Bobby Hutcherson’s career didn’t get off to a very promising start. Although he hadn’t been playing very long, he and a friend who played bass entered a music contest. His friend marked the bars on Hutcherson’s vibraphone with a marker so he would know what notes to play. But, as Hutcherson told NPR, the stage manager saw all the black marks on the bars and, thinking he was helping, wiped them clean. “I think I hit the first two notes,” Hutcherson recalled, “and the rest was complete chaos.”
Things got better, and Hutcherson became one of the most important voices on vibes starting in the 1960s. Writing in The New York Times when Hutcherson died from emphysema at age 75 on August 15, 2016, Nate Chinen said, “Mr. Hutcherson had a clear, ringing sound, but his style was luminescent and coolly fluid. More than Milt Jackson or Lionel Hampton, his major predecessors on the vibraphone, he made an art out of resonating overtones and chiming decay. This coloristic range of sound, which he often used in the service of emotional expression, was one reason for the deep influence he left on stylistic inheritors like Joe Locke, Warren Wolf, Chris Dingman, and Stefon Harris, who recently assessed him as ‘by far the most harmonically advanced person to ever play the vibraphone’.”
His bio on AllMusic.com states that, “Along with Gary Burton, the other seminal vibraphone talent of the ’60s, Hutcherson helped modernize his instrument by redefining what could be done with it—sonically, technically, melodically, and emotionally. In the process, he became one of the defining (if underappreciated) voices in the so-called ‘new thing’ portion of Blue Note’s glorious ’60s roster. Hutcherson gradually moved into a more mainstream, modal post-bop style that, if not as adventurous as his early work, still maintained his reputation as one of the most advanced masters of his instrument.”
Part of the thrill of hearing Hutcherson was that he was willing to take chances. “That’s part of the excitement of playing—gets that adrenaline flowing,” he said in a 1985 interview. “You never know what you might do; you might mess up. That’s the scary thing—going ‘out there’ and then getting back in. I really enjoy it.
“I do try a lot of different things, but within a structure,” he continued. “I’m trying to keep my mind constantly on the song. My first responsibility is to the song—to the tune we’re playing. Whatever I play must have something to do with the melody of the tune. We’ve got to learn to use our minds more and be tuned into all the things going on. You want to think about disciplining yourself to a phrase; you want to think about a harmonic structure; you want to think about an idea you’re going to explore; you want to think about keeping the time together; you want to think about your dynamics; you want to think about tension and release. All these thoughts should be coming through you.”
“Bobby Hutcherson’s sound and innovative style on the vibraphone helped revitalize the instrument in the 1960s, adding an adventurous new voice to the free jazz and post-bop eras,” said the National Endowment for the Arts, which honored him with its prestigious Jazz Master award in 2010.
Bobby Hutcherson was born in Los Angeles, California, on January 27, 1941. He grew up in Pasadena, where he studied piano briefly during his childhood. At age 13 he took up vibraphone after walking past a record store and hearing “Bemsha Swing” with Thelonious Monk, Percy Heath, Kenny Clarke, Milt Jackson, and Miles Davis. “That did it,” Bobby told Modern Percussionist writer Robin Tolleson in 1985. “I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ It was weird for a kid of 13 to buy a record like that. I just sat in my room playing the record all day for days and days.”
Hutcherson was especially enthralled by Jackson’s playing. “I never heard anybody so flawless, who grooved so heavy,” Hutcherson explained. “He could get such a heavy groove out of one note that it was unbelievable. He wouldn’t even be playing any really hard stuff. It would just be so logical and beautiful. I felt rich when I heard him.”
Although primarily self-taught, Bobby studied briefly with Dave Pike, a vibraphonist who had played with Harold Land and Dexter Gordon, and later played with flutist Herbie Mann in addition to releasing albums under his own name. Hutcherson said he also learned a lot from pianist Terry Trotter. “He taught me all my chords and scales,” Bobby said. “We used to go over to his house and listen to records. He taught me how to sit down quietly, put the music on, and listen to a musician’s personality. He really gave me a good approach: Think music all the time and live it.”
Hutcherson soon began working professionally in California, first playing in a band with his friend Herbie Lewis (the bass player who marked the vibes bars before the contest), and later playing bebop with such leaders as Charles Lloyd, Curtis Amy, Paul Bley, and Scott LaFaro before joining a sextet led by Al Grey and Billy Mitchel in 1961 that had a steady gig at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco. As there was no pianist in the group, Hutcherson filled out the harmony by incorporating four-mallet technique and adapting to the freer post-bop style. Although he occasionally used four mallets later in his career, he primarily was a two-mallet player. He continued with the Grey-Mitchell group through 1963, achieving wider recognition for his playing when he recorded with the group and they performed at New York’s Birdland.
Hutcherson was convinced that New York was the place to be in the 1960s. “In New York, there was a big influx of new musicians,” he told NPR’s Arun Rath in 2014. “There was a lot of history being presented at that time. I mean, you could stop on the street corner and hear Malcolm X. There was an awful lot of things going on [and] at that time the music was like a newspaper of what was going on in the streets.”
After relocating to New York, Hutcherson appeared as a sideman on Jackie McLean’s One Step Beyond album, which led to recordings with Grant Green, Andrew Hill, Daxter Gordon, and Big John Patton. Hutcherson also worked with Eric Dolphy, with whom he made two recordings—including the widely praised Out to Lunch—before Dolphy’s untimely death in 1964.
“When I started playing with Eric, that’s when the music started getting free,” Bobby said in 1985. “At that point, Andrew Hill was recording a lot for Blue Note, and he wanted me to start doing some stuff with him. I was doing some different things with Jackie McLean and Eric. So I had become the new avant-garde vibist in town. My roots were in bebop, but I was enjoying playing this freer music. I met Archie Shepp and started working with him. We went to Newport and did The New Thing with Archie and ’Trane [John Coltrane]. Everything just started blossoming and falling into place.”
In 1964, Hutcherson won the DownBeat magazine readers’ poll as Most Deserving of Wider Recognition on his instrument. While in New York Hutcherson also played with Grachan Moncur III, Charles Tolliver, and Hank Mobley. He also began recording albums as a leader, starting with Dialogue (1965), on which he also played marimba—an instrument he would use periodically on recordings throughout his career. “You’ve got to be aggressive on [marimba], or else it sounds corny,” he told Modern Percussionist. “I can adapt to a lot of situations, maybe because of the way I was brought up, listening a lot. You have to learn how to listen, to understand the different nuances that are contained within a certain thing that creates an attitude. That’s why when you hear a lot of people play music, even though you hear them play a certain style, it doesn’t sound right. They might play all the notes, but the attitude isn’t there. You’ve got to learn how to listen, and then you have to live that style. It has to come from inside. The people who master how to be subtle, how to be ferocious, how to have humility—those are the great players because they understand those emotions within themselves. It’s not just the note; it’s the way that note comes about. Then it’s the space between the notes. Space gives the listener a chance to imagine.”
A year later Hutcherson recorded one of his most popular albums, Stick-up, which included Tyner. He also worked with Gil Fuller’s big band and recorded with Joe Henderson, Lee Morgan, and McCoy Tyner.
In 1967 he returned to the West Coast, where he co-led an influential group with Harold Land until 1971. Among the group’s sidemen were pianists Chick Corea, Joe Sample, and Stanley Cowell, bassist Reggie Johnson, and drummers Joe Chambers and Billy Higgins. Hutcherson and Land also appeared in the 1969 film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? One of their recordings was “Ummh,” a funk shuffle that became a crossover hit in 1970 and that was later sampled by the rapper Ice Cube.
In the early 1970s Hutcherson moved to San Francisco, where he co-led a group with trumpeter Woody Shaw. He also continued leading and recording with his own groups. Most notably, he made an album named after his new home town on which he moved toward the emerging fusion style. A review by Steve Huey stated that, “Bobby Hutcherson’s late-’60s partnership with tenor saxophonist Harold Land always produced soulful results, but not until San Francisco did that translate into a literal flirtation with funk and rock. Hutcherson and Land stake out a warm and engaging middle ground between muscular funk and Coltrane-style modality. The selections often skirt the edges of fusion, but they rarely play it as expected. It’s all done with enough imagination and harmonic sophistication to achieve the rare feat of holding appeal for traditional jazz and rare-groove fans alike. San Francisco is not only one of Hutcherson’s best albums, but also one of his most appealing and accessible.”
By 1973, he returned to modal bop and formed a quintet with trumpeter Woody Shaw. They played at that summer’s Montreux Jazz Festival (documented on Live at Montreux). In 1974, Bobby reunited with Land, and over the next few years he recorded several albums for Blue Note before signing with Columbia, where he recorded three albums from 1978–79, including the popular Un Poco Loco.
In 1981, while mowing his lawn, Hutcherson severed the tip of his right index finger. Although the tip was reattached through microsurgery, the doctor told Bobby that he would be lucky if he ever played again. “He said I wouldn’t be able to feel where I hold the mallet,” Hutcherson recalled. “So I wanted to do something that would be really hard to show my appreciation for my finger being back on.” The result was the album Solo/Quartet. One side featured him playing in a typical quartet setting with McCoy Tyner, Billy Higgins, and Herbie Lewis. But the other side featured Hutcherson by himself, accompanying himself through overdubbing on vibes, marimba, xylophone, bells, chimes, and boobams. “That album was one of the crossroads in my life,” he said.
Later in the 1980s Hutcherson and Harold Land often toured and recorded as part of the Timeless All-Stars, and he and drummer Philly Joe Jones frequently did gigs together. Bobby also recorded with Roy Haynes, Pharoah Sanders, Chico Freeman, and Freddie Hubbard, and he played and acted in the 1986 film Round Midnight with Dexter Gordon and Herbie Hancock. In 1988 he was artist-in-residence at the Monterrey Jazz Festival.
Bobby spent much of the 1990s touring. In 1993, he and McCoy Tyner released the duet album Manhattan Moods. Hutcherson once said that he never had a problem playing with pianists in terms of staying out of each other’s way. “If you’re going to stay out of the way, you shouldn’t be on the bandstand,” he said. “The thing is to get together. It’s all about relating, communication, desire, respect, honesty, and being willing to change—to do something else. Give a little bit; don’t take so much.”
From 2004–07, Hutcherson toured with the original version of the SFJazz Collective. He was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2010. After releasing several albums on the European label Kind of Blue, he returned to Blue Note in 2014 to release what was to be his last album—a soul-jazz recording, Enjoy the View, featuring saxophonist David Sanborn and organist Joey DeFrancesco. Jazz Times magazine called it “a worthy addition to an era-defining discography.”
SELECTED BOBBY HUTCHERSON DISCOGRAPHY
Dialogue (Blue Note, 1965)
Stick-Up! (Blue Note, 1966)
Total Eclipse (Blue Note, 1968) with Harold Land
San Francisco (Blue Note, 1970) with Harold Land
Head On (Blue Note, 1971)
Bobby Hutcherson Live at Montreux (Blue Note, 1973)
Linger Lane (Blue Note, 1974)
Highway One (Columbia 1978)
Un Poco Loco (Columbia 1979)
Solo/Quartet (Contemporary, 1982)
In the Vanguard (Landmark, 1986), recorded live
Skyline (Verve, 1999) with Kenny Garrett and Geri Allen
Wise One (Kind of Blue, 2009) John Coltrane tribute
As a Sideman
With Kenny Barron: Other Places (Verve, 1993)
With Donald Byrd: Ethiopian Knights (Blue Note, 1971)
With George Cables: Cables’ Vision (Contemporary, 1979)
With Joey DeFrancesco: Organic Vibes (Concord, 2006)
With Eric Dolphy: Out to Lunch! (Blue Note, 1964)
With Chico Freeman: Destiny’s Dance (Contemporary, 1981)
With Dexter Gordon: Gettin’ Around (Blue Note, 1964)
With Grant Green: Idle Moments (Blue Note, 1964)
With Herbie Hancock: Round Midnight (Columbia, 1985)
With Roy Haynes: Thank You Thank You (Galaxy, 1977)
With Joe Henderson: Mode for Joe (Blue Note, 1966)
With Barney Kessel: Feeling Free (Contemporary, 1969)
With Jackie McLean: One Step Beyond (Blue Note, 1963)
With Lee Morgan: The Procrastinator (Blue Note, 1967)
With Sonny Rollins: No Problem (Milestone, 1981)
With Pharoah Sanders: Rejoice (Theresa, 1981)
With SFJAZZ Collective: SFJAZZ Collective (Nonesuch, 2005)
With Woody Shaw: Night Music (Elektra/Musician, 1982)
With Archie Shepp: New Thing at Newport (Impulse!, 1965)
With Timeless All Stars: It’s Timeless (Timeless, 1982) recorded live at Keystone Korner
With McCoy Tyner: Time for Tyner (Blue Note, 1967); Quartets 4 X 4 (Milestone, 1980)
With Tony Williams: Life Time (Blue Note, 1964); Foreign Intrigue (Capitol, 1985)
With Gerald Wilson: Eternal Equinox (World Pacific, 1969)