Obituary: Bobby Hutcherson, jazz musician

Bobby Hutcherson, the bricklayer's son who became one of the greatest, most inventive jazz vibraphonists to pick up a pair of mallets, has died at the age of 75.

Bobby Hutcherson, jazz vibraphonist. Picture: NYT
Bobby Hutcherson, jazz vibraphonist. Picture: NYT

Hutcherson died on Monday at his family home in Montara, a small seaside community south of San Francisco. The cause was complications related to emphysema, longtime family friend Marshall Lamm said.

Best known for his post-bop recordings for Blue Note Records in the 1960s and 70s, Hutcherson played with a litany of jazz greats as both bandleader and sideman during a career spanning more than 50 years.

Among them were Herbie Hancock, Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner and Dexter Gordon, the latter a childhood friend.

“Bobby was a happy soul, a great musician, and I’ll be looking for him in the afterlife,” Rollins said.

When Enjoy the View, the last of his more than 40 albums as a leader, was released by Blue Note in 2014, JazzTimes magazine declared it “a worthy addition to an era-defining discography.”

Among Hutcherson’s last performances was a four-night run of shows two years ago at San Francisco’s SFJazz Center.

Noted for an eclectic approach that was at once colourful, powerful and also cool and melodic, Hutcherson came of age musically as jazz was moving into a cerebral, more avant-garde era that matched his playing.

He was one of the first vibraphonists to use four mallets. He could fill the role of a pianist in terms of melody and harmony and also play percussively with a driving rhythmic attack.

“What’s fun about the instrument is you can see the note being attacked, whereas on a horn you don’t really get to see the fingers move that much to the note,” he said in a 2009 interview for the National Endowment for the Arts. “But on a vibraphone, you see the mallet come up and you see it being attacked.”

Robert Hutcherson was born on 17 January 1941 in Los Angeles and raised in the nearby suburb of Pasadena.

He studied piano as a child but switched to vibraphone after hearing Milt Jackson play the instrument on a recording of Thelonious Monk’s Bemsha Swing.

Captivated by the sound, he recalled spending the summer working for his bricklayer father so he could save enough money to buy his own vibraphone.

As soon as he acquired it, jazz bass player Herbie Lewis, a junior high school buddy, allowed him to join his band and almost immediately got the group a small local gig. Unfortunately, Hutcherson hadn’t yet had time to learn to play his instrument.

“He said: ‘Don’t worry. We’ll take a black felt pen and write down on each bar which note to hit next’,” Hutcherson told JazzTimes in 2014.

Just before he was to go on, however, a stage manager erased all the marks.

“Well, I hit the first note; I remembered that. But from the second note on it was complete chaos. You never heard people boo and laugh like that.”

Afterward his father told him he wanted his son to become a bricklayer anyway.

Within a few years, however, Hutcherson was playing in an ensemble co-led by saxophonist Billy Mitchell and trombonist Al Grey, appearing at New York City’s fabled Birdland and other clubs.

He moved to New York and joined saxophonist Jackie McLean’s band, which led to his first recording for Blue Note in 1963 as a sideman on McLean’s album One Step Beyond.

Later that year, he had his first recording session as a leader for Blue Note, but the album The Kicker wasn’t released until 1999. His debut recording as a bandleader on Blue Note, Dialogue, was released in 1965.

After being arrested for marijuana possession in 1967, Hutcherson returned to California where he formed a long-time relationship with tenor saxophonist Harold Land. Their funky Ummh became a crossover hit in 1970 and was later sampled on Ice Cube’s Ghetto Bird.

He had a prolific recording career with Blue Note between 1963 and 1977, appearing on such classic albums as avant-garde saxophonist Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch and saxophonist Joe Henderson’s Mode for Joe.

He also appeared with Hancock, Gordon and others in the Oscar-winning 1986 jazz film Round Midnight.

“I remember when he first came on the jazz scene in New York in the early 60s a young Bobby with a whole new approach to playing the vibraphone,” Hancock said. “Throughout the years his playing and his compositions have continued to be exciting and brilliant. Bobby always had a positive attitude towards everyone and everything.”

Hutcherson is survived by his wife, Rosemary, and sons Teddy and Barry, the latter a jazz drummer.