Bobby Hutcherson: A Life In Jazz

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This interview was first published at All About Jazz in February 1999.

Listen to any one of Bobby Hutcherson's albums for Blue Note during the mid-'60's and '70's, he made well over thirty, and you will see just why he is the best vibraphonist in jazz. Dialogue with Andrew Hill, Components with a fiery Joe Chambers, and Live at Montreux, all superb. It was a personal honor to get an opportunity to sit down and chat with Hutcherson. We spoke about his start, his early days in New York, and his new release on Verve, Skyline, in his own words.

All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning.

Bobby Hutcherson: I had an older brother who used to go to school with Dexter Gordon. He was a cheerleader and Dexter was in the marching band over at Jefferson (High School) in Los Angeles. They used to be around me all the time, of course they were fifteen years older than me, but there was a lot of music around the house and because of them there was always a piano in the house. My sister was a singer. She's done a Broadway show and she did some concerts with Eric Dolphy, in fact, she was Eric Dolphy's girlfriend for awhile. I heard a record called The Giants of Jazz with Milt Jackson, and Miles (Davis), and Thelonious Monk, Percy Heath, and Kenny Clarke. I heard this tune called "Bemsha Swing," of course the music was all around me at this time, but when I was in junior high school, a friend of mine, Herbie Lewis, who plays bass, suggested if I get an instrument, I could play in his trio. We could play dances. I worked with my father who was a brick mason over the summer, saved my money, and bought a set of vibes, and we started playing dances.

AAJ: Was the vibraphone your instrument of choice?

BH: I used to sit around and play some piano, but only for my own enjoyment. I have an aunt who was a piano teacher combination preacher in the church, and the way that she demanded me to play the piano when I would come over for lessons, kind of, turned me off. It was a thing where I had to do it on my own. I had to want to play the piano, but the vibes came in when I heard Milt.

AAJ: During a twelve-year period, between 1965-1977, you must have recorded almost forty albums for Blue Note. What was your relationship with Alfred Lion's label?

BH: Alfred was always looking for something new. He was looking for fresh ideas. He was looking for a certain thing that he enjoyed. He would come out to all the clubs and he would sit there and listen. He'd say, 'I like this. I like what you're doing. I want to record this.' He liked young musicians. He liked older musicians. He could feel when there was a renaissance in music going on. He would hear there where certain things going on and he would have to make sure that he was there so he could be part of it. When he was in the studio, sitting in the studio, and Rudy Van Gelder was there, all the albums were recorded with him there, and you'd see him behind the glass and you could tell. He'd sit there and say, 'This is what I want. This is what I want.

Now, you're feeling good. You're feeling relaxed.' The things that were happening with me was, I was listening to all kinds of music. I had grown up listening to a lot of different music. I started listening to other instruments. I was constantly experimenting with different things. I was experimenting with voices. I was experimenting with different sounds, different combinations, different ways of writing, different voicings, and writing different voices, and writing from chords from the vibraphone to the piano, and applying notes and chords, taking out notes and chords, and finding these different types of sounds and trying different rhythms, and because of that it causes the music to continually sound fresh. There's a lot of those Blue Note albums, if you were to play them right now, they'd sound like there's no date on them. They sound like that's something that could have been recorded yesterday, mainly because a lot of the music would go to you mentally and you might say, 'I remember feeling like that. I remember that feeling. I remember waking up one day and I'd look out and the day looked like that. I remember that.' Those little things, when you relate to those things and at that point, well, the sun doesn't get old. It comes up everyday, but it comes up different everyday, so you remember these little feelings. You remember when you met someone on a certain day or when you sat in a restaurant and having a great dinner conversation. You remember how it felt when the candle was flickering against the face of the other person. You remember how the wind was, how it smelled. If you can bring back these little thoughts, then there is no date on music because it's just as nature. There is no date on nature.

AAJ: What makes an album timeless?

BH: One of the things is vulnerability. I'm very vulnerable. At any given time, there is that deep, dark hole. People like to see vulnerability.

Something bad happens and people want to see you be a good sport and they want to see you get off the canvas and shake everybody's hand. You say, 'Wow, that was a heck of a punch I just got punched with. I thought I knew it all, but I guess I don't.' I'm laying down here and I got sucker punched by a chord or a feeling, or something that I thought that I had full control over, but I didn't, and now I'm laying here. OK, let's be a good sport. Let's get up off the floor, and let's shake hands, and admit what happened, and let's go on, go on to the next, and try your best again, and try your best again. That's what life is about and people want to see that. People want to see that you went through this and you struggled, but you still are going after what you want to do and you're doing the best that you can. And yes, there is this beautiful moment that comes back, shining through again. Oh, well it slipped away for a second, but here it comes again. You can still feel the energy of being inside that sphere, of being tossed around and enjoying the wonderful moments of being in love. I certainly hope that that vulnerability aids me. At this point in my life, I realize all the more everyday that I'm just lucky to have another day and to be able to have some sort of a routine of applying myself towards going to the sphere that I want to live in.

AAJ: You seem grounded from your humble beginnings, do you consider yourself humble?

BH: I hope so. Well, I pray for that one everyday. I had wonderful parents and a wonderful family. I was really lucky to grow up, my family was very religious. A lot of being humble has to do with not jockeying for position.

You don't want to be number one or you don't want to be, what you try consider, I want to be on top, because everything is a sphere, so if it's a sphere than you'd rather be inside of it, than trying to hold on to the outside of it and trying to be number one. There is no number one. The things that you really love, this has to do with humbleness, the things that you really love are things that all you want to do is just participate. All you want to do is the thrill of one more note. So if you realize that that can go away at any given time, then you should be humbled by that world that you are trying to stay in.

AAJ: Sticking with the humble theme for a moment, do you still get anxious before a performance or recording session?

BH: I get worse than goosebumps. I am frightened to death, scared to death. It is the most, oh my goodness, my wife will tell you right now, on the way to a gig, you'll find me a lot of times saying, 'Let's just turn back around and go back.' She'll say, 'You say this every time.' I said, 'I know, because what we're going to try the do, what I'm going to try to do, what the band is going to try to do is going to be so wonderful it's scary.' It's so wonderful it's just awesome and every moment is like that. Each time you play, no one is any more important the other. Each time is the most important time of all.

You walk in there and you are so nervous, and you hit that first note and all that energy starts to focus into the music. OK, here we go. We've tried to prepare ourselves for this, let's hope now that we can stand here and have a higher power come through our body and play, and maybe we can just stand here and be able to enjoy the music too.

AAJ: You weren't even twenty when you moved to New York. What was "The Big Apple" like for you at that young age?

BH: I first came there just at the end of 1960. It could be hard or it could be beautiful, everything in one real quick. My first thing when I walked into Birdland to work with Al Grey and Billy Mitchell. This was my first gig and the first time I was in New York, and I've got my vibes, and I'm setting up my vibes at Birdland, the world famous Birdland, and I've just driven across country with Doug Watkins and Al Grey in the car that Doug Watkins was killed in on his drive on the way back. After we played several gigs, he drove back to Los Angeles and on the way back, he was killed in his car in a car accident. Anyway, I was opening with Al Grey and Billy Mitchell at Birdland and it was a cold January, no December, it seems like it was a January.

Anyway, I remember it was cold. Pee Wee Marquette, who was the midget, and he did all the announcing at Birdland, and he smoked a big, long cigar, and he used to throw his weight around if he could. Here's my first day in New York, sort of, like it. I'm setting up my vibes, getting ready to play that night and Pee Wee Marquette comes into the club during the afternoon, while I'm setting up the vibes and he walks straight up to me and blows a big puff of smoke in my face and he says, "Who are you?" I say, "I'm Bobby Hutcherson."

He says, "What are you here for? What are you doing here?" I said, "Well, I play vibraphone and I'm working with Al Grey and Billy Mitchell." And he immediately told me, 'We don't need you here." He says, "Just pack your things and get on out of here. We got Lionel Hampton and Milt Jackson. We don't need you." I mean, I was just devastated. Here, all the things about New York, that is was fast, cold, and mean was immediately opened up on me. And because of how he felt about me, he would introduce the band, 'Ladies and gentlemen, here we are at Birdland, 52nd and Broadway, the jazz corner of the world with Al Grey and Billy Mitchell, Donald Byrd, blah, blah, blah, and Babba Hutchkins on vibes.' Babba Hutchkins. Through the first week I said, "Oh, my God, I'll never make it. Nobody will ever know who I am. I'm being humiliated by this guy." And he would continually blow this cigar smoke in my face. Well, comes first pay night, everybody got paid at Birdland, across the street at a hotel called the Alvin Hotel. I'm in Al Grey's room and I'm getting paid and there's a knock at the door and Al asked me to get it. I open up the door and there's Pee Wee standing there and he blows another big puff of smoke in my face. He looks right at me and he says, "You got something for me? You got something for me Papa?" And I knew what he was saying. He wants a tip. I said, "I don't have a cent for you, the way you said my name, announced my name!" Al was over to the side and Al says, "Give him five dollars, Bobby." I said, "I'm not giving him a cent!" "Give him five dollars. You'll see." So I hand him five dollars and Pee Wee closes the door and he walks off. So now, we had a two weekend engagement at Birdland, so now it's the second week, the announcement from Pee Wee goes like this, "Ladies and gentlemen, from the jazz corner of the world, Birdland, 52nd and Broadway. We now present the Al Grey-Billy Mitchell Sextet, with Al Grey, Billy Mitchell, Donald Byrd, and Bobby Hutcherson on vibes." So that five dollars completely changed everything, because all of the sudden, everybody heard that there was this new kid in town and he's playing four mallets with a sextet at Birdland, on the stage and he's only nineteen-years-old, and 'boom' everything started.
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