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Home » On the Cover » Herbie Hancock: Endless Possibilities

Herbie Hancock: Endless Possibilities


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Herbie Hancock

Iconic keyboardist and composer Herbie Hancock of Local 802 (New York City) is a living legend. The list of artists he’s performed with, from Miles Davis to Quincy Jones to Joni Mitchell, almost seems endless. Throughout his career, he’s eagerly embraced new technology while steadily expanding his own musical focus. His recordings have won him 14 Grammy Awards. Hancock’s latest project, the book Possibilities (Penguin Group, 2014), looks back on his five-decade career.

As a child, Hancock was so drawn to a neighbor’s piano that his mother bought him an old church piano for about $5. Soon after, the seven-year-old began classical lessons. “Playing music changed everything about my life,” says the musician who had early aspirations of being a concert pianist.

Discovering Improvisation

His focus was altered in high school when he saw one of his classmates playing jazz. “I was fascinated by the fact that this guy, who was about my age, could improvise,” says Hancock, who followed him backstage after the show to ask the guy how he could learn. He told Hancock to buy some George Shearing records, find phrases he liked, and then learn what they are and how to play them.

“Little by little, I started to learn more and more. Eventually, I started playing with local musicians and asking questions,” he says. “The great thing about jazz musicians is that they freely share information. By the time I got to college, where I formally studied theory, I knew the stuff that they were teaching me because I had learned it on the street.”

After college, Hancock returned home to Chicago where he had his first big break when he was asked to play a one-time gig with veteran jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd. Byrd liked his playing so much that he brought Hancock to New York City to join the band. Less than a year and a half later 22-year-old Hancock had released his first solo album, Taking Off (1963), which couldn’t have been more foretelling.

The following spring Miles Davis invited Hancock to join his band. “He was unquestionably my favorite musician,” says Hancock. “Miles represented everything I wanted to be in jazz, though at age 22, I couldn’t imagine achieving it.”

During the four years Hancock played with Davis, the bandleader indirectly taught him much about the world of jazz. “Miles never said much about our playing. He wasn’t the kind of leader who gave notes or made suggestions,” says Hancock. “We did our best, and if he didn’t say anything, it must have been okay.”

The things Davis did teach him—to stand up for what you believe in and to have the courage to explore new territory—were more fundamental. “These are cornerstones in jazz, living up to the idea of playing in the moment and not just repeating something that you did before because the audience liked it. He would hate it if you did something just for applause,” Hancock explains.

During his time with Davis, Hancock continued to make his own records, as well as taking on his first film scoring project, Blow-Up (1966). Hancock began to take a keen interest in electronic instruments with Miles in the Sky (1968), Davis’s first record with electric instruments. “Thanks to him, I discovered an unexpected love for electronic instruments that would change the way I made music,” says Hancock.

Mwandishi: Brilliance Meets Chaos

Herbie Hancock’s outlook on music changed when he began practicing Buddhism more than 40 years ago.

Herbie Hancock’s outlook on music changed when he began practicing Buddhism more than 40 years ago.

In 1968 he left Davis’s band and debuted his own, the Herbie Hancock Sextet. The band’s album, The Prisoner (1969), reflected a new musical direction. Eventually, the sextet came to be called the Mwandishi band. Members took on Swahili names, incorporated African influences, and wore dashikis. “Playing on stage with Mwandishi meant treading a fine line between brilliance and chaos,” explains Hancock. “Everything was intuitive, in the moment. Nothing was planned. When it worked, it was so, so powerful. When it didn’t, it was truthfully kind of a mess.”

The band’s focus was on creating a sonic environment. Around 1970, Hancock began to experiment with synthesizers. “Adding synthesizers opened up whole new territories for us to explore,” he says. “It was when synthesizers came along, that I saw the dream that was in the back of my head of marrying two things—technology and music—could happen.”

In the early ’70s Hancock began practicing Buddhism, which influenced his music for the rest of his career. “Now I began trading my musician’s ear for the larger purpose of using music to address issues in our daily lives. My desire turned to seeking ways to create music to serve humanity, to contribute something empowering and potentially transformative,” he says.


Jazz Funk Fusion

After he ended Mwandishi, Hancock decided to start a funk band. “I didn’t want to make a record that combined jazz and funk—I wanted pure funk,” he says. But when the five-member band, Headhunters, started playing together in 1973, the music they produced was more jazz-funk fusion.

Their first album, Head Hunters (1973), was met with little enthusiasm from the record company and some critics called it a sellout. Yet, it went platinum and today it is considered a defining record in the genre.

When soundman Bryan Bell came knocking on Hancock’s door looking for a job, he provided the perfect combination of invention and innovation to continue Hancock’s incursion into electronic music. Together they were able to do stuff that no one else could do yet. When Hancock began using a vocoder onstage, Bell made one of the first wireless headset microphones for lead vocals and a portable keyboard. He added the first disk drive on a synthesizer keyboard, and together with his friend Keith Lofstrom, built the first automated patch bay for music.

“His inventions and modifications helped me write more music than ever before, and between 1979 and 1981 I released six albums: Directstep, The Piano, Feets Don’t Fail Me Now, Monster, Mr. Hands, and Magic Windows,” says Hancock.

All the while, he continued to play traditional jazz with the band V.S.O.P. (Very Special Onetime Performance). V.S.O.P. had reunited Hancock with members of the Miles Davis band (minus Davis) for what was to be a one-time performance at the 1976 Newport Jazz Festival. The band was so popular that the musicians toured with V.S.O.P. in between their other projects.

In 1979, Hancock was the first artist digitally recorded live for compact disc. “Sony knew I was an electronics guy, so they wanted to give me the honor of being the first concert they recorded on this new technology,” he explains of the recording in Tokyo’s Denen Coliseum. “CDs, as we know them, didn’t come out commercially until early 1985.”

On Hancock’s album, Monster (1980) he played more than 15 electronic instruments, which alienated jazz purists who were displeased as Headhunters moved toward disco and further from jazz.

Exploring Hip-Hop

As Hancock’s career continued, he kept an ever-watchful eye on the latest trends and technologies. “I wanted to find a way to tap into the younger generation’s creativity,” he says. “In the city’s streets and playgrounds, especially in the Bronx, people were exploring spoken-word poetry and sharp, percussive beats, combining them in a new musical form called rap.”

herbie handcock

Herbie Hancock poses with his mother after winning a 1986 Oscar for Best Original Score for the film Round Midnight.

When he discovered scratching, he knew he had to use it on his next album. He brought in young New York turntablist, DST (who later became DXT), to add scratching and other sounds to the album Future Shock.

“This was music revolution!” says Hancock. “This music was exciting and unpredictable, because scratching lets you change direction suddenly, cutting to another sound or groove. Exploring all these possibilities made me feel more energized than I had in years.”

However, many of Hancock’s collaborators, including longtime manager David Rubinson and even Bryan Bell, were not impressed. They cautioned that his fans might not like it. And the record company almost refused to release the album Future Shock (1983).

Hancock was not dismayed. “I never chose what kind of music to make strictly for the goal of maximizing sales,” he explains. “I made the music my heart led me to make—and some records sold millions of copies, while some sold very few.”

MTV had launched in 1981 and was hugely popular by 1983, however, the record company refused to provide a video budget. So Hancock decided to finance his own music video for the song “Rockit” though he knew nothing about making a video. He turned to two British musicians, Kevin Godley and Lol Creme, who had made hit videos for The Police and gave the duo free rein.

At the initial screening Hancock was unsure about the result: a giant robot bird, headless robot mannequins, interspersed with clips of his hands on the synthesizer. But, ultimately, “Rockit” became one of the highest-rated music videos of all time. He was invited to play at the Grammy’s in 1984 and “Rockit” won a Grammy for best R&B Instrumental Performance. The song received five MTV Video Music Awards.

Future Shock would go on to become the fourth best selling jazz record in history, and the success of ‘Rockit’ marked the beginnings of hip-hop as a mainstream music style,” says Hancock. “And the ironic thing is, to this day, I still don’t know much about hip-hop music.”

Hancock has composed for numerous films and television shows, including five movies between 1986 and 1989—Round Midnight; Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling; Action Jackson; Colors; and Harlem Nights. For Round Midnight (1986), in which he also played the role of a piano player, he earned an Oscar for Best Original Score.

Never Stop Changing

“When you never stop exploring, you stay active and vital, no matter what you may be doing,” says Hancock. He reached that conclusion at age 55 and vowed, from that day forward, to make every one of his records completely different from any other record, in order to explore every facet of himself as a musician.

Staying true to his vow, his 1996 release, The New Standard, is comprised of popular songs of the day that Hancock treats as if they were jazz standards. Among the songs was the original composition, “Manhattan,” which Hancock had composed in the 1960s with his late sister, Jean. It resulted in a Grammy for Best Instrumental Composition.

Hancock’s drive for diversity continues with his most recent albums. Future 2 Future (2001) crosses electronica and jazz and has him collaborating with some top electronic and hip-hop musicians, plus jazz greats like long-time friend Wayne Shorter and Jack DeJohnette of Local 802. The concept behind his album, Possibilities (2005), was to have really good artists explore music outside their “comfort zones.”

The 2007 album River: The Joni Letters is a jazz tribute, featuring the songs of longtime friend Joni Mitchell. It earned him the 2008 Album of the Year Grammy. At the ceremony, Hancock was asked to perform a classical duet with pianist Lang Lang. “It wasn’t easy to just switch back to classical music after a lifetime of jazz, funk, hip-hop, and every other type of improvisation,” recalls Hancock.

Finally in his most recent album, The Imagine Project (2010), Hancock looks at globalization in the positive sense—people from different cultures united in music. It includes artists from 11 different countries and songs in seven different languages—an arduous project to put together. It resulted in two more Grammy wins—Best Improvised Jazz Solo and Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals. “The Imagine Project is a testament to facing the impossible and making it possible, which is the message not only for my music, but of my life,” says Hancock.

“You never stop learning, you never stop improving, if you keep your mind open,” he concludes.

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