Posted on 1/24/2009at 3:17 PM
The summer of 1987 was a deep, deep summer for me. In June, I had the opportunity to sit in with the premier band in the jazz world, led by my new friend, big-brother and mentor, Wynton Marsalis. It would prove to be quite a pivotal moment in my personal and, certainly, my professional life – what little of one I had at that time. Heck, I was only 15. However, the month of July would be a serious watershed month for me. As if meeting, playing and building a relationship with Wynton wasn’t enough, I got to see and hear four giants of jazz four consecutive weeks in a row at Penn’s Landing in my hometown, Philadelphia.

For a number of years, Penn’s Landing had a series of free concerts every summer featuring Jazz, R&B and Rock. I seem to remember “jazz night” was Thursday. Maybe. Anyhow, if you can possibly believe this, here was the lineup for the month of July (I can’t remember the exact order, but that’s not important) – Freddie Hubbard Quintet, McCoy Tyner Trio, Bobby Hutcherson Quartet, and finishing out the month, Sonny Rollins. Little did I know, quite a number of people passing through that Penn’s Landing stage that month would become indelible figures in my personal and professional life.

First, there was Freddie Hubbard.

One thing about my hometown that I still love is that the audiences are never dishonest. When you’re playing well, they’ll let you know. They’ll scream and holler and clap thunderously. If you’re not playing well, they’ll let you know that, too! They’ll boo, hiss, snarl and throw apple cores. A very emotional town Philly is. I went to Freddie’s performance with my buddies Joey DeFrancesco, Antonio Parker, Robert Landham and his brother, Byron. Robert had also become a serious mentor to me around this time as he was weaning me off of the organ records Joey had me listening to all the time. Robert was a huge fan of Wayne Shorter, Woody Shaw, McCoy Tyner, Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, and of course, Freddie Hubbard. Through Robert, I got turned onto Jazz Messenger records like “Caravan”, “Ugetsu”, “Kyoto”, and a lot of Freddie’s records like “Breaking Point”, “Blue Spirits” and “Night of the Cookers (vols. 1 & 2)”. Of course, I knew the stuff that everyone knew like “Red Clay”, “First Light”, “Super Blue” and all the “VSOP” records he’d made with Herbie Hancock, so when he came to Philly, I was literally….ready for Freddie!

When the emcee came out to introduce Freddie, the crowd screamed right over top of him. The electricity was thick! When he finally said, “….please give a warn Philly welcome to the great Freddie Hubbard!!”, the crowd went absolutely nuts! Freddie did not disappoint. He opened with an absolutely BURNING version of his song, “Thermo”. He was doing the equivalent of backflips, slam dunks, and pirouettes with his trumpet. He screamed through that trumpet like every note would be his last. He played so fast, so clean, so strong, so slick, so unbelievably clear. Sigh…..

Freddie had the crowd gasping and screaming. Not to mention the band was smoking. Ralph Moore played tenor, Larry Willis played piano, Michael Formanek played bass, and Carl Allen played drums. Freddie played all the songs I’d hoped he would play – Thermo, Body and Soul, Little Sunflower, Cousin Mary, The Intrepid Fox, Red Clay. Sigh…..what a night. After we left the concert, all of us were hoarse from screaming. It certainly felt like we’d been at a rock and roll show.

Little did I know that in three years, I’d be playing in Freddie’s band.

Two weeks later, Bobby Hutcherson passed through town. I must say that the audience wasn’t nearly as raucous as they were for Freddie, but in this case, that was great, because Bobby’s so subtle. Bobby can burn you up in a flame with his vibes and you wouldn’t even know it because his fire is so sweet. Bobby brought a quartet with John Hicks on piano, Ray Drummond on bass and Tony Reedus on drums. They tore it up. I remember Bobby playing a number of standards, but I lost it (in a good way) when he played one of my all-time favorite songs, his own modern jazz classic, “Little B’s Poem”. What a great, great song. The way Bobby jumped back and forth between the vibraphone and the marimba so effortlessly really had my jaw on the ground during the entire concert.

Little did I know that his drummer, Tony Reedus, who I’d listened to on Woody Shaw’s records, would in just over two years become one of my very best friends.

On November 16, 2008, I lost one of my most beloved pals, Tony Reedus. On December 28, 2008, I lost one of my most beloved teachers and mentors, Freddie Hubbard.

Overall, 2008 was one of those memorable years. For the most part, everything was good. But, alas, life has its way of slapping you right back down to the ground bringing everyting into very sharp focus. Losing two people who ALWAYS made me smile has made me very, very sad. Just over a month apart, no less.

I believe it was in December of 1989 when I first met Reedus at “Bradley’s”. I’d been living in New York City for only three and a half months, and I was just in heaven getting such close access to all my jazz heroes. All of them hung out at Bradley’s. I don’t remember who Reedus was playing with on this particular night, but I couldn’t wait to meet him.

I walked up to him as he was breaking down his drums, and I said something like, “Hi, Mr. Reedus. My name is Christian McBride and I play bass.” Reedus said in his jovial, country manner, “Hey, what’s up,, man?” I said, “Mr. Reedus, I saw you play with Bobby Hutcherson at Penn’s Landing in Philly a couple of years ago. I loved it.” Reedus, talking to me as if we’d known each other for years, says, “Aw, yeah, man, that was a f*** up gig! The soundman was drunk, the emcee f***** up my name, Hicks was drunk, aw, man, that s*** was out, man!” I laughed so hard. He reminded me so much of my cousins. Quick to embrace you as a friend, you know? From that moment on, we became tight buddies. As testament to Reedus’s big heart, I can guarantee that EVERYONE thought Reedus was their best friend. He was that kind of brother.

For the following 10 years, we played together with a lot of people – James Williams, Mulgrew Miller, Benny Golson, and ironically, Freddie Hubbard. Tony even came on the road with my band a few times. I remember in 1999, I played an outdoor gig somewhere in Raleigh, NC with my trio – Reedus and Bennie Maupin. I’ll NEVER forget that gig. Whew!

In the fall of 1991, Reedus, Geoffrey Keezer and I were Benny Golson’s rhythm section for a three week European tour. At that time, we didn’t have our own hotel rooms. We shacked up two to a room. The assignments were as follows: Brian Lynch/Geoffrey Keezer, Reedus/McBride. Benny Golson and Curtis Fuller, rightfully, did not share rooms – I don’t think. Hmmmm... I have no recollection as to what city we were in, but I remember Reedus and I were laying across the room from one another in these teeny, tiny beds, and we were keeping each other up all night being silly and talking about everything and nothing. Around 4AM, I couldn’t take it anymore. I was fading fast. I said, “Man, I’m going to sleep.” Reedus said, “Alright, man, I’m going to try to, but I can’t get no groove happening in this tiny ass, f**** up bed.” With that, we started laughing again for another hour or so. Finally, I fell asleep around 5. About 20 minutes into my sleep, I hear this, ”McBride?….McBride?….Hey, McBride.” I turn over, and Reedus turns the light on and says, “Man, I can’t sleep. Wake up.” Of course, we laughed for about another hour. Well, maybe a half hour! Reedus was so much like a brother, I didn’t mind him waking me up. God knows I did it to him a bunch of times on that tour.

Another one of my favorite Reedus stories occurs in May of 1997.

Another reason Reedus and I bonded so closely is because we were both obsessed with sports. Reedus, much to my surprise, had never been to Shea Stadium. So, I got us two tickets to see the Mets and the Colorado Rockies. Reedus and I hopped on the 7 train at Times Square and went to Shea. For some reason, Reedus stayed very quiet for the first five innings or so. Very unlike him, because when we were together, we were undoubtedly the two loudest guys around. The game itself wasn’t too exciting, but that shouldn’t have mattered to us. Around the top of the sixth, I was worried that something was bothering him. All of a sudden, he blurts out, “I don’t know, McBride!”, while shaking his head. I said, “You don’t know what?” He said, “Man….ain’t no vibe in here! Yankee Stadium’s got some vibe, but Shea? Ain’t no vibe in here, man.” So, for the rest of the game, he would reiterate vociferously how Shea Stadium OR the Mets….”ain’t got no vibe!” I think I missed the rest of the game laughing at Reedus as we ate hot dogs, pretzels and drank beer.

Obviously, there are a million stories I could share with you about Reedus and I, but the majority of them are way too, uh, colorful, shall we say? ☺

Reedus was one of the funniest, silliest, warm-hearted, swingingest cats to grace the planet. I like to think of Reedus as the black Rodney Dangerfield. Instead of saying he “got no respect”, he used to say, “Man, I’m always gettin’ barred out here, McBride!” He was quite fond of the word “barred”.

May my dear friend Tony Reedus rest in peace. Don’t worry, Reedus. In using one of your phrases, we’ll “keep it ignorant” down here!

As for Freddie Hubbard……

What can I say? He was equal parts Superman and Superfly. He could be sweet, he could be surly. He could be charming and professional, or he could be the ULTIMATE bad boy. What you got was a person who wore his heart on his sleeve at all times. A man who, if he was feeling good, he made everyone feel good around him. If he wasn’t, all he had to do was shoot you a look. If he loved you, he let you know it, without hesitation. If he didn’t……oh, boy. I found myself always terribly scared around Freddie the first year I was in his band. I never knew whether to stay back and not get in his way, or if I was to be the excited new puppy and follow him around, carry his bags and tell him how great he was all the time. Eventually, I learned to read Freddie well. I seemed to be right almost all of the time when it came time to hang around or to hang back. Our story started like this….

After that concert in 1987, I was obsessed with Freddie. To me, he was the jazz version of James Brown. I got that same excitement from him as I got from JB. Freddie was so powerful, dramatic, clever, and when he wanted to be, subtle as a lamb. (Just listen to Freddie play a ballad.)

Three people I made a lot of music with when I first moved to New York happened to be Benny Green, Don Braden and Carl Allen. It also just so happens that they were Freddie’s current band members. I tried so hard to be subtle in asking Benny, Don or Carl, “So, uh, who’s playing bass with Freddie now?” It was Bay area bassist, Jeff Chambers. Again, trying hard to be subtle, I asked, “Who usually does the gig when Jeff can't make it?” They all knew what I was getting at. I think it may have been Carl or Benny who said, “Don’t worry, if we ever need a new bass player, we’ll throw your name in the hat.” I knew I was ready. I just knew it. I knew all of Freddie’s music, I knew all the guys in the band, I knew what he liked, I just needed a small, tiny, miniscule opening. I knew once I saw that opening, I’d blow the door wide open. Plus, I also played the electric bass. I knew that would give me the edge over my fellow peers.

It was May of 1990 as I was closing out my second semester at Juilliard when I got a call from Carl. Talk about a bizarre gig – Carl had somehow become the house drummer for the “Budweiser Jazz Explosion”, which was a big smooth jazz concert. It usually featured people like Ramsey Lewis, Angela Bofill, Gato Barbieri, Gil-Scott Heron, Phyllis Hyman, Joe Sample, Stanley Turrentine and such. The only thing was, nobody played with their own bands, they played with a house rhythm section. That’s an enormous amount of work for one band. Anyhow, Carl asked if I’d be into playing this one- night-only Budweiser Jazz Explosion show in Columbia, South Carolina. It was at a place called the “Plantation”. Hmmm, that sounded strange. Turns out, it really was an old plantation. That was way out!

Since I was in college, I’d do any gig, anywhere, anytime, and for whatever pay! So I said, “Sure, I can make it.” Carl said, “We’ll be playing behind Lonnie Liston Smith, Jean Carne, Noel Pointer and Freddie.” In my customary never-let-‘em-see-you-get-too-excited-and-always-be-cool mode, I said, “Oh, ok. Solid. What tunes will we play with Fredd…, I mean, uh, everyone?” Carl said, “I’ll find that out and I’ll call you back. By the way, the gig is for the electric bass.” Uh oh, I was hoping to play acoustic bass, at least with Freddie. I started having terrible thoughts of Freddie staring me down saying, “Young man, you need to play the upright bass. All you young cats just want to play electric bass and slap all day and all night. You ever heard of Paul Chambers, boy?” That I didn’t want. Gulp…..

On the day of the show, we rehearsed for 20 minutes with each act – except Freddie. As I would later find out, Freddie showing up to a soundcheck or rehearsal was considered unusual. ☺ I was so scared to meet Freddie – whenever that would be. I asked Carl, “Is Freddie even in town yet?” He said, “I don’t know. I think so.” Finally, the show started. Lonnie Liston Smith was up first. Noel Pointer was second. Then there was an intermission. During the intermission, I finally saw him. I was grappling for words and air. Carl introduced us, “Freddie, this is Christian McBride, the bass player I was telling you about.” Freddie was in a good mood. He shook my hand and said, “Nice to meet you.” Carl said, “What songs do you want to play tonight? McBride knows all your stuff, but I don’t know if the keyboard player does.” Freddie said, “Well, who’s the keyboard player?” Carl called his name. (I’m sorry that I can’t remember who it was) Anyhow, Freddie looked at me and said, “You know ‘In Walked Bud’?” I said, “Yes, sir.” He said, “You know ‘First Light’?” I said, “Yes, sir.” Freddie said, “Well, let’s start there. We’ll figure out the rest while we’re onstage. Carl, go find the keyboard player.” Carl went and found him, and brought him into Freddie’s dressing room. Freddie asked if he knew these tunes, and the poor guy didn’t know any of them. Just before Freddie got frustrated, I blurted out, “Mr. Hubbard, I can write the chords out for him.” Freddie said, “Oh….ok!”

As we took the stage for the second half, we played behind Jean Carne, then out came the man, Freddie Hubbard. We started with “In Walked Bud”, and man, I really almost passed out hearing Freddie’s horn up close like that. You mean I’m onstage with Freddie Hubbard?? Are you kidding me?? Freddie played so great that night. We only played four songs, “In Walked Bud”, “Blues for Duane”, “Little Sunflower” and “First Light”. Since I was only playing electric, I knew I wouldn’t make the impact that I wanted to make on Freddie, but at least I didn’t mess anything up on the gig. Plus, I’d written the chords out for the keyboard player. After the show, Freddie just kind of shook my hand and I said, “I hope to see and play with you again, Mr. Hubbard.” He smiled and gave me a hug.

Did I make any kind of impression on him whatsoever? It didn’t seem like it, but that was cool. I knew deep down I’d see him again. I just didn’t realize how soon.

Three months later, the BIG call came. Carl said, “Hey man, we got a gig in Chicago and Jeff Chambers can’t make it. You available?” This was the call I’d been waiting for. If I’d been in Timbuktu, I would have walked and/or swam back to make that gig!! The gig was at Eddie and Geraldine DeHass’s South Shore Jazz Festival. About a week before the gig, Benny and I got together and ran through the band’s repertoire. I was so excited.

We flew to Chicago, and we were met at the airport by a limousine driver. Wow, is this how Freddie rolls? A limo for the band? Aw, man. This really IS the big time! Wow! Wait, it gets better. We get to the hotel, and there are a bunch of screaming teenage girls rushing our limo. We get out, and all these girls are screaming in the hotel lobby. I can’t believe what I’m seeing. “Freddie really IS the man”, I thought. These two girls run up to me and ask, “Who are you playing with?” And my dumb, just-turned-18–ass says so cooly and with supreme pride and confidence, “I’m playin’ with Freddie Hubbard, baby.” Man, the look I got in return was classic! These two girls looked at each other and say, “Freddie Hubbard?? I don’t know him. Does he sing?” I’m so dumb. I said, “Well, aren’t you all here to see Freddie Hubbard?” As soon as I said that, the elevator doors opened and out comes “The Boys” and “The Good Girls”. For those of you who followed R&B in the late 80’s and early 90’s know that “The Boys” and “The Good Girls” were supposed to be Motown’s 90’s version of the Jackson 5 and the teen version of the Supremes. An early version of Destiny’s Child, so to speak. Except, uh….they both were really bad! Anyhow, those two girls took off like bats out of hell. All of a sudden, Benny, Don, Carl and I felt real lonely! ☺

Since this was a festival, there would be no soundcheck or rehearsal with Freddie, just a linecheck. We just had to get up there and play. I can’t wait to paint this picture for you. I’m biting my fingernails I’m so nervous. I’m playing a gig with Freddie’s band. This is killing me. Can you believe it? I wish Freddie would show up a half hour or so before showtime so I could just vibe with him a little bit, you know? Maybe he would remember me from the South Carolina gig. I doubt it. I had a fresh new haircut and brand new glasses. I knew he wouldn’t remember me.

The moment of truth has arrived.

Freddie comes barging into the dressing room like the star he was. He’s got a small entourage with him. He’s wearing a cream sport jacket with black slacks and shoes and a slick shirt and tie…..and sunglasses, of course. With all of his machismo, he walks around the dressing room and loudly greets and hugs all of the band members. He gets to me and says, looking over his glasses, giving me the once over, no longer smiling, “This must be the bass player.” It was obvious that he’d completely forgotten about the gig in Columbia. Benny Green, bless his heart, saw my heart come through my chest, so he jumped in and said, “Freddie, this is Christian McBride. Trust me, you’re going to absolutely love this guy. He knows all your music.” In a very dramatic, almost Clint Eastwood-ish style, Freddie turns back to me, looks over his glasses, and says, “You know my sh**, huh?” I squirted out, “Yes, sir.” He then pushes his sunglasses back up and says turning away, “We’ll see.”

High drama, huh?

After he said, “We’ll see..”, I got real inspired. All of a sudden, I wasn’t scared. Well, I was still sort of scared, but I was ready to go out and prove that I was at least worthy of the gig.

Here comes the next, and ultimate, moment of truth.

The emcee says, “Let’s give a warm Chicago welcome to the great Freddie Hubbard!” We go out and we start with Cedar Walton’s “Bolivia”, which was Freddie’s “walk on” tune. We play “Bolivia” and Freddie’s just rippin! Next, we play Thelonious Monk’s “Off Minor”. It was this song where I got my first bass solo of the night. Freddie didn’t even look up once! No response. No acknowledgement. Nothing. We go to the next tune, which I believe was “Blue Moon”. Then, we play “Life Flight”, then “Blues for Duane”. I get another solo. Freddie’s reaction was worse on my second solo than the first - he decided to take a cigarette break with the monitor guy! I looked up to see if he was listening, and he and the monitor dude were just yuckin’ it up during my entire solo. Man, did I feel bad. I guess this gig wouldn’t be mine after all. I was so bummed. Of course, Don, Benny and Carl were just swingin’ all night. They had my back throughout the entire gig. Mercifully, we get to the last song of the night, “Red Clay”. As we’re vamping out at the end, Freddie starts to introduce the band. By this time, I was so depressed, I’m thinking to myself, “He probably won’t even remember my name. Well, at least I can say that I made one gig with him.” Freddie starts, “Let’s hear it for our tenor saxophonist, Don Braden…..How about it for Benny Green on piano…..Our dynamic drummer and straw boss, Mr. Carl Allen……and how about it for this young man on bass. He just turned 18 three months ago. We played a gig together in South Carolina back then, and he’s doing a marvelous job tonight. How about it for our new bass player, Christian McBride!!”

I cry as I write this.

After the gig, Freddie gave me a hug and told me I played well. I guess his not acknowledging me throughout the entire gig was his way of keeping my 18-year-old ego in check. It worked! But, finally, I could breathe a sigh of relief. Man, I couldn’t have been happier. Carl, Benny, Don and I made dinner plans. I was hoping Freddie would go with us, but he had other plans. Later, that limo took us to the “Queen of the Sea” soul food restaurant at it’s old location on 87th and Stony Island – right next to Coop’s Records and Tapes. When we got back to the hotel after dinner, we saw those same two girls that ran up to me in the lobby when we checked in earlier that day! Poor girls couldn’t get any action, I guess.

Just so happens that Freddie arrived at the hotel at just about the same time we did. Freddie says, “Where’d y’all go for dinner?” We told him, and we all made some small talk in the lobby before we all headed up. The best part of that whole night was when Freddie was just about to head up the elevator, and he said, “See y’all in Detroit.” That was our next gig, which was in about two weeks. I guess that means I’m really in the band, huh? YAY!!!

Another one of my favorite Freddie stories occurs in March of 1992 at the Charles Ballroom in Boston. Talk about an all-star band – it was a quintet with Freddie, Joe Henderson on tenor, Kenny Barron on piano, Joe Chambers on drums, and lil’ ol’ me. In typical fashion, there was no rehearsal. There was a quick soundcheck, but Freddie didn’t come. At 7:45pm (the gig was at 8), we’re all sitting backstage in our dressing room, and no one has said one damn thing about any tunes! I think Joe Henderson may have said, “You guys know ‘Inner Urge’ and ‘Invitation’, right?” As it so happens, all of us except Kenny Barron had just played the night before at Lincoln Center with the Joe Henderson/Freddie Hubbard Big Band, so I assume that Joe and Freddie assumed that we would just play small group versions of what we’d played 24 hours earlier. But, I think they forgot that Kenny Barron wasn’t on that gig, so just maybe, he didn’t KNOW what we’d played the night before….HELLO?? And needless to say, no one had any sheet music. Of course not.

At 7:55 (I’m not kidding!), Kenny Barron finally says, “What are we opening with?” Freddie says, “How about ‘Thermo’?” Joe Henderson says, “You have the melody written out on that?” (Joe didn’t play on the big band version the night before) Freddie says, “No, but you don’t have to the play the melody. Just take a solo.” Kenny Barron says, “Freddie, I don’t really remember that tune. I haven’t played that with you in years.” Quite understandable. Freddie says, “You don’t know it? That’s ok, McBride will write it out for you.” OH, THANKS A LOT, FREDDIE!! Where am I going to get manuscript paper in the next three minutes??? So, I haul to the bathroom and grab a bunch of PAPER TOWELS (!!), and I’m desperately trying to scribble out these chords. (Now, I only have two minutes!) For those of you who know the tune know that it’s not that simple of a song to just “write out” in two minutes! So, I’m like, singing the intro to Kenny trying to tell him that the chords are parallel to the melody line, and that the chords, are, like, phrygian chords over a Bb ped……aw, what’s the use!

We’re walking out on stage, and I’m still scribbling chords out for Kenny. I finally got my chicken scratch finished, and we somehow made it through the gig.

Talk about being put on the spot!

Finally, it’s May 31, 1992. My 20th birthday. Freddie’s band is performing in San Juan, Puerto Rico. By this time, Freddie’s old running buddy, former bandmate and fellow legend, Louis Hayes, had started playing drums with us. It just so happens that Louis Hayes’ birthday is also on May 31st. Back at the hotel after the gig that night, I found myself at the bar celebrating with Freddie, Louis and John Hicks, who was there with another band. Picture that – Hub, Hicks, Hayes and a rookie 20-year old. After one drink (a ginger ale. I didn’t drink then…), I decided I’d get more entertainment going on the balcony of my room and watching the three of them in action at the bar. (Our rooms overlooked the lobby) What I saw was hilarious! Definitely not for 20-year olds who didn’t drink! Finally, after two hours, the bartender said, “LOOK, WE’VE GOT NO MORE LIQUOR!!!! GO HOME, DAMN IT!!!!”

Just like with Reedus, I have a million Freddie Hubbard stories, but my favorite, favorite ones are the ones that stay with me and the guys who were involved.

For the next two and a half years, I played with and learned from one of the most dynamic personalities ever in the history of music. I felt so honored.

I miss you so much, Hub. May you rest in peace.

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