In the early seventies I was a disc jockey at KJAZ-FM in Alameda ,Ca. (92.7). It was not unusual to play a set of music 45 minutes in length, since we had very few commercial advertisements. On one occasion, after such a set, I received a phone call, the voice at the other end saying, “Thanks for playing my record.” I was desperately trying to figure out which record the caller was referring to. Finally I  asked, “Who is this?” The voice on the other end answered, “Freddie Hubbard.” I’m thinking to myself, “Yeah right! And I’m the Pope.” (The tune I had played was ‘Latina’ from “High Blues Pressure” – Atlantic SC1501.) And as it turned out it was Freddie Hubbard. He was in town with his Quintet appearing at a local club (it was either the Both/And or Keystone Corner, I can’t remember which…)

Being a fairly new student of the trumpet, I spoke with him for a brief moment then boldly asked for a lesson. He agreed, much to my surprise. I had always revered Freddie Hubbard as “THE” trumpet player of the 20th Century  (and I emphasize TRUMPET PLAYER.) With this in mind, I HAD to ask for a lesson. Due to my naiveté I thought he might know a secret that would instantly allow me to overcome my deficiencies on the trumpet. And he did know of such a remedy: It consisted of very, very, hard work and practice.

Freddie and his band were staying at a hotel in San Francisco called The Gaylord. I remember eagerly driving over to the hotel and Freddie answering the door in a bathrobe.  It was an older place and the rooms had kitchenettes and radiator heating. It was early in the day—for a musician—about 10:30 in the morning.

After all of the introductory formalities we started the lesson. He introduced me to “bell tones” on the trumpet, which he said Clifford Brown had practiced and mastered. It’s a way of breathing and playing a note that “rings” not unlike a bell. He also wrote out HubTones, a tune he recorded on an album of the same name on Bluenote (BLP-4115 and BST-84115). The tune is not just a blues, it’s primarily a lip flexibility exercise conceived by Freddie. In order to play Hub-Tones at the tempo that Freddie plays on the record, one has to have mastered lip flexibility and slurring—the ability to play from note to note without tonguing the note but lipping up or down, that is sliding into the notes seamlessly without the least bit of distortion of the note. (For other examples of his mastery of speed, slurs and trills listen to the head on The Intrepid Fox (on Red Clay CTI- 6001); Powder Keg on Wayne Shorter’s Wayning Moments (VeeJay SR 3029); or Just One Of Those Things on The Hub of Hubbard MPS -BASF 20726)…

At some point I recall some of his band members coming into his room to cut up a melon for breakfast. There was Cedar Walton, Junior Cook, Louis Hayes and Wayne Dockery. It was great.

We took a short break from the lesson, me totally in awe of Freddie’s ability to control the trumpet with ease. I was also astounded by the fact that he took the time to give me a lesson and not charge a penny. A lesson that was light years beyond my ability. But it gave me something to work on for the rest of my life! I was reminded of the fact that Freddie Hubbard consistently performed feats on the trumpet that others simply could not.

Freddie Hubbard had four things over most other trumpet players: speed and flexibility in playing, a rich mellow tone throughout the entire range of the instrument and an unparralled harmonic knowledge gained by practicing, studying and playing with John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter. All aided his continual and rapid flow of ideas. His technical mastery of the instrument rivaled that of most Classical trumpet players and in many instances exceeded their ability. These skills came from practicing incessantly since he was just a boy….

Here are a few of Freddie’s thoughts:
“I got kind of a late start ’cause I didn’t get to New York ’til I was twenty,” Freddie said. “You got cats now who do it at 16 and 17. But I used to practice all the time. I still do but I don’t think I practice with the regularity like I did then… And it was hard for me to get away from it… It seems cats are getting it together quicker now. Because cats are teaching it. Whereas before it was very difficult to get a cat, jam him up so that he would take time with you. They teach it in school but it’s very hard to teach improvisation. Because if you teach improvisation you’re going to have to use some idea which is usually somebody else’s idea … So what you have to do is take that idea and lay it on your own ideas, and I don’t see much of that being taught (circa 1976). They should teach a John Coltrane concept, a Miles Davis concept, cats that have been out here for a while…Then come to the younger guys. I think that would be more helpful. See how it’s related to Fats Navarro, Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong…”

Freddie became interested in Jazz because of his brother, a pianist whom, Freddie said, could play all of Herbie Hancock’s music though he didn’t read music. While Freddie was also a fine pianist, he started with French Horn and Mellophone in Junior High School, two instruments demanding great lip and breath control. He also did a brief stint of study at the Arthur Jordan Conservatory of Music. However, his main musical influences didn’t come from brass players but tenor players—John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, two giants of the tenor sax and improvisational music. Freddie played and practiced with both.

John Coltrane heard Freddie play at a jam session and suggested they practice together. “I played with (Coltrane) on a couple of occasions. I did a couple of albums with him and we did a gig in Birdland together. And I probably played a couple of All Star things with him around New York… I’d say the most important thing I learned from him was how to connect chord changes.” (Which is similar to learning to connect sentences to form coherent paragraphs. More important, where to place the musical commas and periods.)

The record dates with Coltrane include: The Believer (Prestige 7292 and Stardust- Prestige 7268) and he would later record with Coltrane on Atlantic (Ole Coltrane -SD 1373 and Ascension – MCA 29020.) Freddie also recorded with Sonny Rollins on East Broadway Rundown (Impulse – AS 9121).

“There was a certain way that Sonny Rollins would tongue a note,” Freddie said. “He’d tongue the first note and the second one would be almost like a ghost. I always liked that because it sounded very hip to me. So I started playing like that. I used to sound just like him, on trumpet! I used to phrase just like him.”

Mimicing sax players can take its toll on a trumpet player’s chops because things that are easily played on sax (because of the way the instrument is built, vertically) can be extremely difficult on trumpet. “It was a lot of work, you know,” he said. “Blisters and all that. But once I got it, it was cool. But it takes time. ‘Cause a lot of cats used to come up to me and say,’you tryin’ to play like Sony Rollins.’ So I would say,’Wow it sounds alright doesn’t it?’ In other words, I figured if I did that I could kind of get away from trying to play like Miles, and Clifford (Brown) and Dizzy. Who were like the three leading cats out there. And I figured if I could develop another kind of sound, I could get through.”

Not only did he get through he also created and defined another  style of playing the trumpet.

When Freddie first arrived in New York City and played around town he began to be known as the “young terror” because of his command of the instrument. He made a lot of trumpet players woodshed after observing his virtuosity… I remember a rehearsal he had at Keystone Korner, a Jazz club in San Francisco. At the time, he didn’t have access to his trumpet so I lent him my horn. I’d been complaining about the valves sticking. However, when Freddie used the horn it sounded perfect. The valves were as smooth as silk. I learned then and there that it’s the trumpet player first then the instrument… I also recall a time at his apartment in North Hollywood when I visited him and took some of my trumpet studies along with me. He spotted a copy of Herbert L. Clarke that I had with me (a cornet technical studies book used by trumpet players). I showed him the page with the sixteenth note exercise that was to be played in one breath in its entirety. He looked a the page and said something to the effect, “Oh yeah . I remember that page.” Then he proceeded to play the entire exercise from memory…

Freddie grew up in Indianapolis. Wes Montgomery, James Spaulding , J.J. Johnson and Larry Ridley all lived in Indianapolis. He told me that one thing that had motivated him to practice as much a he did was growing up watching Wes Montgomery wash trucks to supplement his income. Freddie said that he never ever wanted to be in the position to have to do that. He related that it took him ten years to learn to play the trumpet and another ten to learn to play Jazz. I also recall him telling me of an occasion when working with Sonny Rollins, Freddie was just learning the bridge of Cherokee when that night on the bandstand Sonny Rollins calls out Cherokee at a break-neck tempo. It was trial-by-fire.

Today, I can’t think of any jazz trumpet player under the age fifty who is not influenced by Freddie in some way, especially in their technical approach to the instrument. And today there are a lot more trumpet players familiar with the classical techniques involved in playing the trumpet  because of the influence of  players of the caliber of Freddie Hubbard, Booker Little, and Clark Terry. All have had a great influence on the technical approach to the trumpet. (Among those below age fifty, I would credit Wynton Marsalis as being a great influence on the technical development of trumpet players.)

Looking back, I remember Freddie complaining about not having the endurance he wanted. He was taking 5 or 6 minute solos and complaining about endurance! He wanted the endurance of the Sax players. But sax players have a vibrating reed to produce their sound,whereas a trumpet player depends on his lip vibrating. No vibration, no sound. This is no easy task while in the emotional throes of a solo, pressing metal to flesh! Five or six minutes of constant playing is actually quite phenomenal.

The passing of Freddie Hubbard reminds me of the ending of an era in Jazz when artists could freely write and record specifically for the jazz idiom. When the artists controlled the direction and future of the music. Large corporations hadn’t yet dominated the Jazz recording industry, dictating the repertoire of the artist.

There was a time when artists had a large degree of creative freedom, especially at labels such as Blue Note Records operated by Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff. There great musicians were unleashed. The list is long and includes the likes of Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Sam Rivers, Joe Henderson, Andrew Hill, Duke Pearson, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Jackie McLean, Lou Donaldson, Jimmy Smith, Bud Powell, Dexter Gordon, Ike Quebec, Bobby Hutcherson, Grant Green, Hank Mobley, Grachan Moncur III, Horace Silver, Blue Mitchell and Don Cherry (to name a few). There was also Riverside and Milestone Records, run by Orrin Keepnews, with Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley, Johnny Griffin, Jimmy Heath, Wynton Kelly, Lee Konitz ,Wes Montgomery, Duke Ellington and many other straight-ahead Jazz artists. Probably we will never see this caliber of talent assembled in one place at the same time, ever again. I feel very fortunate and privileged to have witnessed and experienced this musical miracle along with the trumpet  playing of Freddie Hubbard.

Listen to VernThompson’s incredible CD, “A Glimmer of Paradise” on Apple Music