John Stubblefield (February 4, 1945 – July 4, 2005)
John Stubblefield was one of the most highly respected jazz saxophonists of his
generation. He played with legendary musicians across the jazz spectrum and left
a legacy of quality studio work over more than three decades as a bandleader,
studio musician, and go-to saxophonist for live performances and tours. He was
inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame posthumously in 2007.
John Stubblefield was born on February 4, 1945, in Little Rock (Pulaski County),
one of two children of John and Mabel Stubblefield. His father served in the U.S.
Navy during World War II but was injured and discharged; back in Little Rock, he
worked as a laborer, machinist, and painter while passing his love of music along
to his son.
Stubblefield began studying piano after becoming interested in music while
attending his church with his mother. She later discouraged his transition to
saxophone and involvement with jazz, rhythm and blues (R&B), and other forms
of what she called devil’s music. His first professional work came playing at clubs
in the predominately black Ninth Street area in Little Rock, often sitting in with
blues, R&B, and jazz musicians passing through town. Stubblefield’s first
recording credit came at age seventeen with the R&B group York Wilburn & the
Thrillers. He next spent a year on the road with soul singer Solomon Burke before
enrolling at what is now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB) to study
music. While there, he led a jazz combo and established his pattern of playing
with many musicians in a variety of styles, from gospel to modern jazz. He
received his BS in music in 1967.
Stubblefield relocated to Chicago, Illinois, and joined the avant-garde jazz
collective the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). A
year later, he played on Joseph Jarman’s album As If It Were the Seasons.
Stubblefield studied with AACM co-founder Muhal Richard Abrams and the
accomplished be-bop and hard bop saxophonist George Coleman Jr. While in
Chicago, Stubblefield taught music in public schools and at the AACM School of
Music. Stubblefield also continued his academic music training at Vandercook
College in Chicago and at the University of Indiana in Bloomington.
Stubblefield moved to New York City in 1971, where he continued his work in the
modern and avant-garde jazz scenes. He played with Charles Mingus soon after
arriving in the city, but after a falling out, Mingus used his influence to make it
difficult for Stubblefield to find work for a time. Over the next decade,
Stubblefield played alongside such jazz giants as Miles Davis, Gil Evans, and
fellow AACM alumnus Lester Bowie on international tours and at major festivals
including the Montreux Jazz Festival. Stubblefield recorded at New York’s Town
Hall with another former member of AACM, free jazz innovator Anthony
Braxton. He also played with legendary Latin jazz performer and band leader Tito
Puente, as well as Kenny Baron, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, and the World
Stubblefield’s first album as a band leader was Prelude, recorded in 1976. Before
joining the Mingus Big Band, Stubblefield went on to record several other albums
as a band leader, including Midnight over Memphis (1979), Midnight Sun (1980),
Confessin’ (1985), Bushman Song (1986), Countin’ on the Blues (1987),
Sophisticatedfunk (1990), and Morning Song (1995). Stubblefield also taught
music and participated as an instructor in the Jazzmobile program, a pioneering
jazz education organization established in New York City in 1964.
Stubblefield was inducted into the Arkansas Jazz Hall of Fame in 1998.
Stubblefield was described by fellow musicians to be a “preacher” as a soloist
because of his deeply emotional style. Although his main instrument was tenor
saxophone, he was also a respected soprano saxophonist. Stubblefield was sought
after by traditional jazz, avant-garde, and big band groups.
Stubblefield was instrumental in preserving the legacy of renowned bassist and
composer Charles Mingus, despite their professional differences earlier in his
career. After Mingus’s death, his widow, Sue Mingus, founded a big band in
Mingus’s honor. Stubblefield led the Mingus Big Band for over thirteen years and
was one of the only members who had actually played with Mingus. He proved to
be a dedicated band leader and steward of the Mingus legacy, once leaving his
hospital bed toward the end of his life to conduct the band from his wheelchair to
record three of his arrangements for the album I Am Three in October 2004.
Stubblefield died of prostate cancer on July 4, 2005. President Bill Clinton was
among the many friends, fellow musicians, and fans who visited him in the
hospital before his death. His memorial service at St. Peter’s Church at 54th
Street and Lexington in New York City was attended by scores of musicians and
included three hours of musical tributes. Stubblefield was survived by his wife,
Katherine Gogel, of Massachusetts and his son, John Stubblefield V.
Joshua Cobbs Youngblood
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas