Freddie Hubbard was the preeminent jazz trumpet player of the 60s and 70s. His capabilities on the trumpet and for jazz improvization were boundless. He was a matador of the trumpet; great ideas, great technical facility. But in a demise of Shakespearean proportions, sadly, Freddie Hubbard can no longer play the trumpet. Although fronting an excellent band, Freddie couldn't get a legitimate note out at the Anthology club in San Diego last night. No breath control, no endurance, no improvising capability, terrible intonation. He played worse than a first grader on his first day of taking up the trumpet. It was pathetic. A man of such transcendant powers has lost it all. A total Greek tragedy. Why?
According to Freddie, about 10 years ago, he overdid it - too many gigs, too many high notes, too many endurance contests - and he blew his lip out. Freddie also admits that there were too many drugs or other negative lifestyle choices as well - "partying with the rock crowd". In any event, a few months off the horn and his lip should have recuperated so there's more to it than that. It's as if a portion of his brain is missing - that portion having to do with his at one time prodigious musical ability. My guess is he had a stroke or other brain damage. Charlie Parker, on his worst day, sounded infinitely better. Parker rued the release of his recording of Lover Man, but it was great compared to Freddie last night. Lester Young in his last recordings didn't finish a chorus but what he did play was great compared to this.
From an article in downbeat circa 1995 entitled When Your Chops Are Shot:
Freddie lived large for a long time, but now he's fallen like an aging warrior. It's bound to happen to all of us sooner or later. But most of us don't attain the heights Freddie attained. So the fall is not as far or as drastic. When he first came to New York as a young man, his only rival on the trumpet was Lee Morgan.
Much has been made of the so-called rivalry between Hubbard and the late Lee Morgan during those heady New York years. But Hubbard sets the record straight.
"Lee was the only young cat that scared me when he played," he says. "he had so much fire and natural feeling. I had more technique, but he had that feeling. People seemed to like him more than they liked me at the beginning. But we'd follow each other around, buy sports cars and chase the same chicks. It was a different period then. Today, it's all business."
Well, at least, Freddie had the luck not to have wound up like Lee Morgan did - shot dead by a jealous lover.
I loved Freddie's recording with Eric Dolphy: "Outward Bound." It was "free" for its day. When Freddie hit and sustained a high F in the middle of an improvised chorus, I was in awe as a trumpet player. His signature lip trills and repeated, cyclical motifs on Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage" and "Empyrean Isles" had other trumpet players trying to imitate him. I even loved his more commercial records for CTI such as "First Light," my favorite make-out music. So to hear Freddie play last night was only an occasion for regret. Age alone doesn't explain it. Doc Cheatham and others have played tolerably well into their 80s. Barbara Walters interviewed 101 year old trumpet player, "Rosie" Ross who still plays professionally! Oscar Peterson still played OK even after his stroke and until he died although not with his former proficiency. You can see and hear Freddie in better days on YouTube here.
So why is Freddie Hubbard still playing and how does he even get gigs? The answer to the first question is that he needs the money. In an interview, he said that he can't make it financially living off the residuals from the over 300 records and CDs he's made. He gets gigs based mainly on his legendary status as a jazz musician. But he should have hung it up and rested on his laurels long ago. I guess the lesson here is that nothing lasts forever, and you can't take for granted any talent, ability or asset. It can all be taken away. I'm reminded of Shelley's poem, Ozymandias:
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
There but for the grace of God go I.