Virtuoso pianist Herbie Hancock is, in a sense, a musical chameleon whose compositions and recordings change direction as unceremoniously and effortlessly as the lizard's skin changes color. But with Hancock, the transformations are not designed for camouflage and self-defense; rather they are the outgrowth of a mind that resists stagnation and harbors a deep love of all music love that would be compromised if it were hostage to a particular style of song. In playing acoustic bebop jazz as well as electronic fusion, in composing sweeping film scores alongside playful advertising jingles, Hancock knowingly risks disappointing those camps that wish to claim him as their darling. But only by straddling so many styles and interests can Hancock tap his copious talent for versatility and allow his moods and feelings to find their truest expression in music.
Herbert Jeffrey Hancock was born in Chicago, Illinois, on April 12, 1940, to Wayman Hancock, a grocery store clerk and future federal meat inspector, and Winnie Griffin Hancock, a secretary in whom a love of music and appreciation for education had been instilled as a young child. When Herbie was a baby, his parents discovered that he would stop crying when music was played. And as a toddler, he would respond ecstatically when a piano was near. This ecstasy was finally put to use when his parents bought an old upright piano for 25 dollars. Instead of playing sports and running about with his schoolmates in the back alleys of Chicago, the studious seven-year-old preferred to stay home learning piano and nurturing a fascination with science and electronics. He skipped two grades, an academic feat that was fostered by his parents' promotion of discipline and that he would later say helped forge his identity as a high achiever. Similarly prompted by his mother's love of music and by enthusiastic public school instructors, young Hancock listened to opera on the radio and excelled at the piano, winning a scholastic contest at age 11, the award for which was a concert performance of a Mozart concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Drawn to Jazz Improvisation
Throughout high school, Hancock enjoyed listening to the rhythm and blues music that was echoing in the city, but he never considered trying to play these soulful, animated songs. The free-form phrases of jazz were even more remote. But then he heard a classmate perform an improvisational piece at a talent show, and he was so fascinated with the spirit of it, so mesmerized by the honesty of its expression, that he decided to learn everything he could about this music, which he had never really understood. "So he closeted himself for hours alone with Oscar Peterson and George Shearing records," noted Lynne Norment in Ebony, "committed to paper their notes and then reproduced them. This tedious exercise led to his ability to analyze and dissect harmonic structures, rhythmic patterns and choral voicings."
In 1956, again at the urging of his mother, Hancock enrolled at Grinnell College in Iowa, at first studying engineeringhe knowledge of which would later help him launch electronic jazz fusionut soon turning to a field closer to his heart: music composition. In 1960, armed with an analytical understanding of music, Hancock returned to Chicago, where he gigged as a free-lance pianist with several jazz combos and visiting bands, playing with, among others, Coleman Hawkins. In the winter of 1960 a blizzard delayed the pianist for trumpeter Donald Byrd's group, which was scheduled to play in Chicago, and a local club owner suggested Hancock as a substitute. After that performance Byrd became the first professional jazz mentor for Hancock, bringing the young pianist to New York City, introducing him to those within the jazz establishment, and laying the groundwork for Hancock's 1962 debut album, Takin'Off. The LP featured the accompaniment of jazz greats Dexter Gordon and Freddie Hubbard and introduced Hancock's composition, "Watermelon Man;" the piece was made a hit by Mongo Santamaria a year later and was subsequently recorded by over 200 artists.
Although he would continue playing conventional jazz for the next few years, Hancock joined briefly with the experimental avant-garde instrumentalist Eric Dolphy in the first of what would be many trailblazing forays. "I played things that were almost blasphemous and sounded grotesque," Hancock was quoted as saying in People in 1987. "But they had a certain beauty that we could feel even if nobody in the audience could. Sometimes it was good and sometimes it wasn't, but I had to stand up for all of it or else I couldn't play any of it. I learned how to be courageous from that experience."
Played With Miles Davis Quintet
In 1963, on the recommendation of Byrd, Hancock was invited to join the quintet of jazz giant Miles Davis, a pioneering trumpeter who was credited with ingenuously nurturing young talents. Along with Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and Tony Williamshe Wunderkind drummer who would help Hancock develop his signature percussive piano stylehe young pianist was given comfortably broad guidelines for playing. The Davis group became one of the most influential jazz combos in the 1960s, fostering an environment in which the musicians were given free reign to instrumentally express their emotions and moods. Outside of the group, Hancock continued to perform with such luminaries as Phil Woods, Oliver Nelson, Wes Montgomery, Quincy Jones, and Sonny Rollins.
In the mid-1960s, jazz was beginning to lose some of its audience, in part because purist fans resented the movement away from traditional bebop; even Davis, one of the standard bearers of this tradition, began to steer his combo in the direction of a more funky, rock-driven style. Jazz was also competing with rock and soul music for the attention and dollars of young listeners. Throughout this financially troubled period, Hancock proved his resiliency and flexibility by writing commercial jingles for Chevrolet, Standard Oil, and Eastern Airlines; composing the soundtrack for the film Blow Up; and penning "Fat Albert Rotunda" for comedian Bill Cosby's television special Hey, Hey, Hey, It's Fat Albert.
Also during this time, an era of explosive change in politics and social dynamics, Hancock, a self-described jazz snob, began flirting with music beyond that of the narrowly defined jazz world. He had always enjoyed rhythm and blues, but considered it somehow inferior to the pure jazz he had embraced. In the 1950s and mid-1960s, "I tried to pretend that I was liberal, musically tolerant," the musician divulged in Down Beat in 1988. "But I really wasn't. Actually the first record that turned me on to R & Bnd pop music in generalas [James Brown's] 'Poppa's Got a Brand New Bag.' That made me start listening to R & B, because I liked that kind of beat.... Later on, I liked Sly Stone's 'Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin' a lot. It was like the funkiest thing I ever heard, and I still like it."
Expanded Musical Interests
After leaving Davis in 1968, Hancock, always eager to take new musical steps, formed his own quintet, which departed from the acoustic status quo and welcomed the emerging age of electronics. Under Davis he had started playing the electric piano; though providing a less personal sound, the instrument tapped into Hancock's long-held fascination with technology and further stretched the limits of music and Hancock's own virtuosity. In 1971 Hancock helped usher in the era of jazz fusion with the album Mwandishi Swahili word for composerhich featured state-of-the-art technology, and was named one of the year's ten best LPs by Time magazine.
Although Mwandishi disappointed jazz purists who believed Hancock had squandered his talent and forsaken his inimitable piano style, it served as the springboard for the artist's love affair with cutting edge music. What made the criticism bearable for Hancock, above and beyond his revelry in experimentation, was his growing adherence to Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism. "Buddhism has helped me toward gaining control over my own destiny, and given me the courage to follow directions I believe in," he expressed in Ebony in 1987. "Over the years I've made decisions about things, especially music, and have been scoffed at and ridiculed and opposed, but I knew I had to do these things."
Venturing further into unknown territory, Hancock released the watershed Headhunters in 1973, an album using synthesizers and other gadgetry, which essentially defined the jazz/funk/pop hybrid and sold more than a million copies. This crossover LP played off the burgeoning disco craze and, predictably, further piqued Hancock's critics. The musician continued affirming his individuality, though, playing with pop artists Stevie Wonder and the Pointer Sisters, ando the delight of traditionalists who thought they had lost himorming the acoustic jazz group V.S.O.P. with several members of the old Davis quintet.
Dance Music and Film Scores
The 1983 release Future Shock once again confirmed Hancock's successful formula of using new sounds and high technology to frame popular music. The song "Rockit," spun off from the album, reached Number One on the dance and soul music charts, became the biggest selling twelve-inch single in Columbia Records history, and garnered a Grammy Award for best rhythm and blues instrumental. The key to this hard-driving dance song, which surprised even those listeners who had become accustomed to Hancock's musical wanderings, was the use of record scratchingubbing the needle the wrong way while an LP is playing technique that had been gaining popularity with fans of rap music. Further inventiveness with the song's video, featuring the gesticulations of dismembered robots, led to Hancock's accrual of five MTV awards.
Other 1980s releases also included an amalgamation of styles. On his 1984 album Sound-System, which also won a Grammy, Hancock explored the sounds of street funk music, integrating African and Latin American undertones. The 1988 release The Perfect Machine was similarly rooted in the rhythms and beats of contemporary urban life.
Hancock's ability to adjust to and even create musical trends is an outgrowth of an ear brilliantly attuned to the modulation and changeability of individual pieces. In a review of a Hancock quartet performance in 1990, Jon Páreles of the New York Times wrote, "When a pop-jazz tune threatened to get too sweet, Mr. Hancock would come up with a lilting, melodic solo but attack the notes just off the beat, giving them an intransigent edge, or he would skew the harmony with a disturbing hint of dissonance." In another case, while performing at a 1986 jazz festival, Hancock noticed that a string on the piano had broken. Instead of avoiding the key or demanding a new piano, he chose to use the metallic twang as percussive accompaniment to a ballad.
Hosted Instructional Series
Hancock's interest in telling stories musically has translated into his prolific compositions of film scores. He won an Academy Award and a Grammy for his soundtrack to 'Round Midnight, the celebrated 1986 film based loosely on the life of expatriate bebop musician Bud Powell in Paris in the late 1950s. Hancock has also composed music for Colors, A Soldier's Story, Death Wish, Livin' Large, Action Jackson, and Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling. In pursuing the love of education that his mother instilled in him as a youngster, Hancock hosted the instructional television series Rockschool, which taught viewers about jazz history and the playing of jazz instruments, and a cable series, Coast-to-Coast, a show featuring concerts and interviews with established and promising musical personalities.
It is a credit to Hancock's talent that he has so successfully balanced commercial success with artistic integrity. In stepping out of the role of "pure jazzman," a classification that traditionalists were eager to impose on him, he has risked being seen as a fickle sell-out. But he has stuck by his belief that all music is equally valid. When asked in a 1988 Down Beat interview what he thought of the view that pop music should not be considered on a par with jazz and classical, he was reported to have said, "My opinion is that a hamburger and a hot dog deserve an equally important place in history as caviar and champagne, because we can't do without any of it.... On a human level, the garbage man is just as important as the teacher or a rock star or a president, because you have to have them. The world would have been dead a long time ago without garbage men."
Takin' Off(includes "Watermelon Man"), Blue Note, 1962, reissued, 1987.
(With others) My Point of View, Blue Note, 1963.
Herbie Hancock, Blue Note, 1964.
Empyrean Isles, Blue Note, 1964, reissued, 1985.
Inventions and Dimensions, Blue Note, 1965.
Maiden Voyage, Blue Note, 1966.
Speak Like a Child, Blue Note, 1968.
Mwandishi, Warner Bros., 1971.
Crossings, Warner Bros., 1972.
Sextant, Columbia, 1972.
Headhunters, Columbia, 1973.
Man-Child, Columbia, 1975.
Secrets, Columbia, 1976.
Feets Don't Fail Me Now, Columbia, 1979.
Lite Me Up, Columbia, 1982.
Future Shock (includes "Rockit"), Columbia, 1983.
Sound-System, Columbia, 1984, reissued, 1985.
The Prisoner, Blue Note, 1987.
The Perfect Machine, Columbia, 1988.
The Best of Herbie Hancock, Columbia, 1988.
(With Chick Corea) Corea and Hancock, Polydor, 1988.
(With V.S.O.P.) The Quintet: V.S.O.P. Live (recorded 1976), Columbia, 1988.
(With Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins) All the Things You Are (recorded 1963-64), Blue Note, 1990.
(With others) A Jazz Collection, Columbia Jazz Contemporary Masters, 1991.
Mr. Hands, Columbia.
Quartet: Hancock, Marsalis, Carter, Williams, Columbia.
Has performed on more than a dozen albums with the Miles Davis Quintet.
Composer of film scores, including Blow Up, GB, 1966; Death Wish, Paramount, 1974; A Soldier's Story, Columbia, 1984; 'Round Midnight, Warner Bros., 1986; Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, Columbia, 1986; Action Jackson, Lorimar, 1988; Colors, Orion, 1988; and Livin' Large, Samuel Goldwyn, 1991.
Down Beat, July 1986; June 1988.
Ebony, March 1987.
New York Times, July 2, 1990.
People, January 19, 1987.
Rolling Stone, October 25, 1984.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from a Hanson & Schwam Public Relations biography, 1992.
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