It had barely been a few hours after I finished my Eartha Kitt remembrance when I received the news…
I showed up to college thinking that “audition music” was simply a formality, and that when I did finish my trumpet audition for one of the most prestigious jazz programs in the country, that I would then and there be offered a music scholarship that I simply hadn’t applied for.
I went to the music building and grabbed the packet of audition music. Of the three tunes inside, one was Freddie Hubbard’s Birdlike, to be performed before members of the jazz faculty and the department head at recording tempo.
I’ll spare you the embarrassing details of my audition, and just let you know that I was given the fifth chair in the second of two big bands, which I was convinced was given to me simply because they felt sorry for me. A sample of my improvisational skills to get into one of the small groups was not requested. I was offered a music scholarship however…of sorts. The school payed for me to take more lessons.
But it was the tune Birdlike that changed my trumpet playing world. Because I’m such a tragic sight-reader, I had to buy the recording, which, in my ignorance, I had never heard before. Freddie flew through the head of the song with such ease, why my fingers tripped over themselves and the valves. Freddie soloed and soloed…and soloed…without repeating a lick. I seemed to play the same few licks containing the same few notes limited by a botched homemade embouchure change that destroyed my range…over and over.
Over the next few years, I could not get my hands on enough Freddie Hubbard recordings. And I could not tell you how many hundreds of hours I spent practicing my trumpet, wanting to play just like Freddie (much to my roommates chagrin). I would fumble through the changes on Red Clay or Straight Life while listening to Hubbard play extended solos on live recordings of those tunes. I tried desperately to play Here’s That Rainy Day as sweetly as Hub did, only to realize that not only would I never possess his tone, but by copying him I was only being unoriginal – the exact opposite of what Freddie Hubbard was.
Make your own list of the top five jazz trumpeters of all time and you will likely find Freddie Hubbard among the group. In his prime he was so superior on so many levels. For anyone who might put as much time dedicating themselves to the same craft as him, playing the trumpet, his recordings and abilities would only make you that much more appreciative of what he contributed to music. I had heard a variety of stories as to what happened to Freddie Hubbard’s chops, and frankly, none of them really make a difference. He is still one of the greatest, if not the greatest influence on me as a musician.
It had barely been a few hours after I finished my Eartha Kitt remembrance when I received the news. I didn’t even know that Freddie had suffered a heart attack around Thanksgiving. He had died Monday, December 29th, 2008 from complications of that heart attack.
I tried to explain to people around me, typically people who weren’t big jazz fans, why Freddie Hubbard was so important to me, the same way I did in January of 2007 when my other musical hero Michael Brecker died. I tried to explain, while choking up, by using analogies and metaphors in terms that they might be able to apply to their own life. “It’s kinda like if you wanted to be a professional basketball player and you spent hundreds of hours watching and studying and practicing to be Michael Jordan”, I would say.
I felt like it wasn’t the point I was really trying to make, and whatever point I personally was trying to make wasn’t likely made. I told the same people that I would be playing some Freddie Hubbard songs on my radio program that night to remember him. I’m not sure why, since the people I told weren’t jazz fans, nor listeners, nor did I expect them to listen, nor did they know who Hubbard was until I told them.
The next day, three of them (none of them jazz fans) all came up to me and said the same thing. They had listened to my program, and all said that Here’s That Rainy Day might have been the most beautiful recording they had ever heard.
Once again, Freddie Hubbard had been able to do what I only what I could only try to do. He made people fall in love with his music.
Watch Freddie Hubbard play I Remember Clifford:
Watch Freddie Hubbard play Birdlike:
Watch Freddie Hubbard play Straight Life: