JOHN STUBBLEFIELD was a remarkably gifted tenor and soprano saxophonist, a really original voice, and a decidedly singular individual. I remember being introduced to him at the Village Gate for a one-off orchestral gig by my dear friend Julius Hemphill.
Very tongue and cheek, John came by my table and kidded around with guitarist Jack Wilkins, quipping how he hoped he’d be able to make himself heard over the massed polyphonic array of reeds and brass.
Smirking coyly as Stubblefield sauntered away, Jack rolled his eyes and laughed: “Make himself heard,” he laughed. “You could hear him in Chicago.”
[John Stubblefield launches into his earthy tenor showcase on “At Harmony” solo at approximately 5:20 in, following a dramatic alto improvisation by composer-arranger Julius Hemphill, with preceding solos by Marty Ehrlich on soprano and Frank Lacy on trombone; Ronnie Burrage is the drummer, Jerome Harris on Steinberger Bass, while two major voices on the electric guitar carry the underlying harmony–Jack Wilkins and Bill Frisell.]
Jerome Harris, a wonderful guitarist and bass guitarist, was the bassist on that gig–and a good friend as well. We had scheduled a hang at my crib for some playing and to scope out some gear, and at the conclusion of our session, he mentioned to me that he was going to visit John in the hospital. I was disturbed to hear of John’s illness, and offered to tag along.
When we got to the hospital John was in good spirits and extraordinarily welcoming to me, considering how sick he was and how relatively flimsy was our personal connection. From that visit I took away a profound sense of his warmth, his humor and his extensive knowledge of American musical history, as he schooled me on all manner of things pre-jazz in the development of our collective folk roots in blues and spirituals.
On a more personal note, I recall his meat loaf. Come again? Jerome and I had arrived about dinner time, and for whatever reason, John immediately offered to share his dinner with me. In fact, he insisted. Now I am not a lad who has missed many meals in this lifetime, in fact Beaver Harris once exclaimed as we hiked crosstown: “Damn, Chip, how do you ever gain any weight as hard as you walk?” BEAVER, HAVE YOU EVER SEEN ME EAT?
In any event, perhaps Stubbs took notice of my pulchritudinous form and deduced that I was missing out on feeding time at the zoo. More likely, it said something about his spirit as a jazz musician, which is of course all about give and take and SHARING…yet on a deeper level, I could at that time reference how on several occasions, during taxi fleet shape-ups, West African brothers–total strangers–insisted on sharing their food with me.
Something to do with their culture. Something to do with their humanity. I mean, what could possibly be a more engaging act of the heart, than to share your bounty with another…let alone a stranger.
I attempted to beg off, but John would hear none of it, and was already partitioning off my portion when the nurse came in, and he charmed her into bringing back a whole additional meal “for my friend, here.”
So when, in marking the 10th anniversary of his passing, I began receiving e-mails, thanking me for my miniscule part in supporting John in his hour of need (at what now seems like a lifetime ago), I was taken back to the warmth and kindness and good humor of a friend in strife, now a friend for life (and on into the next).
And in reading remembrances by people who knew John Stubblefield so much better than did I, I can’t help noticing that references to his epic musicianship as a leader, and as a vital cog in the ensembles of Kenny Barron and the Charles Mingus Big Band, seemingly go without saying.
Yet no one goes away without commenting as to what. in the parlance of my own tribe, a MENSCH John Stubblefield was. And how his spirit continues to abide in his family and those friends whose lives he continues to touch.
Which goes a long way towards explaining how, with the recent passing of such friends and mentors as Clark Terry, Bob Belden and Ornette Coleman, jazz inspires and continues to endure in my heart and that of so many friends and strangers alike.
Thanks for reaching out as a brother, John Stubblefield, to me, as you did to so many in a lifetime all too short, but so very richly lived.