Bobby Hutcherson, a vibraphonist whose far-reaching, harmonically daring recordings in the 1960s made him one of the most influential jazz musicians on his instrument, died Aug. 15 at his home in Montara, Calif. He was 75.
His death was confirmed by Marshall Lamm, a spokesman for SFJazz, a San Francisco-based jazz organization with which Mr. Hutcherson had a long association. The cause was emphysema.
In a career spanning more than five decades, Mr. Hutcherson combined the edgy, dissonant sounds of modern jazz with a graceful, melodic warmth. He appeared on dozens of albums as a leader, often featuring his own compositions, and in 2010 was designated a jazz master by the National Endowment for the Arts.
He was 12 when he was captivated by the sound of the vibraphone: As he walked past a music store, he often recalled, he heard a recording of Milt Jackson playing a solo on Thelonious Monk’s “Bemsha Swing.”
Mr. Hutcherson was largely self-taught on the vibraphone, an unwieldy instrument similar to a xylophone. Tuned metal bars, arranged like a piano keyboard, are struck with yarn-covered mallets, producing a resonant, ringing sound.
Mr. Hutcherson developed a fleet, harmonically advanced style of playing by the time he recorded his debut album, “The Kicker,” in 1963. He was recognized as one of the major innovators on the vibraphone, along with Jackson, Red Norvo, Lionel Hampton and Gary Burton.
“In person, Hutcherson’s mallets slash through the air above his instrument like action painter Jackson Pollock’s hands dripping paint above a canvas,” music critic Dirk Sutro wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 1991. “He possesses blinding speed, mature, sensitive use of dynamics, an ear for gentle lyricism and the confidence to repeat notes and phrases over and over with subtle variations that wring out the maximum emotional impact.”
Recording for Blue Note Records from 1963 to 1977, Mr. Hutcherson moved from hard-bop jazz to a freer styles, including experiments with fusion and electronic music. Many major musicians appeared on his albums, such as pianists Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and saxophonist Joe Henderson.
Several of his compositions, particularly the ballads “Little B’s Poem” (written for his son) from the 1965 album “Components” and “Summer Nights” from the 1966 album “Stick-Up!,” have become jazz standards.
In addition to his own albums, Mr. Hutcherson was a sideman on many landmark recordings by other musicians, such as saxophonist Jackie McLean’s “One Step Beyond” (1963), guitarist Grant Green’s “Idle Moments” (1963) and multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy’s “Out to Lunch” (1964).
Mr. Hutcherson may have had his greatest exposure in 1986, when he appeared in French director Bertrand Tavernier’s jazz film, “Round Midnight.”
“You don’t play this music to get rich,” he told the website AllAboutJazz.com. “You play it for the thrill of playing another note. And after that note, the next note and after that, the next.”
Robert Hutcherson was born Jan. 27, 1941, in Los Angeles. His father was a brick mason, his mother a hairdresser. An older sister was a singer who worked with Ray Charles.
As he struggled to learn the vibraphone, Mr. Hutcherson wrote numbers on the metal bars as a guide. Just before his musical debut, he recalled in a 2009 NEA interview, his mother said, “Oh, and Bobby, by the way, I saw a bunch of black stuff all over your bars, so I took a wet towel and I wiped it off.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Hutcherson soon mastered the instrument and became a part of New York’s thriving jazz scene in 1960. After an arrest in 1967 for buying marijuana — which caused him to lose the cabaret card needed to play in jazz clubs — he returned to California and spent the rest of his life there. He became a key member of a touring group, the SFJazz Collective, which included such star musicians as saxophonist Joshua Redman and trumpeter Nicholas Payton.
Mr. Hutcherson continued to release well-received albums into his 70s, including “For Sentimental Reasons” (2007), “Wise One” (2009) and a final session for Blue Note, “Enjoy the View” (2014), with organist Joey DeFrancesco and saxophonist David Sanborn.
His first marriage, to Beth Buford, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 44 years, the former Rosemary Zuniga of Montara; a son from his first marriage, drummer Barry Hutcherson — the “Little B” of Mr. Hutcherson’s best-known tune — and a son from his second marriage, Teddy Hutcherson, both of Montara; and two grandchildren.
In his 2009 NEA interview, Mr. Hutcherson recalled one of his first appearances at New York’s Birdland jazz club. The club’s diminutive master of ceremonies, Pee Wee Marquette, knocked on the dressing room door.
“I opened the door,” Mr. Hutcherson said, “and he had this big cigar in his mouth and he blew a bunch of smoke in my face, and he said, ‘Hey, Papa, you got something for me?’ And I knew he was waiting for some money, so I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ ”
That night, Marquette deliberately mangled Mr. Hutcherson’s name, introducing him as “Bubba Hutchkins on vibes.”
The next night, when Marquette came around, Mr. Hutcherson’s bandleader, trombonist Al Grey, said, “Give him $5. You’ll see the difference.”
“So I hand him $5,” Mr. Hutcherson said, “and Pee Wee said ‘Thank you, Papa,’ and slams the door and walks off.”
The next night, Marquette got his name right.
“See what $5 does?” Grey told Mr. Hutcherson. “Now everybody knows what your name is.”