Bobby Hutcherson is easily one of the most important vibraphonists of the twentieth century, an artist who really opened a new era for this instrument. Coming into his own in the sixties, Hutcherson helped modernize his instrument by bringing it into the world of hard bop and avant-garde jazz, with all the associated technical and harmonic challenges. He was able to use his instrument to navigate advanced harmony—you didn’t see that in vibraphone before he came on the scene. He was the first one to play on avant-garde tunes like Eric Dolphy’s “Hat and Beard” and other tunes with non-tertian harmony.
Hutcherson was in the trenches with Joe Henderson, Richard Davis, Eric Dolphy, McCoy Tyner, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams—all the young lions of the hard bop and avant-garde movement in jazz. He was the in-demand vibraphonist on their sessions, and contributed some pretty great tunes to the mix as well. “Little B’s Poem” is one of my favourites.
In the 70s, he flirted with some fusion and “pop” jazz, a reasonable attempt to enter the mainstream and make some money, but his heart and talent really flourished in the more complex, cerebral music that came out of the Coltrane era, and he soon migrated back to that music, even though audiences were waning.
Hutcherson remained active as both leader and sideman throughout his long career, performing and recording with some of the biggest names in the hard bop/avant-garde camp. In the last dozen years alone, he performed and toured with the SFJAZZ Collective, and released four albums.
Perhaps as important as his contributions as a performer and recording artist is his impressive legacy as a champion of this instrument. I see Joe Locke and Steve Nelson as his immediate successors, with new generations of vibes players like Stefon Harris and now Warren Wolf continuing to show the range and potential of the vibes.
Bobby Hutcherson was 75 when he died at his home in California this past August.