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David Weiss: Memories of Freddie Hubbard

David Weiss By

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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.
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