Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Hammer, Jan

Few jazz keyboardists have enjoyed the crossover success of Jan Hammer, and few have demonstrated his ability to fuse traditional jazz sensibilities with new waves of electric pianos and synthesizers, which made him a pioneer of jazz-rock fusion as well as a celebrated composer for film and television.

In his work with John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, Hammer revealed his deep understanding of traditional bebop phrasing, which he combined with innovative phrasing on the Fender Rhodes electric piano an synthesizers which often emulated the rapidness and attack of an electric guitar.

Jan Hammer was born on April 17th, 1948 in Prague. He came from a musical family; his mother was a well-known vocalist and his father, a doctor, was also a bassist and vibraphonist who had supported himself through medical school with music.

Hammer started playing classical piano at the age of four and started his formal music education two years later. Originally Hammer wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father and become a doctor, but he abandoned these aspirations and focused on music. A prodigy, Hammer performed classical music and toured throughout Eastern Europe at the age of fourteen.

The boy then enrolled at the Prague Academy of Arts, but his stint was cut short in 1968 when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia. Hammer chose to move to the United States and attended the Berklee College of Music. Hammer’s first professional experience in the United States came when he joined the band of Sarah Vaughn as a pianist. He toured with the singer in 1970 and 1971 in the United States, Europe, and Japan.

Along with guitarist John McLaughlin, Hammer was a founding member of the jazz-rock fusion group the Mahavishnu Orchestra. The group was one of the first to explore non-jazz musical timbres and territory while maintaining certain jazz qualities, like the blues and extended chordal harmony.

Intricate violin and guitar lines, complex time meters, and synthesizers dominated Mahavishnu's music. This was Hammer’s first exposure to synthesizers, and marks the time in his life when he began to explore the capabilities of the then-new instrument. The band, which included violinist Jerry Goodman, drummer Billy Cobham, and bassist Rick Laird, recorded their first album The Inner Mounting Flame in August of 1971. Songs of note from the album include “Dawn, “The Noonward Race" “and “Meeting of the Spirits." The last of these is a gem, which highlighted Hammer’s overdriven Fender Rhodes sound and Cobham’s explosive drum style.

In 1973, Mahavishnu released their second studio album entitled Birds of Fire. This album featured more of the ingredients found on the band’s first album. The title track offered up McLaughlin’s hypnotizing, electric guitar capabilities as well as Hammer’s dexterity on the Moog synthesizer, which sounds so much like a guitar several listens are required to distinguish it from McLaughlin’s guitar.

On Miles Davis’s “Miles Beyond" Hammer shows his penchant for the blues, playing funk-inspired Fender Rhodes chords while Cobham and McLaughlin display their virtuosity on the drums and guitar, respectively. Other songs of note from this album include “Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love, “Sanctuary, “Resolution" and “Celestial Terrestrial Commuters," written in the 19/8 time signature.

Hammer left Mahavishnu Orchestra before the band’s 1974 album Apocalypse, having been replaced by Chick Corea’s wife Gayle Moran. Hammer joined drummer Billy Cobham’s band from 1973 to 1975 and appeared on guitarist John Abercrombie’s influential 1974 album Timeless along with drummer Jack DeJohnette. The album featured Hammer’s song “Lungs.

In 1975, Hammer recorded his first solo album,The First Seven Days, which was recorded at the Red Gate Studio located on his farm in upstate New York. In 1976, Hammer appeared on British guitarist Jeff Beck’s album Wired, which featured some of the same style of jazz-rock-funk that Hammer had played with Mahavishnu. The pair also toured extensively together in 1977, which culminated in the live release Jeff Beck with the Jan Hammer Group Live.

During the late 1970s, Hammer continued his collaborations with guitar players appearing on Al Di Meola’s 1977 album Elegant Gypsy. In 1978, Hammer recorded the album Black Sheep, which featured his cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression.

In the 1980s, Hammer turned his attention away from jazz, achieving great commercial success. He appeared with Eric Clapton and Joe Cocker for a series of concerts in 1983 in support of multiple sclerosis research. In 1984, he was asked by the producers of the television show Miami Vice to compose the weekly musical cues. In addition to the cues, Hammer also composed the main theme for the show, which became a number-one hit in the United States, first instrumental television theme to achieve this status.

Hammer also played piano on Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger’s first solo album She’s the Boss, which also featured Herbie Hancock on organ, Bill Laswell on bass, and Jeff Beck on guitar. Hammer continued his success with the release of Miami Vice II and Escape from Television. Featured on this second album was the song “Crockett’s Theme,” which reached number one in a number of European countries as well as charting high on the American charts.

The 1990s saw Hammer focusing more of his attention to film scores. He scored a number of noted Hollywood movies and television shows including I Come in Peace, Curiosity Kills, Sunset Heat and several episodes of the HBO television series Tales from the Crypt. In 1994, Hammer released his first album of non-score music in more than a decade, entitled Drive. It reunited Hammer with his longtime collaborator and associate Jeff Beck.

Hammer continued to score prolifically for television in film through the late 1990s, scoring numerous made for TV movies on NBC as well as the Hulk Hogan movie The Secret Agent Club. Hammer has continued to score various films and television shows in the 2000s as well as helping to produce his son Paul Hammer’s debut album 19. Also in the 2000s, there was been renewed interest in Hammer’s Miami Vice work as well as his previous solo work from the 1970s.

Select Discography

With the Mahavishnu Orchestra

The Inner Mounting Flame (Columbia, 1971)

Birds of Fire (Columbia, 1973)

With John Abercrombie

Timeless (ECM, 1974)

With Jeff Beck

Wired (Epic, 1976)

Jeff Beck with the Jan Hammer Group Live (Epic, 1977)

As Jan Hammer

Black Sheep (Wounded Bird, 1978)

Contributor: Jared Pauley