Watching vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson play his instrument is like dropping in on someone jiving with a dear old friend. He banters with the vibes as he plays, weaving his lanky body to the rhythm he's laying down. Suddenly he will frown down at the board, appearing to question its tone as though it were an insolent child or has made an odd statement with which he disagrees. But then Hutcherson will grin mischievously at something shared only between him and the vibes, his still youthful features will light up and the friends are on the same page again.
Hutcherson is one of the blueprints of jazz, an innovative composer and leader who redefined the vibraphone via his unique four mallet style of playing and moved it into the challenging post-bop era, enduring the musical and societal shifts of the '60s and '70s without sacrificing his artistic visions. After paying his dues as a sideman, Hutcherson recorded his first session as a leader with the classic Dialogue
(Blue Note, 1965) and from there he eventually reached the position of prominence that he holds today.
Hutcherson was born on January 27th, 1941 in Los Angeles. Like many jazz players, Hutcherson started out on the piano, but a stroll past a record store one afternoon changed the path he would take. "I heard this record with [vibraphonist] Milt Jackson and [pianist] Thelonious Monk and [trumpeter] Miles [Davis] and [drummer] Kenny Clarke and [bassist] Percy Heath, and they were playing 'Bemsha Swing,' Hutcherson recalled from his Bay Area home during a phone interview. "I just really enjoyed how Milt made me feel. How can I say it? He made me feel rich. I thought that was a wonderful trip that he [took me on]. So I bought the record, wore it out and I said, 'You know, I'd like to play the vibraphone.' A friend of mine, Herbie Lewis, a wonderful bassist, he had a trio and they used to play school dances. He said, 'If you buy a vibraphone you can [join] our group and you can play dances and meet girls'. I said 'Oh, that sounds great!'
"I worked with my dad, who was a bricklayer, all summer and saved up some money and my mom took me over to a music store in Los Angeles, [and] I bought the instrument. And so [Lewis] came over and he said, 'Great, we're gonna play a concert in two weeks.' I said, 'I can't do that, I know nothing about this instrument at all, I can't do it.' So I [told him] to take a felt pencil and write down on the bars what notes to hit.
"I go up to Pasadena and we're ready to come out, these young kids, and the stage manager came up and said, 'Okay, you kids are on next.' Then he says, 'Oh Bobby, by the way, I saw a bunch of stuff written all over your bars. I took a wet towel and wiped them off for you'. I said, 'No you didn't!' He said, 'Yes, I did. Now get out there and break a leg!' And that's what happened, I broke a leg!
A moment like this might have turned others away from music, but Hutcherson embraced that disastrous debut and he defines it as the turning point in his musical career.
"At that point I said, 'I'm in the boxing ring and music has just floored me. I'm laying here and everybody's laughing and making fun [of me]. Am I gonna get up off the floor or [am] I gonna lie [here] and say 'I've had enough, forget it?' I got up off the floor and said, 'Okay, I can see I wasn't prepared but I want to be a participant, so let me learn how to be a good sport and go on from here and be truly dedicated to the music.'
Despite the always persistent death knell ringing for jazz, Hutcherson believes things have changed for the better, although he does question the total merit of music schools.
"You don't play this music to get rich. You play it for the thrill of playing another note. And after that note, the next note and after that, the next. It's very hard to distinguish a lot of people who are playing because they're learning from records or going to these music schools that are teaching music lessons that have nothing to do with heart and soul, Hutcherson complained. "That's [what] seems to be missing. Jerk me around! Jerk my soul around! Make me cry! I don't hear laughter in music. Play me a phrase that's gonna make me smile and laugh. Make me sad. Make me feel like it's raining. A lot of these music schools and stuff don't teach anything about emotion. The teachers have very little emotion!
But can emotion actually be taught? Hutcherson thinks so. "Well, you gotta talk about it. How can they be aware if [they] don't talk about it? The sun doesn't come up the same way every day, you get all these different things that happen through the day, that's what should be happening on the bandstand. You should see the whole spectrum of stuff coming out. They should be talking about these things. And let me see you play without your instrument. Have you ever seen a good comedian that makes you laugh and he doesn't say a word? He hasn't even said anything but you understand that this is what his life is about! A good musician [doesn't] even put the instrument in [his] mouth or hands. Now if you can do that, [then] put the instrument in your hand and boy, it's gonna be a whole lot easier to make it happen.
While it's uncertain if that comedic concept translates into the jazz idiom, Hutcherson makes it clear that what he expects from the music and the musicians is very simple. "I like people who take a chance and are themselves. Again, I like people who play for the passion and it's not all about trying to win that race. I like nice people.
"A lot of people who I played with were being put down by other musicians, but they stood up for what they were doing. [Woodwind multi-instrumentalist] Eric Dolphy was one of those. I mean, he was being insulted right and left. I was at an Eric Dolphy rehearsal one time and this guy was playing trumpet and we're right in the middle of rehearsing for a record date and all of a sudden this guy takes his horn out of his mouth, opens up his trumpet case and starts packing his trumpet and we're all still playing the song. He says, 'Eric, I don't like you, I don't like your music and I'm not gonna play on this record date.' We were all just like, 'Oh, my God!' So he's getting ready to go out the door and Eric Dolphy says to him, 'If I can ever be of any help to you please don't hesitate to call me.' And he meant it with all his heart. And after Eric said that we all wanted to play so much for Ericthat was the biggest punch of love I ever saw in my life. It made the record date, which was Out To Lunch
(Blue Note, 1964), the most unbelievable record date.
Recently Hutcherson became involved with the SFJazz Collective, a jazz octet led by saxman Joshua Redman, whose goals are to honor the work of one great jazz composer annually while showcasing their own compositions in a kind of touring residency. "[SFJazz Collective Executive Director] Randall Kline got in touch with me and told me what ideas they had. We started developing [them] more and more and there it was. And it's been a rewarding experience. I think it's a lot of fun. It's great to get together with musicians every day and rehearse and everybody writes and works on those compositions and we become a family.
Fame and praise haven't blunted Hutcherson's enthusiasm or gratefulness for where he is. Many years after the debacle with the erased notes, he made a life-changing decision. But did he think he'd ever be here?
"Oh, no, Hutcherson said. "I'll tell you, I'm just lucky to have been able to participate with a lot of people. I don't feel like I'm an innovator. I used to talk to [drummer] Joe Chambers about this and one of the things he used to say to me was, 'You know, if you want to do different stuff you have to come up with different combinations, either musically or melodically, harmonically, whatever, different combinations. If you keep putting apples, sugar and flour together you're gonna keep coming up with some sort of apple pie. You've got to start looking for something different to go in the recipe, otherwise the recipe will come out the same.' To be able to try some of the things that I've tried I've been lucky and lucky enough to have known some wonderful people who got a chance to play and be themselves. As long as people are themselves, boy, the trip can really happen.
SF Jazz Collective, SF Jazz Collective (Nonesuch, 2004)
Bobby Hutcherson, In the Vanguard (Landmark-32Jazz, 1986)
Bobby Hutcherson, Solo/Quartet (Contemporary-OJC, 1981)
Bobby Hutcherson, Live at Montreux (Blue Note, 1973)
Bobby Hutcherson, Dialogue (Blue Note, 1965)
Grachan Moncur III, Evolution (Blue Note, 1963)
Top Photo: Jos L. Knaepen
Bottom Photo: Dragan Tasic