Yesterday, jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard died, after suffering a heart attack in November. He was 70 years old. He may never have commanded the sort of adulation reserved for contemporaries like Miles Davis or John Coltrane (who, along with pianist McCoy Tyner and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, was one of Hubbard’s more frequent collaborators), and maybe that’s because for the bulk of his latter-day career, his focus was less on the groundbreaking hard-bop that made him a jazz star to begin with – more on easier-to-digest commercial jazz.

But while it’s not uncommon for people to speak reverently of records like Kind of Blue and A Love Supreme as the records that introduced them to jazz, Freddie Hubbard was actually my gateway drug to the great jazz records of the 50s and 60s and into the early 70s when it started to converge volcanically with funk. It was a chance meeting really. We were garage sale-ing once Saturday morning about 6 years ago, and at one house, I’d found bins full of records – mostly jazz records that I’d never heard of – that were so lovingly and pristinely kept that even though I’d never heard any of the music, I felt an impulse to rescue them from the grubby, unappreciative hands of my fellow garage sale shoppers. Sadly, even at the ungodly – immoral, even – 50 cent asking price, I couldn’t take them all home with me, and so, I was left judging jazz by the cover art.

One of the most striking was a record called Straight Life, which came in a lavish, glossy gatefold with collaged photographs of the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline. It was an obvious pick, and a fortuitous one. I couldn’t wait to hear it, and when I did, it made me greedy for more. I’ll admit that much of jazz still goes over my head, but for whatever appreciation I have for jazz now, I owe Freddie Hubbard, and specifically his “Straight Life” record, big.

Released in 1970 on the CTI label, Straight Life is as sprawling and busy, as exciting and scary and wonderful, as new and challenging as any metropolis. From the first high trilling notes – a fanfare as iconic as the statue on the cover – the sidelong title track, with its infinitely busy melody and its motoring beats, evokes the freedom, the liberating (and terrifying) hugeness of the city’s boundless possibilities. For this Wisconsin bumpkin, who’d never been to New York City, it was a teleportive experience:

It’s the sound of constantly moving forward in a crowd of people, the sound of an airport the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the sound of people walking their dogs in the park, the sound of bumper-to-bumper traffic at 6:30 in the morning, the sound of people laughing while leaving the office for lunch on a Friday. It’s bright neon. Electric. It’s motors idling, and exhaust pipes spewing filth into the sky. It’s assembly lines, and seminars, and spontaneous softball games in the middle of city streets.

It moves. It hustles. It takes off like an airplane, and as you fly with it, you can see the bustle and the urban boogie-woogie below and you love this flight for showing you something that you never might have seen otherwise: life. Shuffling, dancing, driving, working, moving, moving, and moving below you. The pieces get smaller the higher you go – the people, the cars, the buildings, the land – but the picture gets bigger and bigger until you can no longer tell where the canvas stops. And then as you descend back to the earth, the dots become houses, and the lines become roads, and the ants become cars and trucks chugging along, and that colorful, noisy grid below turns back into a city, and you’re part of it.

This sound is as tall as a skyscraper, and as funky as three day old trash in a battle-worn dumpster in some back alley.

The middle track, Weldon Irvine’s “Mr. Clean” is like a working-class kid without a dime to his name, all dressed up in duds you know he can’t afford, and doused with his dad’s Old Spice, ready for a secret night out with his boss’s daughter. The beat is cocky, the horns are tight, and the all-star soloists (Joe Henderson on sax; Herbie Hancock on electric piano; George Benson on guitar) are up to no good (in the best possible way).

On album-closer “Here’s That Rainy Day”, Hubbard takes the spotlight with a magnificently torchy solo, with only the barest accompaniment from George Benson whose guitar here is like a warm mist on a city street after the bars have closed, but before the alarm clocks have started waking the city out of its night’s slumber. If “Mr. Clean” is getting dolled up for the date, “Rainy Day” is the lonely walk home afterward. Toward the end, Hubbard goes “a capella” and you can almost hear the sound bouncing off the damp, dirty bricks of darkened apartment buildings.

Coming at a pivotal moment in Hubbard’s career, Straight Life marks the convergence of Hubbard’s more “out there” work of the 60s with the more commercial impulses he would indulge for the next couple of decades, and in that sense, along with the contemporaneous (and somewhat better known) Red Clay, it’s the best of both Hubbards. The sound of Straight Life owes as much to its hard-bop roots as it does to fledgling funkers like Sly & the Family Stone, Kool & the Gang, and Funkadelic, along with the psychedelic blues wrought by Hendrix, Joplin, and Clapton. The sound of “Straight Life” is very much the sound of its time, a riveting encapsulation of the energy of the Nixon-Vietnam era; but that sound is also timeless, as exhilarating and fresh today, and even more poignant post 9-11.

“Straight Life” is a jazz national anthem, and one of the great unsung masterpieces of jazz. And Freddie Hubbard is one of the great unsung heroes. He’s certainly my hero, and by connecting dots and degrees of separation, he’s led me to other sounds I might not have chanced upon otherwise.