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Excerpt from The Root of the Chord: Writings on Jazz's Essential Power and Artistry

Sunday 1/30/22

To give a taste. This is from a part of the book about Freddie Hubbard. My aim with the book is quite simple--for it to be the best jazz book ever written and have maximum appeal to jazz diehards, jazz beginners, those who have never been interested in jazz, music fans of all kinds, thinkers, and lovers and would-be lovers of great writing.


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Let’s play a game of trumpet without any of us having to play trumpet, shall we? Favorite trumpet player as a trumpet player: Who you got?


That line of inquiry, when it comes to trumpeters, can be a revealing device. I would expect that a lot of people opt for Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, or Clifford Brown, rather than, say, Miles Davis. We look at our trumpeters as technicians, more so than with any other kind of jazz instrumentalist, save maybe drummers.


Tenor saxophonists, regardless of their chops, tend to be evaluated as overall shapers of sound, band leaders, composers, note-based architects. Miles Davis could burn through scalar runs with near matchless dexterity in his prime, then convert his horn into a carving blade and remove your heart from your chest with a ballad. And yet, because of how many times he overhauled the possibilities of music, touched off new genres and mini-genres, coerced career-best performances from his bandmates—who doubled as his acolytes—we look past Davis’s technical proficiencies rather than focus on them. It’s the nature of the trumpet beast. Your technique gets the attention, or else what you pioneered in the larger sense. It’s rare that we knit up what is often two halves of the same whole.


Louis Armstrong represents the exemplar of that totality, in part because his initial scene-bursting was entirely about technique, one that still blows minds when you focus on how he fashioned the sounds he did. There is this odd, but not displeasing, post-human vibe, like Armstrong was made of extra stuff compared to any other horn man, a dollop of the alien that felt so damn good on Earth.


Armstrong’s singing was an offshoot of his trumpet playing, another technical marvel, done unconventionally. No one played that way, no one sang that way, and taken in tandem, a kind of double negative—in terms of our expectations—became the ultimate musical positive. Major win-win. Armstrong’s success was a form of artistic pandemic: uncontainable, and a broad-chested populism built, paradoxically, on technical nuance that would have given Paganini pause.


His timing was perfect—popular music was ripe for new directions; Armstrong was the spearhead of an exciting new medium the way that Elvis Presley would later be—and after having achieved his success, he essentially dispensed with innovation, not unlike Eric Clapton post-1970, playing brilliantly, night in, night out, and on literally hundreds of sessions, but those initial deep kisses of pure, “I would die for you” newness, became friendly, firm handshakes instead. One knew what one was getting with Armstrong, after the last of the Decca sessions, in 1946.


If we’re talking about the 1960s, the same cannot be said regarding Freddie Hubbard, a trumpeter unlike any trumpet player in jazz’s history, the ultimate musical straddler in an era that popped and thrummed with innovations—who also nudged titans in a manner no one else seemed able to, save multi-instrumentalist and ace afflatus Eric Dolphy—and who deserves titan status himself, though he is rarely granted it because of the “the trumpet player with mega chops” conundrum. But with the banner campaign like the one Hubbard had in 1964, the trumpeter didn’t just merely have a year to write home about; he had reason to buy out the stationary store such that he’d have sheaves a’plenty to detail the sonic realms he had helped remake.


Let’s start with those Hubbard chops, because they are clearly what drummer/bandleader Art Blakey fell for the hardest when he cast Hubbard in his Jazz Messengers unit. In the hard bop universe, where tightness of band would double as loftiest of virtues, the Messengers were the ultimate purveyors of the ethos. Soul-drenched, unified, ever-pacey, they were a unit who could intimidate via sheer cohesion. Some of the biggest of the big boys passed through their ranks—Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan—but they didn’t create the core masterpieces of their career in this context, because that’s not what the Blakey bands were necessarily about. They were about max-functional jazz, a night’s rip-snortin’ entertainment, a blowing away of blues, impetus for the kicking up of heels, burgeoning joie de vivre soundtracked by ensemble virtuosity.


Hubbard replaced Morgan in the Jazz Messengers in 1961. His avidity was perfect for their sound, though it was but one part of his. In film, Orson Welles remarked that it was the long take that separated the masters from the would-be masters. Writing guru William Zinsser claimed that if you wanted to write long sentences, be a genius. These are some differentiators between the seminal—sires of revolution—and the merely great and good. In jazz trumpet playing, it is speed that partially lionizes the immortals. That would make Freddie Hubbard the Nolan Ryan of trumpeters. For sheer technique, only Dizzy Gillespie shares a phylum. In his early 1960s prime, Hubbard could shower a listener with more notes than it felt like they could count, yet he never sounds disordered. It was as though he just thought faster than everyone else, the possessor of a pristine pipeline—a veritable Gulf Stream of creativity—between brain and embouchure.