Vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, an NEA Jazz Master who influenced generations of musicians as an improviser and composer, died Monday at the age of 75 after a protracted struggle with emphysema.
A longtime resident of the seaside hamlet Montara, about 20 miles south of San Francisco, Hutcherson grew up in Pasadena and made a name for himself in the early 1960s as a creative catalyst for a cadre of brilliant young musicians associated with the Blue Note label. As a composer, bandleader and recording artist, Hutcherson created a body of work that ranks among the most profound and widely celebrated in an often divisive era marked by a proliferation jazz aesthetics.
Introduced to the Blue Note fold by veteran alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, Hutcherson quickly joined a loose confederation of creatively ambitious New York musicians inspired by the rhythmic and harmonic innovations of free jazz patriarch Ornette Coleman but dedicated to experimenting with compositional form. With his thick, ringing four-mallet chords and exquisitely chiseled melodic lines, he played a defining role on several dozen era-defining albums, such as Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch, Lee Morgan’s The Procrastinator, McCoy Tyner’s Time For Tyner, Joe Henderson’s Mode For Joe, Tony Williams’ Life Time, Grachan Moncur III’s Evolution, and McLean’s One Step Beyond.
“Jackie McLean opened up a whole world to me, and during those years in New York I was running into all these players and recording all the time,” Hutcherson told me in an interview several years ago. “It seemed like everybody had an original sound. Everybody was writing music and the world was going crazy. It seemed like everywhere you went there was just unbelievable things, the war, riots, assassinations, and the music was definitely a reflection of everything that was going on.”
During his 13 years with Blue Note — a tenure exceeded only by pianist/composer Horace Silver — Hutcherson recorded a series of classic albums under his own name, including Dialogue, Components, Medina, and Stick Up! He had arrived in New York City in 1962 with a band led by Al Grey and Billy Mitchell and ended up driving a cab when the group broke up. He credited his fear of returning home to Los Angeles as a failure with pushing him to jump into the experimental-minded post-bop fray, where every recording seemed to introduce a new harmonic vocabulary.
“I was going to do anything to not have to go back home and say that New York kicked my ass,” he said. “Luckily, what was in my favor was I was playing four mallets. And I was playing chords. It gave me something more than just sitting there playing melodies… We’re in Brooklyn at the Coronet, which is a real gangster-like club, and here we are playing some out stuff. The crowd used to love to hear Jackie get on the microphone and announce what we were playing. Jackie would say, okay, we are now going to play ‘Frankenstein’s Mama,’ and the crowd would go crazy… We had a great time.”
A New York drug bust in 1968 led him to move back to Los Angeles, where he played with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra and forged an enduring and creatively fecund partnership with tenor saxophonist Harold Land. Before long he moved up the Bay Area, but it was a minor hit on San Francisco, his 1970 album with Land and pianist Joe Sample, that made Hutcherson a permanent resident. When he got the royalty check for the funk-driven track “Ummh” he decided to buy an acre of land on an undeveloped Montara hillside.
“When ‘Ummh’ became a hit I thought, what am I going to do with this money?” Hutcherson recalled. “I came down here bought an acre of land for $10,000 and I built this house for $30,000. I’m 20 minutes from San Francisco, and about 20 minutes to the airport. For a long time I kept saying, 'I think I made the right choice.'”
When Todd Barkan launched Keystone Korner in 1972, Hutcherson became one of the North Beach jazz club’s presiding spirits, performing regularly with masters such as trumpeters Woody Shaw and Freddie Hubbard, pianist Cedar Walton, and tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson (a fellow Bay Area resident). The latter years were well-documented on live recordings such as Hutcherson’s Farewell Keystone (Evidence), and two Keystone Bop volumes under Hubbard’s name on Milestone. Some 25 years later, Hutcherson was a founding member of the SFJAZZ Collective.
Like so many musicians, Barkan treasured Hutcherson’s music and soulful presence on the scene. “He’s been a guiding light to all of us who love and live by this music for many decades,” Barkan says. “One of the most swinging master musical storytellers of our age, Bobby’s music never fails to keep us in closer touch with the most tender and welcoming parts of our hearts. As he wrote on the wall in the Keystone Korner, 'True love asks nothing in return.'”
Interviewing Hutcherson could be a challenge. He was a gifted raconteur whose stories often swerved in unanticipated directions (much like his solos). On stage he often played the genial trickster, standing in front of his vibes seemingly lost in thought, only to look up quickly and feign wide-eyed surprise at finding himself in front of an audience. A remarkably consistent performer, Hutcherson evolved into one of jazz’s greatest balladeers. But his greatest contribution may have been as a composer of dozens of extraordinary and often harmonically mysterious tunes.
Hutcherson credits drummer Joe Chambers, a noted composer and early New York collaborator, with encouraging him to start generating his own music as a vehicle for documenting creative evolution.
“Joe Chambers told me that in order to complete your cycle you have to write, that way you can document what was going through your mind and where you were harmonically, theoretically, historically, to kind of show the things that you were thinking about, how you were feeling and the things you were working on,” Hutcherson said. “Are you working on a theory to create a puzzle, to be able to go in this side and get through the maze? Are you just looking for little situations, small motifs, little questions and answers? Are you looking for secondary melodies to come in, completely different from this but they will all add up? Then there’s the sound of the elements, the sound of wind, the sound of rain, how the notes and melodies are contained in a sunny day or a rainy day.”