Monday, January 5, 2009

Jazz Legend Freddie Hubbard R.I.P.

Hubbard was born in Indianapolis, the youngest of six children. His mother and sister played the piano, and several siblings played other instruments or sang. Young Freddie played the tonette and mellophone, then the trumpet, flugelhorn, piano, French horn, sousaphone and tuba - notably studying with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's first trumpeter Max Woodbury at the Arthur Jordan Conservatory of Music.

The Indianapolis jazz scene was a vigorous one in the early 1950s, and he was soon playing with one of its most famous jazz families - the Montgomery brothers, including in Wes Montgomery one of jazz's greatest guitarists.

Following his move to New York in 1958, Hubbard's melodic invention and cool exuberance brought him work with Miles Davis drummer Philly Joe Jones, with the saxophonist Sonny Rollins and composer Quincy Jones, and he was soon winning awards from the prestigious jazz magazine Down Beat.

Barely into his 20s, the young trumpeter sprang to the front of the line of first-choice sidemen. He seemed comfortable with everything from big-band music to the emerging free jazz. Although he always sounded like a bebopper at heart, his technique and unerring ear allowed him to veer in and out of orthodox tonality, and he featured on many of the early 1960s landmark recordings. These included Dolphy's Out to Lunch, Coleman's Free Jazz, John Coltrane's Ascension, Oliver Nelson's Blues and the Abstract Truth, and the powerful early Blue Note recordings of emerging geniuses Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock.

Hubbard was invariably compared with Brown, and since Brown had died young in a car accident, he was inevitably treated as Brown's natural heir. He was also bound to be perceived as a Davis rival, but though Hubbard outstripped Davis for technique, he lacked the older man's creative breadth, collaborative instincts and sense of jazz's place in a wider world of modern art. However, he played the Davis role authoritatively in the 1977 VSOP band (with former Davis sidemen Hancock, Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams), recapturing the acoustic sound and one-touch ensemble conversations of the great mid-1960s Davis quintet at a time when the original creator had moved to electric jazz-funk.

The ease with which Hubbard played this role confirmed his continuing stylistic flexibility, since he had otherwise spent much of the 1970s playing a less ambiguous and mysterious version of Davis's own chart-chasing, pop-influenced electric jazz, recording extensively for the commercially-oriented CTI label. Albums including First Light, Straight Life (both of which won Grammys) and Red Clay, made between 1970 and 1971, were generally well-received by the cognoscenti, but their successors were increasingly pop and disco-oriented, with Hubbard's former improvisational vivacity being replaced by such repetitive mannerisms as whirring trills and ostentatious high-note eruptions that made many of his solos in that style indistinguishable from each other. By the time he returned to more lyrical acoustic jazz, the world had moved on and younger players - Marsalis in particular - were making something fresh of it. But Hubbard made some elegant and musical recordings in returning to his roots in the 1980s and spent his last years trying to rebuild his musical resources and his reputation.

Hubbard received a jazz masters award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2006. He shifted to the less demanding flugelhorn, and worked sporadically on bar and nightclub gigs, often organised by his arranger, producer, fellow-trumpeter and manager David Weiss, who led the New Jazz Composers' Octet, with which Hubbard was to make his last recording, released last year.

He is survived by his wife, Briggie, and his son, Duane.

• Frederick Dewayne Hubbard, trumpeter, born 7 April 1938; died 29 December 2008