Fresno Beehive

How to remember Fresno State’s Brad Hufft? Try a drink and a song

Brad Hufft and wife Ellie Choate.
Brad Hufft and wife Ellie Choate. Provided by Ellie Choate

Brad Hufft was a man of many talents. What else can you say about someone who wrote a piece of contemporary art music for wind quintet and invented a local favorite drink consisting of a homemade sweet and sour mix, vodka, sugar on the rim and a float of Spanish champagne?

The piece was called “A Traveller’s Tale” and the drink a Stockholm 75, and both attracted fans in the Fresno area and beyond. Hufft was comfortable wearing different hats. He shifted easily from rock musician, band manager, concert promoter, bartender and restaurant owner to the tonier world of higher education as a music professor and composer at Fresno State.

Hufft, 59, died April 12 near his home in Coarsegold. The musician and teacher, who was found in his car, is suspected to have died from natural causes, either an aneurysm or stroke, said his wife, Ellie Choate. The Madera County Coroner’s Office had not released a report at presstime.

He was just a few weeks from his 60th birthday.

Hufft reconnected six years ago with Choate, whom he first met when he was in eighth grade and she in seventh grade at Ahwahnee Middle School. At the time of his death they had been married for four years.

“I waited my whole life for him,” says Choate, a noted harpist who divides her time between Coarsegold and the Los Angeles area.

For proof of his versatile career, look at the mark Hufft made in two very different worlds: the local restaurant scene; and the local music scene. As a bartender at the former Daily Planet restaurant, “he knew everyone in town,” Choate says. He went on to open two restaurants named Brix, one at North Pointe and the other in the Tower District. Customers there could order a Stockholm 75, a variation on an old French recipe, or if they wanted to shake things up, a Stockholm Royale, which added a splash of Chambord liqueur to the recipe, giving it a rosy-red tinge.

On the music scene, Hufft was a prolific composer of contemporary art music (some call the genre contemporary classical), drawing inspiration for his pieces on everything from his love of Bach to rock. Hufft earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music composition at Fresno State, studying with Jack Fortner, Robert Gerster, and James Winter. He went on to earn a doctorate in education, also at Fresno State.

He was associated with the Orpheus Chamber Ensemble since its inception in 1978, serving as stage manager, researcher, writer of program notes and for six years as executive director.

“He had a lot of interests that ran from the baroque all the way to modern,” says friend and colleague Craig VonBerg. “He was always composing. I admired him for that.”

He completed a new work for voices and a chamber group only days before his death.

Diverse styles

Hufft described his musical composition style in a 2010 concert program: “I incorporate diverse styles from minimalism, serialism, rock music, the ritualistic music of Harry Partch, Gamelan (the traditional ensemble music of Java and Bali in Indonesia), etc. Very little of the music I write is dissonant. I am drawn to beautiful sounds and quintal harmonies are the starting point for my harmonic language. I usually write in pattern chains of asymmetrical rhythms.”

VonBerg and Hufft taught in the same department ever since Hufft joined the Fresno State music faculty in 2004. They are co-authors of the textbook “Listen to the Music: Styles, Trends, and Influences in American Pop,” which has been used through 17 editions for the university’s course on the history of jazz and rock.

The course, which is taken by many non-music majors, has a prominent social and historical component to it, with Hufft insistent on putting music into the context of its times.

“His concern was that he didn’t want it to be just a class where they learned a lot of trivia,” VonBerg says.

Known for his dry and affable wit, Hufft “was a thinker with a great sense of humor,” he says.

Hufft would challenge students to expand their listening and go outside of their comfort zone, says Benjamin Boone, a Fresno State music composition professor. “In composition juries he would often make suggestions to the students and then follow up with the offer of sitting down with them and helping them achieve what he had suggested – whether it be analyzing a piece or re-arranging a passage,” Boone says.

A ‘cool’ professor

Sarah Sherwood, a Fresno State graduate and former student of Hufft’s, recalls that she was “terrified” of him because of what she perceived to be his gruff demeanor before taking a class from him. “Then I took a music form and analysis class from him, and very shortly, I learned how cool of a guy he was. I remember him challenging his students but also being laid-back and approachable. You didn’t feel as if you were going into his class for gloom and doom.”

Sherwood wrote a paper for the class on the use of leitmotifs in Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.”

“He drew from his rock background in the sense that the music he wrote could be very ethereal, very whimsical, with very interesting chordal compositions,” she says.

Sherwood sang a piece he wrote for soprano and quintet titled “The Space Between the Silence,” set to text by Rainer Maria Rilke, at a 2015 Orpheus concert.

“He’ll be greatly missed, and he was one of the most awesome composers to work with,” she says.

For Choate, her marriage was also a musical partnership. The pair founded Distant Fires Studios in 2011. Choate’s latest recorded album with the label, which Hufft recorded and engineered, is “Crown of Glory.”

She says that when they reconnected decades after junior high school, they both remembered the first time they spoke together at Ahwahnee. Everybody knew him on campus: He was that kind of guy, she says. She can’t remember anything about what they talked about except that “it was the most amazing conversation I had ever had. I couldn’t believe that someone was thinking that way.”

Now she’s left with memories – and with Hufft’s music, of course.

She feels lucky for the time she got to spend with him.

“Every day was a great day,” she says of their marriage. “I am so glad for every one of them. And I am going to be just fine. I know there are people who don’t get one day like one of ours.”

You can raise your Stockholm Royale to that.

Brad Hufft

  • Born: May 6, 1957, in Bakersfield
  • Died: April 12, 2017, in Coarsegold
  • Occupation: Fresno State music professor, composer
  • Education: Graduate of Hoover High School. Bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in music composition and a doctorate in education, all from Fresno State
  • Survivors: wife, Ellie Choate, of Coarsegold; son Cole Hufft of Fresno, daughter Ellen Hufft and son-in-law Eliot Jennings of Jacksonville, Ore., and daughter Gretchen Choate-Hufft Casella and son-in-law Greg Casella of Long Beach; mother, Polly Hufft, of Fresno; and brother, Gary Hufft, and sister-in-law, Gaye, of Watsonville. Predeceased by his father, Paul Hufft.
  • Services: 2 p.m. May 21, College Community Church Mennonite Brethren, 2529 Willow Ave., Clovis
  • Remembrances: Sierra Foothill Conservancy