Freddie Hubbard, widely regarded as the most gifted jazz trumpeter of the post-bebop ‘60s and ‘70s, died Monday at Sherman Oaks Hospital in Los Angeles. He was 70.
The cause of death was attributed to complications from a heart attack he suffered Nov. 26, according to Dave Weiss, his longtime manager.
From the beginning, Hubbard’s playing was characterized by its strength and assurance, its capacity to roam confidently across the trumpet’s entire range, and his gift for spontaneous melodic invention.
He was barely out of his teens in the late 1950s and working with such established jazz figures as drummer Philly Joe Jones, trombonist Slide Hampton, saxophonist Sonny Rollins and composer/arranger Quincy Jones. His identification as an important new arrival gained him a Down Beat Critics Poll Award when he was in his early 20s.
Hubbard was capable of quickly grasping the subtleties as well as the specific elements of a startlingly wide range of stylistic areas, from the hard bop of his work with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers to the most avant-garde music of the decade.
Seemingly the first choice for artists of every stripe, he was present on many of the most significant jazz albums of the ‘60s, among them Ornette Coleman’s “Free Jazz,” John Coltrane’s “Ascension,” Eric Dolphy’s “Out To Lunch,” Oliver Nelson’s “Blues and the Abstract Truth,” Wayne Shorter’s “Speak No Evil” and Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage.”
“Hubbard,” wrote Joachim Berendt in “The Jazz Book: From New Orleans to Rock and Free Jazz,” “is the most brilliant trumpeter of a generation of musicians who stand with one foot in ‘tonal’ jazz and with the other in the atonal camp.”
Although his playing, especially in the earliest years, reflected the influence of Clifford Brown, Miles Davis and others, he said saxophonists were most influential in his development, often specifically mentioning Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” as an important source.
“I always practice with saxophone players,” he told Julie Coryell and Laura Friedman in their book, “Jazz-Rock Fusion: The People, the Music.” “I find when you get around trumpet players, you get into competitive playing -- who can play the loudest and the highest. After you develop your own style, you don’t want to get into that.”
Like many players in his generation, Hubbard was drawn to pop and rock interests in the ‘70s and ‘80s. In 1977 he toured with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams in the quasi-Miles Davis ensemble V.S.O.P. And he released a series of rock- and pop-oriented albums on the CTI label.
“Red Clay,” “First Light” and “Straight Life” received good reviews, and “First Light” was awarded a Grammy in 1972 for best jazz performance by a group. Later CTI albums received generally negative criticism.
In the early ‘90s, the intensity with which Hubbard had always approached his trumpet caught up with him. After splitting his lip in 1992, he ignored the injury, continuing to play on a European tour. The lip became badly infected, and his physician insisted on a biopsy. No cancer was found, but Hubbard spent the next few years struggling to regain his early ability to articulate his instrument.
His playing over the last decade was uneven, at best. In his most recent local appearance, at Catalina Bar & Grill in April, he performed with The New Jazz Composers Octet, an ensemble organized by Weiss, who was Hubbard’s arranger and producer.
Although he performed on fluegelhorn, a more forgiving instrument than the trumpet for players with lip problems, Hubbard did brief solo segments, revealing only traces of the player who Weiss said “played faster, longer, higher and with more energy than any other trumpeter of his era.”
Hubbard was born Frederick DeWayne Hubbard in Indianapolis on April 7, 1938. He was the youngest of six children in a musical household and first played the tonette and then the mellophone.
“I had a sister who played classical piano and sang spirituals,” he told Coryell and Friedman. “My mother played the piano by ear and I had a brother who played the bass and tenor. So the music was hot and heavy. You’d hear somebody singing, somebody playing the piano, and always a record playing.”
He took up the trumpet in junior high school, and also played fluegelhorn, piano, French horn, sousaphone and tuba.
Moving to New York City in 1958, when he was 20, Hubbard quickly became known as one of the important new jazz arrivals. In the early ‘70s, his career well-established, he moved to Los Angeles, settling in the San Fernando Valley.
He received a Jazz Masters Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2006.
Hubbard is survived by his wife, Briggie, and his son, Duane.
Funeral services are pending. A memorial tribute in New York will be planned in the new year.
Heckman is a freelance jazz writer.