each time I hear it, it's stronger. Maybe it's just me, wishing on a star, but his horn work and the arrangements he and Dave Weiss do with the other tunes sound like Freddie again.

Somebody posted a wobbly little 2-minute camera-phone video on YouTube of the show he did at Catalina's for his 70th birthday. Terrible audio, terrible video. But the thing that struck me was the way he's cheering on the crowd. Instead of holding a high note like he did with Herbie in Japan, he's doing it with his arms, like an exultant receiver doing a dance in the end zone, rallying the crowd with a musical cheer. He's embracing the crowd, embracing humanity.

Like most great artists, Freddie tended to be his own worst critic. He admired and wanted the soul of Lee Morgan. He wanted Dizzy's harmonic sensibilities and Miles' nerve. He wanted it all, forever, because he wanted to give it all back every night.

For my part, he always gave me all he had. He never slacked off or cheated me out of a single moment. In fact, he always seemed to give me more than I ever expected. If he was standing in front of me at this very moment, I'd argue that he had everything he ever admired in Lee or Clifford or Dizzy or Miles. He had it all from the very beginning, straight on through to the finish, every step of the way.

And he'd say, Well, have you heard my last recording, On the Real Side, the one we did for my 70th birthday?

I'd say, Yeah, I did, and I liked it.

He'd say, Seventy! I'm getting too old for this shit! And then he'd laugh.

I'd say, Seventy ain't nothing but a number.

He'd say, I can't play those fast runs anymore, like back in the day.

I'd say, I'll take one of your low and slow ballads anytime.

He'd say, I can't blow for 32 bars like I used to. Nowadays I just play 8 and lay out.

And I'd say, Yeah, Freddie, but for eight bars it's the sweetest sound I ever heard.

He'd laugh and say, Glad you like it, man, glad you like it.

I'd say, You're sounding good, you're on your way, Freddie.

He'd say, Yeah, I've been gone a little while but I'm coming back...

1 comment:

Tit said...

Hey! I'm going to do a two hour show about Freddie for my radio and I really appreciate some of the interesting thoughts about a great, great trumpet player, which I find very useful...

Keep up!