Legendary Vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson Dead At 75
One of jazz’s greatest improvisers has taken his last bow, as vibraphonist Bobby Hutchinson died on Monday, August 15, at his home in Montara on the San Mateo coast. He was only 75-year-sold and had continued bouts with emphysema for many years. The man who performed and recorded with Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, Cedar Walton and Billy Higgins played with enormous, almost empathetic feeling, grit, fire and grace. Over the course of his prolific 55 year career, Bobby Hutcherson, who was also a 2010 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, created beautiful, timeless sounds through the vibraphone, a metal-and-wood percussion instrument used for novelty effect until Lionel Hampton made it the in-thing in the 1930s.
We have Hampton and Milt Jackson to thank for inspiring a 12-year-old kid from Pasadena, California to take up the vibraphone, expand its range and make an instrument many overlooked sing with a warmth never to be duplicated again. Throughout the 1960s, Hutcherson created original music with Herbie Hancock, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and Eric Dolphy, as a part of a brilliant group of young players then-associated with Blue Note Records. Earthy, yet otherworldly, Bobby Hutcherson played with a ferocity that was uncommon in those days, but he was able to make that vibraphone sing with the tenderness of a lovesick dove.
Whether it was “I Loves You Porgy” from his 1994 duet recording or “Manhattan Moods,” Bobby Hutcherson proved to be one of the most consummate musicians gifted in jazz improvisation. “A very honest person,” Sonny Rollins said, “like [Thelonious] Monk was. Bobby couldn’t play the way he did without that honesty. Born as the son of a mason (his father) and a hairdresser (his mother), Hutcherson was able to create a life for his family thanks to the royalty check from his 1970 hit, “Ummh,” which still runs circles around what’s out today. His sister worked as a Ray Charles Raylette, while his older brother worked as a bricklaying jazz fan who would listen to records with Dexter Gordon.
Hutcherson had many jobs before flying high as a jazz artist. He baked and sold his own cookies, he drove a cab, and he was still able to connect with other creative musicians to help expand the language of jazz, performing as a sideman and leader with Blue Note. When he and his first wife, Beth Buford, had their first son, Barry, Hutcherson wrote the classic jazz waltz, “Little B’s Poem” for him, which became one of his first hits. Bobby eventually left New York to Los Angeles, forming a band with Harold Land and settled on Montara, where he would grow dahlias and tulips. He could be persuaded to perform at benefits for musicians in need, but his style will be one that — like the wind — cannot be controlled but will be forever missed.
Bobby Hutcherson, 75, is survived by his second wife Rosemary Zuniga, sons Teddy, and Barry of Half Moon Bay, and two grandchildren. Memorial services are still pending.