David Weiss: Memories of Freddie Hubbard

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Noted trumpeter, composer, and New Jazz Composers Octet founder, David Weiss shares several stories about his experience with trumpet legend Freddie Hubbard. As told to David Kaufman.

I met Freddie Hubbard soon after he damaged his lip. I guess what basically happened was he had a blister on his lip that popped and got infected. His doctor thought it might be cancer or something related so they did a biopsy. It came back negative and he thought he was good to go after that and just began playing again. He didn't give himself time for everything to properly heal and then practice to build everything up again. He had many concert appearance obligations that he did not want to cancel so he just picked up the horn again and hit. That didn't work of course so he had to take some time off. The infection didn't really heal, it calloused over so when he went to play, his lips didn't vibrate any more or he had to blow really hard to get his lip to vibrate at all. Of course, the calloused area did not vibrate at all or certainly not like soft, pliable lip tissue does so it became very arduous for him to play. This is where he was when I first met him and began working with him.

At the time, he owed his record company, Music Masters, a CD and they were pressuring him to do it. He wasn't really ready but felt obligated to try to make the recording. He was still trying to work his way back but the calloused area (I guess at this point it might have been scar tissue) was still there. You could visibly see where the blister had been and where the scar tissue grew over it. So the idea at the time was to buffer him a little bit—you know, add a few extra horns, write some arrangements, etc. to take some of the pressure off of him which was basically the same idea we had when we got together and did the Octet a few years later. The producers Vincent Herring and Carl Allen needed someone to make sure Freddie got to the rehearsals and recording studio and since I was a trumpet player and admired Freddie greatly, they thought I was the ideal person to pick him up and get him to the studio.

The producers hired big-shots like Bob Mintzer and Bob Belden, to write the arrangements, but they also threw me a couple of tunes to arrange as well as I had done a lot of arranging for them in the past. We got through the record and Freddie did okay. It was very interesting to watch Superman become mortal though. He didn't really have to think about how he played the trumpet for a long time as it was something that came quite naturally to him for the last 40 years. He really had to think about how to make things work again, something he probably did not have to do since his formative years practicing the trumpet and it really messed with him. He was struggling and was quite unaccustomed to that. He was hoping there was going to be a quick, easy solution to fix this but the reality was that he would have to sit down and do long tones again and build his chops back up.

We became friends—we stayed in touch after the recording and I spent many a late night talking on the phone with him. Writing those arrangements for that record is part of what motivated me to form New Jazz Composers Octet. When we made our first record, I sent it to him to check out and to hopefully get some feedback. We only did one non-original composition because the Octet was a composer's collective but that one non-original was a Freddie tune that I wrote an arrangement on for his record but I heard a few other things and wanted to expand the arrangement a bit more. So I sent the record to Freddie and he called me back and said, "you know this is what we should be doing. You should write more arrangements of my music and I should be a guest with your band."

That was the idea when we made that first record, to take some of the heat off of Freddie so he wouldn't have to play melodies and could just take some solos and pace himself, plus he'd have this young band playing great arrangements his music that would showcase Freddie's other great skills: the band leader, the composer and all that. We talked and kicked it around a bit more and eventually I went out to Los Angeles and we spent about a week together figuring out what tunes we should do and how to best approach the concept. I stayed with him and at first, we just sat on the couch all evening while he played a bunch of different music. We listened to the Octet CD that he had already listened to and we talked about the tunes and the music a little more. We also listened to a few other guy's CDs that he had laying around the house because you know every trumpet player who was bold enough to meet Freddie, sent him their CD when they put one out. He put on a couple of those and then we listened to some other things and then he put on a Sonny Rollins record, Live at the Village Vanguard. He became much more animated (he was a very active listener let's say) and after a few minutes, he looked at me and said, "sorry man, this is the shit! I miss this, I miss this so much."

He said "this is why I moved to New York, this shit, this, I miss this so much." He started talking about the year that recording was made and all that stuff that happened when he first moved to New York and hanging with Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. Eventually, we did do some work, picked some tunes for me to arrange and I went home and got to work writing arrangements. Actually Blue Note Records helped us out a bit as well. They gave us a demo deal that funded our going into the studio and recording a couple of things and we were off and running. In the summer of 2000, we did our first tour of Europe together with the Octet and I remember even then he was really self-conscious. The first concert we did was at Jazz a Vienne. It was in Southern France in an old Roman amphitheater unearthed within the last one hundred years or so. It's really an incredible place, a very large outdoor venue. We're downstairs in the dressing room and I came over to him and told him we're on in 10 minutes. He said "David what did you get me into?" He was nervous. It's great when you play music and you have everything together and can do pretty much anything you want and can blow audiences away with your skill, virtuosity and incredible musicianship. He knew he couldn't do that anymore. He held himself to a higher standard then almost anyone I ever met and he knew he was not that musician anymore so it was always on me to point out his other great qualities and tell him his fans were still thrilled to see him.

Some days he would see the beauty in that and some days, well, he would get down on himself and sometimes even apologize to the audience for not being the Freddie Hubbard of old. But he did OK on this gig and it was the first gig of a three-week tour. You know one thing I don't think he ever fully accepted was that in the past, whatever his behavior was or whatever people would say about this or that, Freddie always knew he could get on stage and play trumpet and blow all that stuff away. His trumpet would clear everything up. That was his answer. Whatever happened before if he had a problem with a promoter or he was a little arrogant to somebody or whatever it was, he would walk onstage and win everybody over, everything would be fine. He didn't feel that he had that ability anymore which made him a little nicer, but it also made him very self-conscious since he was used to having an audience in the palm of his hands. I don't think he realized that he still had that because he was telling himself well I'm not playing like I should but they loved him anyways and he didn't always realize that.

We played a 70th Birthday celebration with him at Yoshi's in San Francisco and the audience sang him Happy Birthday and threw flowers and cards on the stage. It really broke him up. I really think he didn't know how much people loved him or if he did he rarely acknowledged it but at the moment he could see it and it really meant so much to him. This was the last year of his life and it was great that he had that memory from one of the last gigs he ever did. He was also pretty weak at the point in his life and wasn't playing that well so that these people showed him this much love when he felt he wasn't playing that well was really telling for him I think. He was really hard on himself, you don't get that good without being hard on yourself, and while you wanted to motivate him to play his best, you also wanted him to understand that these people loved him anyways, even if he wasn't having his best night. But he was still hard on himself, that's who he was and like I said, sometimes he would even apologize to the audience. He would say he was tired or jet-lagged and to come back later in the week and he would be better.

I would have to talk to him afterwards and say, "Freddie, you know they're just happy to see you. They love you and support you and there's no need for you to point out that you are not what you think you should be. You know, they're happy with this. You've got a great band, we're playing your music and this is the Freddie Hubbard show but it's the complete Freddie Hubbard show. You're band leading, you're composing and your charisma and all of that other stuff is legitimate stuff. We've created this presentation of your music for you and if your chops are feeling good and you're playing well then that's a bonus, that's great but if they're not, you still have all of us and we all have your back. Everybody will like it so don't worry, they love you, they're happy to see you." Some nights he would get this more than others. He is Freddie Hubbard you know, no other trumpet player has really done what he can do and he knew it (though he was keenly aware of what some other trumpet players could do that he couldn't do). That's how he was used to winning everyone over so it was quite an adjustment for him to have to do it another way.

But again, you knew he would get used to it. I mean even when he talked about earlier times when he could still really play, it was clear that he had his insecurities. He certainly had an ego but if you got him talking a certain way about a certain time, you could see he was in awe of certain musicians and he remembered the few times that other trumpet players, in his opinion, got the better of him on stage. He came up in a time when everybody was scary and he was a competitive guy so it just made him practice harder. He would tell me how Lee Morgan would intimidate him and how in awe he was of Miles Davis when he first came up. From the stories he told me about Sonny Rollins, who he thought was one of the greatest tenor saxophonists ever (and I certainly concur), it sounded like he had his insecurities as well but this is also part of what drove these guys to become the incredible musicians they became. It was a very heavy time with a lot of people around who could scare you to death. Freddie and I used to talk all the time about the difference between generations and what motivated him and I said, Freddie, it sounds like fear was a great motivating factor. Everywhere you go you could get your ass kicked no matter how good you play. I don't think that happens as much these days.

Freddie was from Indianapolis and moved to New York when he was 20. He was blown away by the scene he encountered here. He had made a couple of records in Indianapolis before he left with the Montgomery brothers and I think he did some things in Chicago as well. I believe he moved to New York in 1958 and was recording pretty much right away. He talked about moving to New York and trying to sit in somewhere and they'd tell him" go sit down kid, we'll call you up" and they never called him up. At the end of the night they'd say "Oh man I'm sorry man, come back tomorrow" and he'd go through the same thing the next night. It was a different time and it was pretty rough. Freddie was already really good of course but this motivated him to go home and practice even more. He practiced and practiced. He didn't move to New York to be told by someone to go sit in a corner and it motivated Freddie to get even better and show those people.

Eventually he got a established and began meeting people. He would go to Sonny Rollins house every day to practice with him or just to watch him practice. He started going to John Coltrane's house as well. At first, he would just let Freddie in and would go back to practicing and Freddie would just sit down and watch him practice for hours. Then one day, Coltrane said come on we've got to go somewhere and they got in the car and drove to Rudy Van Gelder's [the celebrated recording engineer] studio and he let Freddie play on a couple of tracks on the album they were recording. I think the album was called the [early John Coltrane recording] Believer (Prestige, 1964) or something. Freddie was really young on it, maybe 20 years old.

Ascension (Impulse! Records, 1966) was a little later and I think he's on another Coltrane record before Ascension. He talked me through the concept of Ascension once. There were different tonal centers in the piece and every soloist had a different tonal center to improvise over. He talked about it as the record played and he pointed all these things out to me like he recorded the record last week. He was so serious about this music and still remembered 40 years later what was what. Freddie had an incredible memory when all his synapses were connecting (which wasn't always the case). We had to drive places like to Boston and D.C. for gigs and we played music in the car along the way. With the advent of the CD, there were a lot of things coming out with alternate takes on them and a lot of these were a revelation to the listener who had the original recording so ingrained in them. Hearing another version was quite a jolt a lot of the times. I liked playing this stuff for Freddie. He certainly remembered the records he played on and got to know his playing on them so playing him the alternate takes of tunes he recorded ages ago was fun. He liked hearing these other points of view as well, most of the time at least.

Listening to this stuff would also jog his memory about the recording date. When Mosaic put out the complete Vee-Jay recordings of Wayne Shorter and Lee Morgan, Freddie was on one of Wayne's Vee-Jay records and there were a lot of alternate takes and we listened to them all while driving back to New York from Washington D.C. He's like, "yeah, I remember this. Wayne was still living in Newark and I took the bus out there to practice with him because he wrote some melodies that he thought would be a bit too high on the trumpet and he wanted to hear me and see how easily I could play them and how they sounded. I remember I was trying this mouthpiece... and so on and so on. His recall was astounding at times. If I was working on one of his tunes and had a question about something, I would call him up and play the passage in question over the phone to him to make sure that I had it right. He was like, oh no, try this triad on top of that and I'd play the chord and he'd go no, oh wait, we tried that and it didn't work. And this was something he recorded over 40 years ago. Amazing recall! Not all the time perhaps but a lot of the time!

Well, I guess he got a little maligned for the [Free Jazz sessions with Ornette Coleman] because he was the outsider on that date in a lot of people's eyes but not to the guys on the record. He was also on [John Coltrane's] Ascension and [Eric Dolphy's] Out to Lunch, which some people see as an avant-garde anthem, though to me, it's really not (it is an amazing record of course). Freddie was a great trumpet player and very open-minded musician but even in the liner notes to Free Jazz (Atlantic, 1960), they talk about Freddie not being right for this recording. That's just bullshit.

That was a very contentious time I guess. You can read an old Downbeat from the era and Ira Gitler and Dan Morganstern are going at it in print. One is "it's the future" and the other is "it's all bullshit." I don't really know if it was in the air as much with the musicians but it certainly was in the jazz press. They were saying this is progress, this is the future, and hard bop or whatever was old and in the past but in the end, that's not really the issue. Was Jackson Pollock an advancement or a reaction to something? Was it the future of painting or just another interesting approach? Avant-garde music or free jazz was certainly a reaction to swinging harmonic stuff but was it an advancement of the music or the future of the music or just a very interesting alternative.

At some point someone is going to react to the status quo, that's the nature of things and it's an important thing to happen, it needs to happen. But is it the future of music and does it negate the music that has been going on or any of that? No, it's just another option let's say. Another sound. It doesn't have to be the future of jazz; it can just be more great music. Even back then, they were trying to sell product though, so calling something the newest, greatest whatever would help sell records. There is nothing wrong with that. Selling or pushing one style of music does not have to be at the expense of another. Great music is great music. This still goes on today of course.

When I hear someone talk about how Freddie shouldn't have been on Free Jazz (and yes, I still hear people say this) I now have the best answer for this. Freddie and I were at some Smithsonian honors Jazz Masters ceremony at the Kennedy Center where they were honoring 30 or so legendary jazz musicians. They had a reception and photo shoot in the afternoon before the concert and ceremony. At the reception, Freddie was there along with Curtis Fuller, Barry Harris, Donald Byrd and many others. Ornette Coleman was there as well. I was talking to someone and we noticed that Ornette was sitting at a table in the corner by himself. There was a woman sitting with him but none of the musicians were talking to him. He was sitting at this table while everyone else was standing around and drinking, talking, laughing and generally joking around. I think Barry Harris went over to him and said hello but that was it. And then as the thing was breaking up and everyone was getting ready to leave to go to the concert, Freddie saw Ornette and walked up to him and said, "hey, what's going on Ornette." I don't know if you've heard Ornette talk but he's very soft-spoken and he said "Hey Freddie how's it going?" and Freddie was like "hey man, I saw you on the Grammy's. Where's that purple suit you wore to the Grammy's, why aren't you wearing that?" Ornette answered "well Freddie this felt like a more formal thing and I thought that maybe I'd wear a more regular suit." Then Freddie said "you put me on that record because I could play high notes." And Ornette said, "no Freddie, I got you because you had such a beautiful sound." So there you go. That should be the end of that.

So, whoever debunks or questions Freddie's presence on that record, there's the answer.

I've had to tell that story a few times to detractors who say Freddie wasn't the right guy for that record. It's a silly argument and a silly thing to say but what can you do. In the end, does some critic, musician or writer have a more important view point then Ornette Coleman about Freddie Hubbard playing on this record? I don't think so. Every one is entitled to their opinion about this of course but I know what my response will be.

We did our first European tour in the Summer of 2000 and then recorded our first CD together later that year. The record came out to mixed reviews. People liked the concept, the band and the arrangements but were disappointed with Freddie's playing. As much as I wanted to focus on the overall project and take some of the pressure off Freddie, the record company disagreed. We were always billed as Freddie Hubbard and the New Jazz Composers Octet but the record label was not interested in us at all. They wanted Freddie Hubbard. They didn't care who he was playing with, what he was playing with, whatever, they wanted to make a Freddie Hubbard record and they didn't want to put the name of the band on the cover. I remember the argument we made. Well, first of all we toured the world as Freddie Hubbard and the New Jazz Composer Octet. That's what the project is—so you just can't really decide that that's not the project and take our name off of it. But more importantly if you just put his name on the cover and nothing else, besides the title of the record, you're putting all the emphasis on him again and while I think he plays beautifully on the record, this is certainly diminished from the great Freddie Hubbard we all knew and loved. Do you want that to be the focus of all the reviews or what everyone is listening for? You know just add the group name and sell the overall package, the band, the compositions, the arrangements, etc. We're trying to sell the group concept so Freddie can work and I think we found a solution to keep him a viable performing artist. They didn't care but I think they did finally put us in fine print on the bottom corner of the CD cover where you couldn't really see it. So I think that hurt him a little bit with the reviews but I guess in the end that it didn't really matter that much. The band was able to work for a while and we were able to keep the project going. But then, after three or four years we were working a little less and Freddie was starting to have real health problems. He had congestive heart failure but came back from that. He then had a pinched nerve in his neck that he had to have surgery for and a few other things as well. He never really recovered from that stuff.

When we started this project, the lip was a problem but he was still physically strong. He could handle the touring, especially when he got his feet under him after a few days on the road. We would do a couple gigs in Europe and by the second or third gig; he started getting comfortable and sounding stronger. Like anything, things start to get a little better when you get to work. You can practice at home all you want but getting on the stage is where you're really going to build up your strength and endurance. So we would do a couple of gigs in Europe and he would really start to get into a groove, start playing better and more consistently and it would be good. Some nights we would look at each other because it would really start to work and those nights were incredible. The audience that caught those nights were like "wow we heard he was not that strong anymore but this was great"! But once the physical problems started setting in and physically he couldn't keep up, that's when it became more of a problem. He became weaker but we still did some gigs and we did one last recording, which he still played some really nice stuff. It was nice to get that recording done for the band. The band was barely together when we made the first record and this was eight years later. All that touring and all that playing we did together over the last eight years needed to be documented so I was glad we got to do that record.

The first record, I think we recorded in 2000 because we recorded right after we did that first European tour and a couple of nights at Birdland. The last record we recorded at the end of 2007 and it came out in 2008. He passed away later that year.

The Octet always made their own records and did their own thing. It's an eight-piece band though and we were never that popular so it wasn't exactly a viable touring thing but that band produced a lot of talent. Nasheet Waits, Jimmy Greene, Dwayne Burno, Myron Walden, Steve Davis and Xavier Davis were all members of the band. It was started as a composer's collective, we had some young composers who needed an avenue to develop their skills and that's what the band was actually all about. Playing with Freddie Hubbard was kind of like the antithesis of that group concept but they were strong musicians who were getting a chance to play with a legend and that was a great experience for them. I wanted them to be a little bit scared and intimidated sharing the stage with Freddie and I wanted to see if this experience would push them to greater heights. The opportunities to get that kind of experience are greatly dwindling so I'm glad the group got that chance. It worked out well and in the interim we still wrote music. When we played with Freddie we played one tune, one of our originals, out front before Freddie came up so it was good for the band. It was a great experience for us and good exposure for the band but was it a stepping-stone to fame and fortune for the band? No, but musically it was a great experience and that's what is most important. We went on to record three records before the musicians went their separate ways to pursue other opportunities.

Clearly, it was an important thing for us. Freddie was a monster and you want to be around that. Some of us were just talking about this yesterday at a rehearsal for a gig I'm doing at Smoke Jazz Club with my Sextet. Three of the guys in that band were in the Octet as well and touring with Freddie for all those years so we all have our Freddie stories. We were also talking about how each new generation is more and more disconnected from that music and those musicians and how that's probably not a good thing. They're listening to their records but not seeing those guys live and certainly not seeing those guys live during their prime. We moved to New York to hear and play with those guys and become part of what that was. It's something different now. They listen to those records but it's not what's happening around them so it's kind of hard to get the feel or energy of that music played at the level. There was a great energy when you walked into a club and heard one of these masters and that made everyone want to be a part of it. These recent generations are completely disconnected from that. When we tell them as teachers or as experienced musicians that that's the stuff that you have to deal with if you're ever going to get anywhere, they look at you like, "that stuff already happened, that stuff's old. We're tired of hearing about the good old days. We have our own thing." And you know what, that's fine, more power to you and good luck with that but we got a taste of dealing with some of the guys who defined this music and that's important and quite meaningful to me. For me, it has continued with The Cookers. I think most of us are most attracted to that era of jazz and it still what basically defines this music. That spirit is still in almost all the jazz music played today.

Those guys are what made it great and no matter where I go with music, no matter where I take it, having the experience with those guys gives me a sense of something at least and hopefully adds some depth to my work. I know I played with Freddie Hubbard and I know that I hung out with him and got to know him really well but sometimes I didn't associate him with the guy on those records. I didn't always make that connection because those guys are some sort of mythical figures now. They're unattainable to these kids but even to us you know it wasn't always, that's that guy who I listen to on all those records. But either way, he was the guy and we got that experience. He was a lot nicer to us than he had been to young musicians in the past because he was very self-conscious about where he was so he wasn't as rough on us. That generation can be rough and very critical but usually not malicious. They have a certain devotion to this music and they want it to be done a certain way because that's what they were made to do. And they were as serious as you can get. Freddie was a jovial guy and he was as funny as they came when he was on a roll. I remember even at his funeral, people were paying tribute to him by saying, "Freddie was such a nut, he was crazy and funny and well." Well he was but he was also the most serious musician that I had ever met in my life. You know, dead serious! This stuff meant something to him. If he heard someone talking the wrong way about music or saying something that he felt was misrepresenting the music or misrepresenting what he thought the music was about he would get pissed off. He would say, no, that's not right, that's not the way it's supposed to be. He put a lot of work into this music and had great pride and great passion about what he did and wanted things done right. It's a craft and an art form and he was dead serious about it. He might not have presented himself as a serious guy, like I said he was jovial, very fun to hang out with and cracking jokes or whatever but when it came to the music, it was serious business.

If you were with him and if you tried hard, he was in your corner and if you weren't, he'd let you know. There are plenty of scary stories I've heard about Freddie where you hear of him throwing somebody off the bandstand or him yelling at somebody on the bandstand because they over-played or didn't know a tune they were supposed to know. That sort of thing doesn't happen anymore and maybe the music suffers a bit because there aren't guys like this out here saying, you know you're good but this is not good enough. Maybe we need that motivation. I'm sure it wasn't pleasant to have Freddie Hubbard go off on you but you went home and learned the music or did whatever it was he asked of you and that made you a better musician.

I don't know if my own personal choice to be around giants that oftentimes made me feel about a foot tall, but as a musician, it is the best thing in the world, and I consider myself fortunate to be around such great musicians. Freddie was the epitome of that. He clearly had a lot of natural talent and natural ability but nobody worked harder than him and that's what really made the difference.

Photo credit: Jimmy Katz

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