Listening to Freddie Hubbard

Posted by: Dave Douglas on January 1, 2009 @ 1:21 pm
Filed under: Dave Douglas (Artist Thoughts), Perennials

Even with centuries of innovation in brass instrument making, the trumpet is still basically a metal tube through which one is expected to blow, vibrating the lips against the opening at one end. It doesn’t matter who’s making the horn. That’s basically all it is.

The notes come out following the harmonic series: beginning with a low fundamental tone and ascending, according to the laws of physics, by ever smaller intervals until the top of the range, where the series ends in pure, densely packed chromatics. Add three valves and you’ve got seven harmonic series available: 0, 1, 2, 12, 23, 13, and 123.* In the low range all the fundamental notes have their own fingering. In the high range, where the seven series converge, almost any note can be played with any fingering.

In addition, there is the quality of the attack, the flow of air, and the flexibility in moving from one note to another. All musical expressiveness on the trumpet stems from control of these few variables.

Freddie Hubbard was one of the most skilled practitioners of this art. The joy and freedom in his playing came in part from this complete mastery of the instrument. It always sounded effortless. In the high range his control of air was so sublime that his lines sometimes defied the laws of physics and harmony, resolving in odd ways just by dint of his total domination of the instrument. Freddie grabbed the opportunity of those alternate fingerings to pop in and out of chromatic chord and scale ideas. His attack was always precise and his dodging and darting lines flowed like water through a sluiceway.

A lot of people can play the trumpet well. Technical mastery is far from the reason Freddie Hubbard is the most imitated player of the last half-century. It was what he did with that mastery — the inventiveness of his harmonies and the ingenuity of his rhythmic propulsion. Freddie’s impact is so profound that you often don’t have to mention him when noting a young player’s influences. Freddie is always there. He had a lot to say, and we all soaked it up.

As a young player Freddie listened to Clifford Brown for sure. He also drank deeply at the well of Clifford’s inspirations: Fats Navarro, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, and Louis Armstrong, among many others. But trumpeters aren’t the only influence for trumpeters. In the same way that Clifford Brown talked about putting Charlie Parker’s language on the trumpet, Freddie Hubbard brought the practices of John Coltrane, his occasional practice-mate, directly into the brass world.

Freddie’s lines drove the harmony. Freddie toyed with the music, anticipating and delaying resolutions in unexpected ways. But at the end of the day it was the maturity of his improvisations that were the most powerful aspect of his musical expression. Freddie at his best could go nuts with the lines and the harmony, but he would also ease off and play with bluesy simplicity when it more effectively served the moment.

The VSOP records of the mid-seventies show Freddie in an unusual and revealing light. This had been Miles Davis’ band in the mid-sixties: Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. With Miles this music was spare and enigmatic — no extra notes and no bravura energy added to the brilliance of the tunes. Freddie brings something quite different. He is generous with notes and all flowing grace. A different kind of grace, like a gregarious toastmaster. Freddie is so on top of the music and the horn that he is unable to restrain the joyful exuberance of his ideas and his ability to pull them off.

That explains a lot about why he is more imitated than Miles Davis — his style gave so much more material to hold onto. Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard were two very different visions of the modern esthetic. Echoes of Miles are heard a lot, but you hear the sound of Freddie everywhere.

Trumpeters have often been tragic figures in American life. Freddie Hubbard was no different. The last fifteen years of his life saw him battling a disastrous lip injury that limited his ability to execute his ideas. Freddie also battled the forces of fashion – by his own admission (though not necessarily that of his fans) he spent some years making music that did not live up to his high standards. By the early seventies he had done pretty much everything that could be done: documented many masterpiece solos, participated in dozens of seminal recordings, elaborated a personal vision for the instrument and the music that still stands up today. Where was he to go? That kind of legacy and pressure at such a young age is hard to imagine.

We can be thankful for the joy Freddie Hubbard brought to us in his seventy years on the planet. He will be missed.


* For those curious why 3 is not included among the seven basic fingerings — 3 creates a length of tubing almost exactly identical to 12, with 12 being slightly more in tune. 3 is a widely used alternate fingering, but is not considered among the basic positions.

Darcy at Secret Society has a great collection of links to other thoughts about Freddie Hubbard, as well as some perceptive thoughts of his own.



    Not sure when this is from. Must be the 70s, judging by the ruffled tux shirt.

    Check out the bridge he plays 1:33-1:40. Ridiculous.

    Comment by Matt Rubin — January 2, 2009 @ 2:55 am

  2. Thanks, Matt. Lots of great Freddie on line. This one is VSOP with Joe Henderson replacing Wayne:

    Happy 2009.

    Comment by Dave — January 2, 2009 @ 9:03 am

  3. Listening and learning carries him on. I like what you wrote about the tubes and his unique magic. Here’s a crackly
    video from 1982, a sweet ballad.

    Comment by Frank Visconti — January 5, 2009 @ 8:59 am

  4. Dave

    Beautifully written.. I read it twice! Freddie is a GOD, not THEE God, but a God nevertheless. Losing him was like losing a family member. I don’t know what it is, maybe the way he played, but I thought he would live forever. His music will and through his music, he WILL live forever. I am on a mission to make sure EVERY young cat playing trumpet or wanting to play jazz trumpet, knows about Freddie Hubbard.. While I am at it, I am SO PISSED that I have yet to hear ONE SINGLE MENTION on CNN, FOX, CBS, ABC or any other network about the death, life of Freddie.. Its a shame. I hate our culture. R.I.P. Freddie, you earned it.. Wayne Humbyrd

    Comment by Wayne Humbyrd — January 7, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

  5. Thanks Wayne.

    Amazing that someone so important to so many, a key figure in American music, isn’t on the radar of the media you mention. And yet he’s not the first to be overlooked and sadly he won’t be the last. He lives on in people’s hearts (and especially in their music). My feeling is that his contribution transcends all that anyway.

    Comment by Dave — January 7, 2009 @ 7:41 pm

  6. This article was so well written. I think it perfectly captures what Freddie Hubbard meant to so many musicians – not just trumpet players. Thank you…this is a great blog too!

    Comment by Brian Lewis Smith — January 14, 2009 @ 11:55 am

  7. You are welcome, Brian.

    Comment by Dave Douglas — January 14, 2009 @ 1:06 pm

  8. A true genious of the culture (any culture) is always ignored by the standard media. That’s why i try not to see too much television…

    Greetings from Spain, for your blog and your astounding music.

    Comment by Toni — February 6, 2009 @ 11:13 am

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