Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Hancock, Herbie (Herbert Jeffrey)

Since his start in music, Herbie Hancock has been a hit. The pianist has enjoyed success rarely seen in the jazz world, but fellow musicians know him best for his virtuosity as composer, and his groundbreaking collaborations across genres and media, which embrace many musical elements beyond jazz.


                 Herbie Hancock, artwork by Suzanne Cerny


Born in Chicago, Illinois on April 12, 1940, Herbert Jeffrey Hancock started out as a classical pianist. At age 11 he performed a Mozart piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Hancock had no structured training in jazz during his teenage years, and has stated that his main influences at this time were recordings by Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans.

Hancock went on to study music composition and electrical engineering at Grinnell College. After leaving Grinnell in 1960, he worked around the club scene in Chicago until trumpeter Donald Byrd formally invited him to New York to join his band. Starting in early 1961, Hancock recorded as a sideman for Blue Note records with Phil Woods and Oliver Nelson.

Hancock released his first album for the label in 1963, entitled Takin’ Off. One of Hancock’s compositions, “Watermelon Man,” became a surprise hit that same year, earning him critical acclaim, radio play and a many fans. This album caught the attention of trumpeter Miles Davis, who asked Hancock to join his group later that year.

Hancock performed with Davis’s second quintet for the next five years. To many musicians, fans, and critics, this quintet is one of the most innovative and expressive groups in the history of jazz. Along with Davis on trumpet, this group included bassist Ron Carter, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and drummer Tony Williams, who joined the group when he was seventeen.

This quintet explored depths of harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic interaction unlike any other group at that time. Albums by this group include Nefertiti, E.S.P., Sorcerer, Miles Smiles, andMiles In the Sky. Also during his stint with Davis, Hancock managed to record as a leader for Blue Note on the albums Maiden Voyage, Empyrean Isles, and Speak Like A Child.

Hancock also recorded as a sideman with many other Blue Note recording artists and participated on albums by Wayne Shorter and Freddie Hubbard. During the 1960s Hancock also began to foray into commercial music by composing the music for the 1966 film Blow Up and releasing the album Fat Albert Rotunda which was composed for the Bill Cosby animation.

In 1968, Hancock was relieved of his working band duties with Miles Davis, who replaced him with Chick Corea. Ironically, though he was let go from Davis’s group, he appears on Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way, both seminal albums in the emergence of jazz-rock fusion. It was during the release of these albums of Miles Davis that Hancock began to reinvent his own sound.

On Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way, electronic keyboards, particularly the Fender Rhodes were incorporated on a grand scale. This obviously had a direct effect on Hancock who began to incorporate both Rhodes pianos and synthesized keyboards into his albums from the 1970s and beyond.

When jazz-rock fusion rose in popularity, Hancock was at the forefront of the movement. He formed a band called Mwandishi, that included Dr. Eddie Henderson on trumpet, bassist Buster Williams, and multi-reedist Bernie Maupin. This group, which was signed to Warner Brothers, released several albums but Hancock disbanded the group keeping only Maupin for his 1973 release The Headhunters.

This album was one of the first jazz recordings to reach sales of more than a million copies. The album included the massively popular song “Chameleon.” This album, while reaching unprecedented commercial success for a jazz musician, also heralded the musical direction Hancock would stick with for the rest of the 1970s. With the addition of bassist Paul Jackson on The Headhunters, Hancock employed much more emphasis on grooves drawn mainly from funk music.

In the eighties, Hancock released several other successful albums, including Thrust, Manchild, and the less-well--received album Secrets. Hancock also makes an appearance on Stevie Wonder’s album Songs In the Key of Life, while Wonder plays solo harmonica on Hancock’s album Manchild. Hancock also appears on the Epic debut of bassist Jaco Pastorius from Weather Report. .

Hancock performed with the V.S.O.P. group in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This group was a reincarnation of the 1960s Miles Davis quintet, with Wynton Marsalis on trumpet instead of Davis. In the early 1980s, Hancock became one of the first musicians to incorporate the use of computers into the recording and production of his music.

Hancock was an early adopter of Apple computers, and one of the first to introduce their use to the music industry. Hancock collaborated with producer Bill Laswell on the album Futureshock in 1983. The lead single from this album “Rockit,” became a huge hit, in large part thanks to the popularity of its creative music video, which went into high rotation on the recently launched television channel MTV. The song also became one of the first pop or jazz songs to fuse the hiphop technique of a DJ scratching records on a turntable into its main compositional form. .

During the early 1990s, Hancock’s hit “Cantaloupe Island” was sampled by hiphop group Us3 for their Blue Note debut. This sample proved to be a huge hit for the group. Other notable hiphop groups who have sampled Hancock include Digable Planets, and the house-funk group Dee-Lite who sampled Hancock’s “Bring Down the Birds” for their wildly successful single called “Groove Is in the Heart.”

Hancock regrouped his career in the 1990s, releasing the album Dis Is Da Drum. and changing record labels. In 1996, Hancock’s debut for Verve records The New Standard, featuring an all-star lineup including guitarist John Scofield and saxophonist Michael Brecker. This album is notable for its careful reworking of several popular songs, including Nirvana’s “All Apologies” and the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.” .

Since the new millennium, Hancock has returned to his roots in acoustic jazz, as well as electronic and popular music. During this time he has toured with trumpeter Roy Hargrove, drummer Brian Blade, pop singer John Mayer, bassist Marcus Miller, and others. In 2005, Hancock released the album Possibilities, which combined Hancock with a who’s who of musicians including Sting, Christina Aguilera, and Trey Anastacio from the rock band Phish.

Hancock has won numerous Grammy awards as a result of his compositions and won the 1986 Academy Award for his original score to the film Round Midnight, in which he also has an acting role along with guitarist John McLaughlin, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, saxophonist Dexter Gordon and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson.

Hancock is a devoted Nicherian Buddhist, and has written extensively about his spiritual practice. He attends the same temple in Los Angeles as rock n’ roll singer Tina Turner, and performed, spoke, and led the Buddhist procession at the Town Hall Memorial in New York City for saxophonist Michael Brecker, also a Buddhist, in January of 2007.

In late 2007 Hancock released the album River: The Joni Letters, which is a tribute to singer Joni Mitchell.

Contributor: Jared Pauley


Related Links

The Dozens: Twelve Essential Herbie Hancock Performances by Ted Gioia