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Bobby Hutcherson: A Life In Jazz

AAJ Staff By

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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.

AAJ: Out of the musicians you have worked with, whom would you say made a substantial impact on you in terms of your development?

BH: (Long pause). The most influential would probably, well, I won't say influential, everyone got something from. Every person, I learned something from. Jackie (McLean) gave me that moment to be able to be in the studio to meet Alfred Lion. After working a year or two with Al Grey, the group broke up and then I started driving a taxi. My friend, again, Herbie Lewis was working in New York now, working with the Jazztet. He tells me, "Come by my house. I can introduce to a friend of mine named Grachan Moncur III, who plays in the Jazztet, and we just have jam sessions over my house." Well, I wasn't working at the time. I was driving a taxi, so I came over and I met Grachan and Grachan says, "You know, I'd like you to meet Jackie McLean and I'll bring Jackie over here tomorrow and we'll play." Jackie says, 'You know, I think this is a hell of a group. I just met a young man in Boston. His name is Tony Williams and I'm going to bring him down and we'll go play at this club I know in Brooklyn called the Club Cornet, and we'll work as a quartet.' Well, we went to the Club Cornet and we rehearsed four songs. We were all just young kids. Tony was just sixteen. We were all just babies and we're playing and we're just having a great time. We're playing all kinds of crazy tunes, "Air Raid." All of the sudden these people hear about these kids who are playing down here at the Club Cornet and Alfred Lion comes in and he said he wanted to record it. I found myself over at Rudy Van Gelder's and after the second take on the first tune, Alfred comes over and asks me if I want to sign a recording contract. So, being with Jackie was a wonderful thing. He was very influential for me.

Eric Dolphy taught me some real things about being humble and how to love people. I was having a rehearsal with Eric Dolphy and this was before the Out To Lunch album and we're getting ready to go with him to Pittsburgh.

This guy, Eddie Armour on trumpet (played on Dolphy's Vintage Dolphy album), in the middle of this rehearsal, stopped the rehearsal, and he starts packing up the horn. He turns to Eric and he says, 'Eric, I don't like you. I don't like your music and I'm not going to make the gig.' We're just astounded that he could say this to Eric, because Eric's such a beautiful person. Eric's like a lamb and he's really hurting from what he said. He's (referring to Armour) stomping out with this ugly look and just before he goes out the door, Eric turns to him and he says, 'Eddie.' Eddie Armour turns around and he says, 'What!' And Eric says to him, 'If I can ever help you, don't hesitate to call me.' And man, that was the most beautiful lesson that I learned. That taught me forgiveness and the spirit of love. When Eddie Armour slammed that door and went out, I couldn't wait to play. I couldn't wait to play for Eric.

I couldn't wait to hit the next note for him. This is for you Eric. I love you. Oh, you're so wonderful. Thank you. Thank you. There were great lessons from an awful lot of people going on there. Each person I learned something from. Probably, I learned a lot for myself. I tried to learn something in each situation, try to make a, just like in mathematics, two minuses, two bad things happen, there's going to be a plus side to come out of it. Minus times minus is plus. Plus times plus is plus. Let's make everything plus.

AAJ: From what you have spoken of, it seems as like those times were very spontaneous, do you find that kind of spontaneity today?

BH: Well, Fred, I've learned a lot about programming. I mean programming you mind. I've learned not to listen too much, not to listen too much. If you listen to, especially if you listen to yourself too much, don't do that. Eric Dolphy used to tell me, 'Once you've played it, it's gone. It's over, you can't play that again.' Out of the whole night, if I can play one new thing, I'm doing pretty good. If you listen to yourself, you'll find yourself saying, "Oh, I like what I did right there or oh, I don't like what I did right there." And each time you come to that part of the tune when you're playing, you'll keep doing that. You'll say, 'Oh, you remember when you did this. This worked pretty good. Let's do it again.' So the thing is, to be spontaneous, is to be completely caught off guard and to quickly be able to make a decision that you stand behind, even if it's wrong. Some of the best notes in the world are the notes that someone would say was wrong. Nothing is perfect. I was telling one guy one time. There was a guy putting in tile floor in my kitchen and he had gotten all the way to the last tile and I said, "Don't put that one in straight with the others." And he says, 'Why?' And I said, "Because, I don't want everything to be perfect. Nothing's perfect." I said, "Make this one wrong." He says, "You're the first one to ask me to do that." "Doing that keeps that sharp edge on things. That's just about right, but something's wrong with that." The guy says, "I know." That possibility is always there.

AAJ: Let's talk about your new album on Verve, Skyline.

BH: Geri Allen is a wonderful person. Al Foster is an unbelievable drummer. Kenny Garrett is total imagination. And what can you say about Chris (Christian McBride). I don't think I can say too much about him. He called me the other day and we just sat there and talked. 'How you doing?' There's a thing, and it's not the image. The image is love, the sphere, and health, the desire, the time. Music is just the image that comes from different energies. Once you meet someone and you see them again, 'Oh, it's so good to see you again. How's the family?' Playing music then is simple. Now all of the sudden, you are inside the sphere and it's just tossing you around. Here we go, oh, my goodness, look out now. Music is not the image. It's the reflection. We recorded Skyline last fall, the beginning of fall, the end of summer, beginning of fall.

AAJ: Do you expect to have a long term relationship with Verve has you have had with Blue Note?

BH: I certainly hope so. I enjoy the, you know what I enjoy with Verve, it's the constant contact. How are you doing? How's everything? You know what I mean? There's the image. The thing about people caring about each other and wondering how everything is going on and keeping close contact, these thing make it so that the reflection of the energies that come from that are so much more easy to produce or to be able to see.

AAJ: Any touring plans?

BH: Well, we're working on some things right now. The next month I'm going to do a thing in New York with the album and we're working on some things over in Europe and working on some things to happen throughout the country, so yes. We're going to present some of the music to the people and let them hear some of the stuff that we've been doing. Hopefully they'll enjoy it and hopefully we'll just be very busy getting tossed around by it.

AAJ: Next week, you're scheduled to perform with McCoy Tyner, Joe Lovano, Charnett Moffett, and Billy Higgins at Yoshi's in Oakland. Is this your first time playing with Joe?

BH: Yes, this is the first time playing with Joe. He called me a week ago and he's so easy going, a warm type of person. He invites you to come into his home. You can feel it. What I mean by coming to his home, just by him standing there, I can feel this warmth starting to happen. You can really feel it. He invites to take a look at his soul. He invites you to give him an embrace. Whatever you want to do, he invites that, and that's real good.

AAJ: There's another warm and inviting musician, you co-led a quintet with him, Harold Land.

BH: What a wonderful time that was. I've been very lucky to have been able to spend time with Harold. Every time I played with him, I really learned, I was just telling my wife last night, we were having dinner, the album that Harold did with the strings was such a beautiful album (A Lazy Afternoon on Postcards). I wish more people could have heard that. You don't get to hear it that much, but man, he was playing so beautifully on that. I really enjoyed playing with Harold. What we did for a while, recording, and touring, and stuff, and constantly doing different albums, each album at that time was a lot of experimenting, a lot of writing, lots of writing. Joe Chambers had a lot to do with that energy.

AAJ: Joe has a new album on Blue Note coming out.

BH: That's right. I was talking to Michael Cuscuna the other day and I was really happy to hear that.

AAJ: It looks like things are going in the right direction.

BH: Well, as long as we have our health, to be able to participate, that's half the battle right there. You can't take that for granted, that's both physical and mental. Don't let things get us down, even when it seems like there really bad.

AAJ: What's a day like for Bobby Hutcherson?

BH: Now if you here mine, Fred, you're going to say, 'Oh, my goodness.' I usually get up around five thirty in the morning. For the last month or month and a half, I haven't been working that much, just like, one gig a week and each gig is really important, but I get up really early when I'm at home and I'm not working, I get up around five thirty in the morning. I have my coffee and I go to the piano and I sit there and play the piano. I might watch the news for a second on TV, then I'll go and sit there and play the piano into the morning hours and watch the sun come up. I might play some new songs or I might play some old standards. I might write some music. I'm sitting there with earphones on, just sitting there and just playing, because I don't want to wake everyone else up in the house. I'll get carried away. I just enjoy myself and then I'll get up and get my clothes on and walk out, throw the stick with the dog, or take him for a walk. Where I live is, kind of, country. I like up here in a small beach town called Montera and there's a lot of forests around, so there's a lot of open space. I take the dog out and then I come back and I'll start practicing scales on the vibes and stuff.

I'll sit there and analyze, 'Oh, my hands feel horrible today. What are you going to do?' I really critique what I'm doing. I'll do several routines and I say, 'Oh, my goodness, you're hands don't feel so good today.' Arthritis is very bad in my family, so I'll sit there and say, 'You feel that? See how you can't move back there? You better take and put your hands by the fire.' Then I'll start doing things around the house. I'm heavy into gardening. This is what I do when I don't work. I'm heavy into gardening, I'm always planting, like right now, I planted a bunch of tulips and I'm sitting here watching them come through the ground right now. There's tulips all over this place right now. When they go, all of these colors are going mad, and it's just like heaven. I'm heavy into that. My wife had just gotten into playing golf and I've been playing golf now for, going on three years. In fact, we just played eighteen holes yesterday. In fact, we were on the eighteenth and it was about four in the afternoon and I was about a hundred and seventy five yards from the pin. It was pretty sloppy out there. My ball was in the fairway and she says, 'So what are you going to hit right now?' And I said, 'Well, you know, this seven's heaven, so I got the seven.' I've got a seven wood that I just love. It's a Taylor Made head with a bubble shaft on it. I just drew that thing back and that thing landed about three feet away from the pin and we both just hollered. We thought that was great. I said, 'It's coming right in on the pin!' So we play golf a lot. My wife, she's my manager also, we're really good friends. We spend a lot of time together just doing things together and having fun.

AAJ: This inner peace that we've been talking about seems to have a great deal to do with your wonderful relationship with your wife.

BH: We're friends first. Oh, yes, we're friends first. And we talk, a lot of talking. We share our feelings unbelievably. We talk about, 'What do you think about this?' We share a lot together. No bills. A lot of giving. It's important in a relationship, be it with your wife or be it with your occupation, be it with your friends, not to be a bill collector. The worst person you want to see is a bill collector at your door. It's important, like, I never liked the one where the guy says, "Hey, I did this for you, so you owe me."

AAJ: He's being a bill collector.

BH: Right, he's a bill collector. It should have been with nothing in return, only the joy of giving it. You've got to remember that one.

AAJ: What else helps you achieve an inner peace?

BH: Fred, you know, I enjoy talking to people about why we're put on this earth. What is your goal that you're going after? And what do you expect from it?

AAJ: What is Bobby Hutcherson's goal?

BH: My goal is to not die lonely.

AAJ: If you had a mission statement, how would it read?

BH: It's like some of these video games, you've got to understand which door to open up to go into the next room. It's important to be able to go into the next room.

AAJ: What would you like people to take away from your music?

BH: Themselves. Their own personal experiences.

AAJ: What can we expect from you in the future?

BH: Honesty.

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