Bobby Hutcherson obituary

Influential jazz vibraphonist admired for his eloquent improvisations

On what would prove to be the last occasion he appeared in London, half a dozen years ago, the American vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson left his audience at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club spellbound with a performance that demonstrated the eloquence of his improvisations on ballads. Every now and then, however, as the echoes of tunes such as For Sentimental Reasons and Nancy (With the Laughing Face) hung elegantly in the air, he would slip off stage to inhale from an oxygen cylinder to counter the emphysema that would shortly put an end to his public appearances.

Hutcherson, who has died aged 75, was one of the most important vibraphonists in the history of jazz. A prodigy who was already taking the stage with first-rank musicians in his native California at the age of 15, he spent his early 20s in New York, where he was quickly accepted into the Blue Note label’s distinguished repertory company, establishing his reputation on recordings alongside the saxophonists Jackie McLean and Eric Dolphy, the guitarist Grant Green, the pianists Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner and Andrew Hill, and others.

His dark, ringing tone added an emotional charge to any session and the degree of melodic and harmonic sophistication inherent in his improvisations made it hard to believe that he was almost entirely self-taught. If that supreme artistry with a ballad was a late-flowering facet of his talent, then a certain lyricism had always been implicit in his playing, even in the more austere and challenging environment of the 1960s, when the music was characterised by strategic dissonance and asymmetry.

He was born in Pasadena to Eli, a stonemason, and Esther (nee Folke), a hairdresser. Thanks to his older siblings, there was always music around the house: his brother, Teddy, had been a high-school classmate of the saxophonist Dexter Gordon; and his sister, Peggy, was a singer who eventually joined Ray Charles’s Raelettes. Encouraged by his schoolfriend Herbie Lewis, who was on his way to becoming a distinguished bassist, and inspired by the playing of Milt Jackson on a Miles Davis album, Hutcherson saved money from a summer job with his father to buy a vibraphone, his only previous practical experience of music having come via a handful of piano lessons.

He and Lewis rehearsed in a garage, their band soon landing a regular engagement at a Sunset Strip club called Pandora’s Box. The garage gradually became a rendezvous for musicians to jam, although the band’s progress was hindered when white classmates from their recently desegregated high school set fire to it, destroying their instruments.

While still in his teens, Hutcherson demonstrated his precocity on recordings with the pianist Les McCann and the saxophonist Curtis Amy. Soon the trombonist Al Grey, a former member of Count Basie’s band, asked him to join the quintet he co-led with the saxophonist Billy Mitchell. A two-week engagement in San Francisco eventually led to a trip to New York, where Hutcherson decided to stay in order to test himself against the stiffest competition in the jazz world.

Through the trombonist Grachan Moncur III he landed a gig with the quintet of McLean, which included the 16-year-old drummer Tony Williams, soon to become famous with Miles Davis. Between 1963 and 1965, while sometimes driving a cab to supplement his income, Hutcherson appeared on McLean’s One Step Beyond and Destination … Out, Moncur’s Evolution, Dolphy’s Out to Lunch and Hill’s Judgment, all albums that mapped new territory for jazz. His own early Blue Note recordings, Dialogue and Components, demonstrated a generous willingness to favour the work of composers whose writing he admired, such as Hill and the drummer Joe Chambers, over his own well-turned compositions.

In 1965, with the saxophonist Archie Shepp’s group, he made his first appearance at the Newport jazz festival. It was already apparent that he had taken a place in the lineage of the vibraphone after Lionel Hampton, who introduced the instrument to jazz in the 30s, and Jackson, a master of bebop techniques whose sound became the defining element of the immensely popular Modern Jazz Quartet.

A minor drug infringement in 1967, and the consequent withdrawal of his police permit to work in New York nightclubs, led Hutcherson to return to California, where he would be based for the rest of his life. In 1969 he appeared as a bandleader in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Sydney Pollack’s film about dance marathons in the Depression. There was a featured role for him, alongside Dexter Gordon, in Round Midnight, Bertrand Tavernier’s 1986 film about expatriate American jazz musicians in Paris.

He continued to record for a variety of labels and appeared alongside his friend Harold Land, the saxophonist, in a band called the Timeless All Stars. In 1970 the success of his jazz-funk tune Ummh enabled him to buy an acre of land 20 miles south of San Francisco, on which he built a house for his family. From 2004 to 2008 he was a member of the SF Jazz Collective, whose younger musicians, including the trumpeter Nicholas Payton and the saxophonist Joshua Redman, valued the company of an elder of such charm, wisdom and manifest integrity. His influence can be heard in the playing of many younger exponents of the vibraphone, such as Stefon Harris, Warren Wolf and Lewis Wright.

He was married first, in 1960, to Beth Buford, whom he met in high school and with whom he had a son, Barry. The marriage ended in divorce. In 1972 he married Rosemary Zuniga, with whom he had another son, Teddy. Rosemary and his sons survive him.

Robert Hutcherson, vibraphonist and bandleader, born 17 January 1941; died 15 August 2016


Richard Williams

The GuardianTramp

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