"Sitting in with Freddie Hubbard
Hamiet Bluiett remembers a jazz legend, gone at age 70
By Chris King
Of the St. Louis American
The place of jazz trumpet great Freddie Hubbard (pictured at left) – who died Dec. 29, 2008 at the age of 70 – in the history of the music may be glimpsed in the fact that he gave one of jazz’s current living legends one of his first shots at the limelight.
It was 1970 (maybe 1971) and a young baritone saxophone player from Lovejoy, Illinois named Hamiet Bluiett had been running around New York for a year trying to get a gig (or even a chance to sit in) with somebody with a name and a good working band.
"I was damn near crying – nobody would let me play," Bluiett said.
Finally, one night at Slug’s (a jazz spot best known, later, as the scene of the shooting death of another jazz trumpeter, Lee Morgan), Hubbard let Bluiett (pictured at right) play.
"He told me, ‘Man, quit being so crazy – you’ll get a chance to play," Bluiett remembered. "He said it was a long time before anybody let him play."
Bluiett only remembers the drummer in the band that night, Louis Hayes.
"I played my horn so hard the neck came off," Bluiett said. "The horn came apart – and they tore my ass up, to be truthful."
The more seasoned players burned the younger jazzman, in the time-honored rite of passage of cutting on the bandstand.
"Freddy was gracious enough to let me do it, and I always had a thing in my heart for him because of that," Bluiett said, "He let me come onstage and get an almighty butt whipping!"
In the early 1970s, Hubbard had already been in New York for a dozen years and had already earned a place in music history. The Indianapolis native came to the city in 1958 at the age of 20 and started playing with the likes of Sonny Rollins, Eric Dolphy and Quincy Jones.
In 1960 he both recorded his first record as a leader, Open Sesame (with McCoy Tyner on piano) and played on Ornette Coleman’s seminal Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation.
He moved on to make important records with a who’s who of modern jazz greats: John Coltrane, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Oliver Nelson, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter – all before inviting a young Hamiet Bluiett up on the bandstand at Slug’s.
"In those days, it was ferocious as far as the virtuosity in how people played," Bluiett said.
"As far as the music goes, Freddie Hubbard was a ferocious guy. He could really, really play trumpet. To be in his presence while that was going on – that was something."
Subsequent decades saw greater commercial success for Hubbard and an enormous number of recordings and performances – he played on more than 300 recordings – and he won a Grammy in 1972 for best jazz performance by a group for the album First Light.
Bluiett is one of many observers who felt Hubbard’s playing declined in intensity the further he got from the glory days of hard bop and the birth of free jazz and fusion, in which Hubbard played a part.
Amid other health problems, Hubbard suffered a lip injury in 1992. His death just before the new year followed a heart attack he suffered a day before Thanksgiving. He died at Sherman Oaks Hospital north of Los Angeles.
As Bluiett remembered the greatness of Freddie Hubbard at his peak, he took pride even in getting whipped at the bandstand and breaking his horn in his furious attempt to keep up with the master.
Bluiett joked, "I sound like those guys whose claim to fame is they fouled a ball off of Satchel Paige. ‘Wow, he didn’t strike you out? You must really be able to hit!’""
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