The profile of Bobby Hutcherson was written and produced
by Paul Conley.
Jazz Profiles is produced by Tim Owens.
Assistant producer Madeleine Smith, Online Assistant Producer John Murph.
Producer: Paul Conley
Bobby Hutcherson is one of the most influential living jazz vibraphonists. During the 1960s, he recorded a string of soul-stirring Blue Note albums that now define modern vibraphone playing. This year, he turned 60, yet Hutcherson's playing exhibits an unfettered creative spark, suggesting that he's not sitting on any laurels. On this edition of Jazz Profiles, we celebrate the life and career of vibraphonist and composer Bobby Hutcherson.¹
Hutcherson was born into a musical Los Angeles family on January 27, 1941. His sister Peggy sang with pianist Sonny Clark and bassist Oscar Pettiford, and his brother, Teddy, hung out with legendary tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon. When a young Bobby Hutcherson first started flirting with music, he studied piano with his evangelical Aunt Addie. After hearing a recording of Milt Jackson's performance of Thelonious Monk's "Bemsha Swing," Hutcherson was hooked on the vibraphone and soon saved his summer money from laying bricks with his father to buy his own instrument.
Without taking any formal vibraphone lessons, Hutcherson joined a trio with friend and bassist Herbie Lewis, who marked the vibraphone with notations to guide Hutcherson through the music. The trio progressed so quickly that two weeks after Hutcherson joined, Lewis entered the group in a contest. Right before the trio's performance, the stage manager, thinking that someone had defaced Hutcherson's vibes, wiped away the notations. The resultingly chaotic performance inspired Hutcherson to seek music lessons. But the progress of the trio was undaunted as Hutcherson, Lewis and pianist Terry Trotter together gathered to analyze jazz recordings and perform many local gigs.
As Hutcherson's prowess on the vibes grew, he began picking up small gigs with saxophonists Curtis Amy and Charles Lloyd. After high school, Hutcherson studied music at Pasadena City College, and it was during this time that he started recording with other musicians. But college didn't keep Hutcherson very long, and soon he left school to go on the road with the Al Grey-Billy Mitchell combo. Hutcherson first became acquainted with New York City because of this new high-profile gig, but unfortunately the Grey-Mitchell combo disbanded two years later, leaving Hutcherson stranded there. Since Hutcherson didn't know many of the New York-based jazz musicians, he drove a taxi to make money. Eventually, old friend Herbie Lewis caught up with him. Lewis invited Hutcherson to join a jam session that included trombonist Grachan Moncur III, who later introduced Hutcherson to alto saxophonist Jackie McLean. McClean was impressed with Hutcherson and featured the vibraphonist on his 1963 album, One Step Beyond.
McLean's One Step Beyond was Hutcherson's entry point to the world of Blue Note records. The label owners, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, were taken so by Hutcherson's enormous musicality that they used him in a variety of settings -- some led by avant-garde artists like alto saxophonist Eric Dolphy and pianist Andrew Hill, others led by soul jazz burners like guitarist Grant Green and organist Big John Patton. Hutcherson first recorded as a leader on The Kicker in 1963. The record -- featuring tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson and guitarist Grant Green -- was a straight-ahead date, but Blue Note shelved it until 1999 because in the early 1960s Hutcherson's reputation as an avant-garde artist was growing still.
The label released the edgier Dialogues in 1965 as Hutcherson's official Blue Note debut. Featuring a stellar ensemble of trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, drummer Joe Chambers, pianist Andrew Hill, saxophonist Sam Rivers and bassist Richard Davis, Dialogues established Hutcherson as the leader of the new school of jazz vibraphone. Hutcherson's second great triumph came during his Components album. The LP was as adventurous as Dialogues, but Components featured an entire side of Hutcherson compositions, including "Little B's Poem," which would soon become part of the canon. "Little B's Poem" proved to be the first in a string of Hutcherson-penned tunes such as "Bouquet," "'Til Then," "Herzog" and "Highway One" that have become jazz standards.
Hutcherson was arrested on drug charges in New York City and as a result lost his cabaret card. When he moved back to Los Angeles in the late 1960s, Hutcherson started a fruitful partnership with saxophonist Harold Land. According to producer Michael Cuscana, the Hutcherson-Land collaborations didn't lock either musician into one particular style. In the late 70's, Hutcherson switched record labels -- from Blue Note to Columbia -- to keep up with changing times. On Columbia, Hutcherson recorded some noteworthy songs with pianist George Cables including the classic Hutcherson tune, "Un Poco Poco." Then in the early '80s Hutcherson suffered a hand-injury that nearly ended his musical career.
Through rehabilitation and passion, Hutcherson regained his mastery of vibes and continued to record sterling albums throughout the 1980s and 1990s. According to pianist and frequent collaborator McCoy Tyner, Hutchinson's latter albums still burst with vitality, but they're also distinguished by a high-level of maturity. Hutcherson has become a patriarchal figure for jazz vibists. And today, he still lives in California, still records and still excites.
¹ Quote from vibraphonist and composer Stefon Harris; pianist and composer McCoy Tyner; producer Michael Cuscuna; pianist Greg Kurstin; and alto saxophonist and composer Jackie McLean.
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