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Bobby Hutcherson: Master of the vibes

Photo courtesy of http://www.vervemusicgroup.com/bobbyhutcherson/music/

The great jazzman Milt Jackson had an easy way of telling people he met what instrument he played. He pointed to his lapel where he wore a gold pin in the shape of his instrument. It saved him from explaining what his instrument was to nearly every stranger he met.

Most would call it a xylophone, but with electronic accessories it can produce a vibrato. That instrument’s called the vibraphone.

For nearly 50 years now, a jazz artist who lives here in Northern California has enjoyed a career as one of the great performers on the vibraphone, commonly called the vibes. At 71 and diminished by respiratory illness, Bobby Hutcherson is still playing the vibes and indisputably will always be a force in creative jazz. In 2010, he was awarded the highest honor in his field, the Jazz Master Fellowship Award of the National Endowment of the Arts.

Barely out of his teens Bobby Hutcherson found fame first playing and recording in New York City in the 60s. He’s since toured the nation and the world from his home base in the seaside town of Montara on the San Mateo coast. 

The vibes have been his life since his days as a youth in the small and proud African-American community of Pasadena, California that produced baseball and civil rights legend Jackie Robinson. The Hutcherson home was a warm one, tended faithfully by his parents, a master brick mason and a hair stylist. Bobby was the baby of the family and was often looked after by his brother Teddy and Teddy’s friend the great saxophonist Dexter Gordon. Bobby’s sister Peggy was a well-known singer in Los Angeles who toured and recorded with Ray Charles and the Raelets and was a mainstay of the Gong Show. Peggy’s frequent date was another Los Angelino and jazz legend, Eric Dolphy.

An aunt got Hutcherson’s music education going on piano. He eventually switched to the vibes in high school and not long after graduation, he was invited to New York by another friend of the family, saxophonist Billy Mitchell, who had made his name with the Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie bands. Bobby’s first national exposure came as a member of the quintet Mitchell led with former Basie trombonist Al Grey.

It wasn’t long before Bobby was recording on the Blue Note label, and his fine playing and his original song Little B’s Poem were getting him a lot of notice. Hutcherson was part of a very special group of young modern jazz artists whose recordings were extending the boundaries of jazz. They included Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and

Freddie Hubbard. The 60’s were a very exciting time for jazz in New York City, and Hutcherson was in the vanguard of change. One of his early recorded efforts that lives as a jazz classic ison Eric Dolphy’s “Out to Lunch” session.

“Once I got to New York there was so much music goin’ on,” says Hutcherson. “The energy level was unbelievable. On the way to a rehearsal, you could stop at the corner of 125th Street and Lenox and hear Malcolm X preach. That was enough to make you want to make you practice for two months straight.”

The young Blue Note jazz artists were absorbing all kinds of music, including work by members of the classical avant garde. “There was some funny stuff,” Hutcherson recalls. “One time me and [drummer] Tony Williams went over some guy’s house and he put some Karlheinz Stockhausen on and Brrrrrrr Atatatatat. We listened to it slow down and speed up again. We’d just sit there crackin’ up and listening to that stuff.”

But in the 60s, things could come crashing down suddenly. That’s what happened to Hutcherson in 1967 when he and another leading young musician, drummer Joe Chambers, were busted for marijuana and thrown in the Manhattan House Detention, better known at The Tombs. A federal judge called this awful city jail “a fortress of bedlam.” Getting locked up in the Tombs was not only a harrowing experience. With the arrest, Bobby’s cabaret card was taken away, meaning he could not perform in New York City jazz clubs. And he also lost his hack license, which had allowed him to get through lean times by driving a taxi.

By the end of the 60s Hutcherson had established his reputation around the world as a leader of his jazz generation on vibes, a mantle he shared only with his East Coast counterpart Gary Burton. “Bobby and I came from the same generation of players, that is players who came of age in the 1960s, and we sort of became the two significant players of our generation,” says Burton. “To me Bobby has been the other guy on the vibes from my generation. I’ve always respected his playing and considered him one of the giants of the vibes.”

Hutcherson’s life after New York was back in Los Angeles, where continued to record for Blue Note in groups that usually included the stellar LA saxophonist Harold Land. Hutcherson’s association with Northern California began in 1970 at a San Francisco jazz club called the Both/And. He became a regular there, not only because an old friend was the owner, but because he had a special fondness for the young lady who took tickets, Rosemary Zuniga. San Francisco was the title of one Hutcherson-Land album, and the royalties from a hit on it called “Ummh” gave Hutcherson the funds to buy a house in Montara. In 1972, Hutcherson and Zuniga were married and settled in to raise a family while Hutcherson’s artistry matured and deepened.

“I guess as I got older, I started learning how to finish off my phrases, how to end my phrases,” he notes. “I guess one of the most important things was learning how to play a ballad. It’s like making a movie. It’s easy to do a scene where everybody’s going crazy and screaming, but it’s hard to do a shot where two people are sitting across the table from each other in a restaurant having idle dinner conversation. That’s much harder conversation. And so I’ve learned a little more about sitting across the table and having idle dinner conversation.”

In the 70s, Hutcherson added to his performances, the marimba, an instrument that had been ignored in jazz. A teenage jazz player in Rochester, New York was one of the many younger players heavily impressed and influenced by Hutcherson, and like many vibes players, he eventually added marimba to his performances. In 2011, Bobby and Gary

Burton tied for first place on vibraphone in the prestigious Downbeat Critics Poll. The New Star award went to Joe Locke.

Locke is still one of Hutcherson’s biggest fans. “He just plays beautiful, beautiful, beautiful marimba. The instruments are so different. One is made of metal and one is made of wood, but to me it’s still Bobby, whether it’s marimba or whether it’s vibes. You hear this beautiful glassy kind of sound that’s very particular to him and these cascades and these runs that just sound like water, they just sound like water going from above to below.

“There’s a track of Bobby’s called ‘Even Later,’” says Locke. “And ‘Even Later’ is a beautiful sort of, wow, I don’t even know what to call it, man… benediction or a meditation. That’s really a track I’d recommend listing to for his marimba playing, one of many.”

The 70s were strong years for Hutcherson, due in no small measure to his frequent gigs at the San Francisco jazz club Keystone Korner. Performing there with his own groups and as guest artist with touring combos, Hutcherson’s playing kept evolving, as did his composing.

Keystone’s owner Todd Barkan also worked with Bobby as a producer and tour manager and has fond memories of a day with Bobby that produced a beautiful song. “When I was on tour with Bobby Hutcherson in Europe, and we went out one afternoon, and we walked along a river in Austria, and the sun was going, and we were getting ready to go to the concert. That evening he wrote a tune called “The Stroll,” and it perfectly captured what that afternoon stroll was like. The way he put those notes together perfectly crystallized the moment, both the emotion of the moment and even the visual elements of the moment. His warmth and his deep humanity come through in every note that he play,” says Barkan who today is artistic director of Dizzy’s Coca-Cola Club, the jazz club in New York City’s Lincoln Center arts complex.

Hutcherson has never stopped growing as an artist, continually formulating many of his own concepts and musical ideas. Joe Gilman is a professor of music at American River College in Sacramento and been Bobby’s pianist since 2006. He says his association with Hutcherson has been a fruitful one. “I think maybe the most important thing that I’ve learned from Bobby is that he deals not so much with chord progressions and scales and all that business, but he’s mostly concerned with the sound,” says Gilman.

Hutcherson is endlessly looking for new scales and new harmonies for his improvisations, but as analytical as his music can sometimes be, he says what it’s really about is people. “I don’t think it’s me writing. They’re doing the writing. The song is their image,” says Hutcherson. “I’m just the reflection. So, as you listen to music that I write, I’m just looking into a pond.” Hutcherson carries that image of water over to his perception of a person’s legacy.   “[T]he main thing is,” Hutcherson says, “that that energy, that person, that spirit, long after they die is going to always be remembered just like a ripple, a splash of water. You know that ripple goes on forever.”