David Weiss: Memories of Freddie Hubbard

David Weiss By

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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.
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