Freddie Hubbard plays Skylark, with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, 1963.
Over a career that began in the late 1950s, Mr. Hubbard earned both critical praise and commercial success — although rarely for the same projects.
He attracted attention in the 1960s for his bravura work as a member of the Jazz Messengers, the valuable training ground for young musicians led by the veteran drummer Art Blakey, and on albums by Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and many others. He also recorded several well-regarded albums as a leader. And although he was not an avant-gardist by temperament, he participated in three of the seminal recordings of the 1960s jazz avant-garde: Ornette Coleman’s “Free Jazz” (1960), Eric Dolphy’s “Out to Lunch” (1964) and John Coltrane’s “Ascension” (1965).
In the 1970s Mr. Hubbard, like many other jazz musicians of his generation, began courting a larger audience, with albums that featured electric instruments, rock and funk rhythms, string arrangements and repertory sprinkled with pop and R&B songs like Paul McCartney’s “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” and the Stylistics’ “Betcha by Golly, Wow.” His audience did indeed grow, but his standing in the jazz world diminished.
Continue reading the main story
Continue reading the main story
By the start of the next decade he had largely abandoned his more commercial approach and returned to his jazz roots. But his career came to a virtual halt in 1992 when he damaged his lip, and although he resumed performing and recording after an extended hiatus, he was never again as powerful a player as he had been in his prime.
Frederick Dewayne Hubbard was born on April 7, 1938, in Indianapolis. His first instrument was the alto-brass mellophone, and in high school he studied French horn and tuba as well as trumpet. After taking lessons with Max Woodbury, the first trumpeter of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, at the Arthur Jordan Conservatory of Music, he performed locally with, among others, the guitarist Wes Montgomery and his brothers.
Mr. Hubbard moved to New York in 1958 and almost immediately began working with groups led by the saxophonist Sonny Rollins, the drummer Philly Joe Jones and others. His profile rose in 1960 when he joined the roster of Blue Note, a leading jazz label; it rose further the next year when he was hired by Blakey, widely regarded as the music’s premier talent scout.
Adding his own spin to a style informed by Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Clifford Brown, Mr. Hubbard played trumpet with an unusual mix of melodic inventiveness and technical razzle-dazzle. The critics took notice. Leonard Feather called him “one of the most skilled, original and forceful trumpeters of the ’60s.”
After leaving Blakey’s band in 1964, Mr. Hubbard worked for a while with another drummer-bandleader, Max Roach, before forming his own group in 1966. Four years later he began recording for CTI, a record company that would soon become known for its aggressive efforts to market jazz musicians beyond the confines of the jazz audience.
His first albums for the label, notably “Red Clay,” contained some of the best playing of his career and, except for slicker production and the presence of some electric instruments, were not significantly different from his work for Blue Note. But his later albums on CTI, and the ones he made after leaving the label for Columbia in 1974, put less and less emphasis on improvisation and relied more and more on glossy arrangements and pop appeal. They sold well, for the most part, but were attacked, or in some cases simply ignored, by jazz critics. Within a few years Mr. Hubbard was expressing regrets about his career path.
Most of his recordings as a leader from the early 1980s on, for Pablo, Musicmasters and other labels, were small-group sessions emphasizing his gifts as an improviser that helped restore his critical reputation. But in 1992 he suffered a setback from which he never fully recovered.
By Mr. Hubbard’s own account, he seriously injured his upper lip that year by playing too hard, without warming up, once too often. The lip became infected, and for the rest of his life it was a struggle for him to play with his trademark strength and fire. As Howard Mandel explained in a 2008 Down Beat article, “His ability to project and hold a clear tone was damaged, so his fast finger flurries often result in blurts and blurs rather than explosive phrases.”
Mr. Hubbard nonetheless continued to perform and record sporadically, primarily on fluegelhorn rather than on the more demanding trumpet. In his last years he worked mostly with the trumpeter David Weiss, who featured Mr. Hubbard as a guest artist with his group, the New Jazz Composers Octet, on albums released under Mr. Hubbard’s name in 2001 and 2008, and at occasional nightclub engagements.