Hubbard can't overcome old wound

Jazzman suffers a musician's worst nightmare

"It's a pleasure to be here," the doomed trumpet man Freddie Hubbard said on a night not long ago when he celebrated his 70th birthday. "Glad I'm alive," he said with a furtive smile.

At this, the people who filled all the seats at Catalina's Bar and Grill in Hollywood saluted the beloved headliner with a round of applause and cries of "yeah!" This seemed to cheer him up.

Hubbard has suffered the brassman's worst nightmare: He lost his chops.

A blister or callous had formed on his upper lip in 1992 and underwent surgery. But his embouchure did not return, and the great Hub -- the gent who stood shoulder to shoulder in the studios with such people as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, George Benson, Milt Jackson, Keith Jarrett, Hubert Laws and Jack De Johnette, who shared recording mikes with Herbie Hancock, Oliver Nelson, Joe Henderson, Eric Dolphy, Andrew Hill, Bobby Hutcherson, Sam Rivers and Wayne Shorter -- suddenly couldn't play.

The fiery virtuoso then went to work to get his lip back. But the going has been unbearably slow. Sixteen years have elapsed, and on this night Hubbard took the stage in a shirt missing two cufflinks and trousers that didn't match his jacket. He began to conduct a little band of badass mates in a driving jazz waltz called "Blue Spirits."

The gentlemen of the ensemble were soon smoking, or at least being red hot.

The warm-hearted woodwind player James Spaulding, who started out touring with Sun Ra and Randy Weston, took a couple of abundantly detailed and architecturally exemplary choruses on flute; Craig Handy, the son of the pioneering alto man John Handy, showed that he knows himself how to make his way along the reed forefront; the great Slide Hampton played his trombone as if it had more keys than a saxophone; and George Cables deployed the blues-based beauty he nurtured during his years at the piano with Dexter Gordon, Art Pepper and Sonny Rollins.

But Hubbard did not play the lead part of the arrangement. Instead, a highly educated young New York trumpeter named David Weiss, founder of the New Jazz Composers Octet, was reading it. It was Weiss who got Hubbard back onstage when the hours and days of seemingly fruitless practice had gotten him down.

"He called me out of the blue and said, 'C'mon, Freddie, you've got to play some more,' " Hubbard recalled. "I call him my baby. He brought me back to work. "

Backed by Weiss' octet, Hubbard recorded several of his classic tunes on a disc called "New Colors," but his formerly killer output, while highly praised, did not result in any fatalities.

On this night, after Weiss and his fellow neo-geniuses finished, Hubbard picked up his flugelhorn, and a strange emotional twilight began to fall.

The first note you heard was a couple of steps too high, the second was closer to the expected pitch but lacked the burnished compelling throb of the young firebrand. And then came a long, long note, as he tried for a couple of bars to get his sound to behave.

Soon the rich complex phrases of old could be detected, but they were dusty and distant. The knife-edge mind was creating, all right, but the battered septuagenarian lips could not obey.

Every so often the man once considered the successor to Miles Davis whipped his horn down to his side and uttered a cry of frustration. He seemed to know it wasn't working any more.

So in this dark twilight moment, the doom of his listeners became apparent. Like the fallen artist, their hearts were starting to feel broken.