This morning I was driving from Bellingham, Washington, to the Seattle airport when I heard on the radio that Freddie Hubbard had died. My first reaction was not surprise or sadness over the death of a great jazz musician, but mild shock that Freddie made it to the age of 70. In the last six months I have talked to several of my musician friends that had dealt with Mr. Hubbard, and they agreed that the two things Freddie Hubbard liked the most were Freddie Hubbard and cocaine. He was a man who didn't take care of himself, and his playing was never the same after he damaged his lip in the early 1990's after years of trying to play higher and louder.
But back in the middle of the 1970's, when I was a young man learning about jazz, Freddie Hubbard was it - the hottest thing on the jazz scene. One of the first jazz records I bought was The Baddest Hubbard - a collection of his CTI stuff. I played that record over and over, trying to learn its secrets. (That's the album that introduced me to Joe Henderson, but that's another story.) Putting aside several lame, pop-jazz albums, Hubbard showed himself to be an exciting and original improviser; his style was informed by Clifford Brown, but he always sounded like himself.
Think about it: without even considering his own albums, Hubbard appeared on Ornette's Free Jazz, Trane's Ascension, Oliver Nelson's The Blues and the Abstract Truth, Dolphy's Out to Lunch, Art Blakey's Free for All, Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage, and Interplay by Bill Evans - masterpieces all. And that's only a fraction of his output. His playing declined in later years, due to the lip damage and other reasons, but he still sounded great through the 1980's - hear Sweet Return from 1983.
I'm not sure why, but the album I picked that evening to pay tribute was Hank Mobley's Roll Call from 1960. It's one of the great Blue Note hard-bop records, even though it's not that well known. Mobley, the middle-weight champ of the tenor saxophone (as Dexter Gordon called him) never played better than on this album and his next, Soul Station. Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Art Blakey play with a delicious combination of taste and drive on both of those records. And then there's young Freddie Hubbard - his playing is strong, effortless, exciting, and extremely well-constructed. On this album he is the epitome of promise and possibility. Did he ever totally fulfill that promise? I'm not sure. I'm surprised Hubbard lived as long as he did, but I'm sorry he's gone.