Remembering Bobby Hutcherson

photo by Brian McMillen

Like so many listeners, I first discovered the brilliance and originality of vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson though “Out to Lunch,” the 1964 album by alto saxophonist, flutist and bass clarinetist Eric Dolphy, which remains among my favorites.
Through the years, I’ve come to appreciate the breadth, depth and intensity of Hutcherson’s work through several decades and in many contexts.
I was saddened to learn of Hutcherson’s death on Monday, at 75, at his home in Montara, California. Hutcherson had long suffered from emphysema. The last time I heard him perform, at an NEA Jazz Masters ceremony, he had to be helped to the stage and was breathing with the aid of an oxygen tank up until the moment he took the stage. But once at his his instrument, he was relaxed and, in moments, ferocious, in the way that only he could be on his chosen instrument.
Nate Chinen got it just right in the obituary he filed in The New York Times, in describing Hutcherson’s distinction:

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.

That obit is worthy reading, not just to honor a bold and softspoken jazz hero, but because it is filled with touching details: how a young Hutcherson heard a recording by Milt Jackson booming from a record store and “was hooked”; and how, in the early 1960s, after coming to New York City with a band that soon broke up, Hutcherson stayed on, drove a taxi, and kept his vibes stashed in the trunk.
And it closes with this lovely quote:

“Eric Dolphy said music is like the wind,” he told The San Francisco Chronicle in 2012. “You don’t know where it came from, and you don’t know where it went. You can’t control it. All you can do is get inside the sphere of it and be swept away.”

He released more than 40 albums and appeared on many more, including some regarded as classics, like “Out to Lunch,” by the alto saxophonist, flutist and bass clarinetist Eric Dolphy, and “Mode for Joe,” by the tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson.

Bobby Hutcherson, one of the most admired and accomplished vibraphonists in jazz, died on Monday at his home in Montara, Calif. He was 75.

Marshall Lamm, a spokesman for Mr. Hutcherson’s family, confirmed the death, saying Mr. Hutcherson had long been treated for emphysema.

Speaking in recent years, Mr. Hutcherson was fond of citing a bit of insight from an old friend.

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