David Weiss: Memories of Freddie Hubbard

David Weiss By

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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.
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