Herbie Hancock is a true icon of modern music. His explorations have transcended limitations and genres, and at the same time he has maintained his unmistakable voice. Hancock’s success at expanding the possibilities of musical thought has placed him in the annals of this century’s visionaries. What’s more, he continues to amaze and expand the public’s vision of what music is all about today.
Herbie Hancock’s creative path has moved fluidly between almost every development in acoustic and electronic jazz and R&B since 1960. He has attained an enviable balance of commercial and artistic success, arriving at the point in his career where he ventures into every new project motivated purely by the desire to expand the boundaries of his creativity.
No stranger to career accolades, Herbie won the 1987 Academy Award for his soundtrack to the film Round Midnight. He has won eight Grammy Awards in the past two decades, including three for his 1998 classic Gershwin’s World. Underlying these and countless other awards is the fact that there are few artists in the entire music industry who have gained more respect and cast more influence than Herbie Hancock. As the immortal Miles Davis said in his autobiography: “Herbie was the step after Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and I haven’t heard anybody yet who has come after him.”
Born in Chicago in 1940, Hancock was a child piano prodigy who performed a Mozart piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the tender age of 11. He began playing jazz in high school, initially influenced by Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans. Also at this time, an additional passion for electronic science began to develop. As a result, he took a double major in music and electrical engineering at Grinnell College.
In 1960, at age 20, Herbie was discovered by trumpeter Donald Byrd, who asked him to join his group. Byrd also introduced Hancock to Alfred Lion of Blue Note Records; and after two years of session work with the likes of Phil Woods and Oliver Nelson, he signed to the legendary label as a solo artist. His 1963 debut album, Takin’ Off, was an immediate success, producing “Watermelon Man,” an instant hit at jazz and R&B radio. Also in 1963, Hancock received the call that was to change his life and fix his place in jazz history. He was invited to join the Miles Davis Quintet. During his five years, with Davis, Hancock and his colleagues thrilled audiences and recorded classic after classic, including albums like ESP, Nefertiti, and Sorcerer. Most jazz critics and fans regard this group, which also included Wayne Shorter (tenor sax), Ron Carter (bass), and Tony Williams (drums) as the greatest small jazz group of the 1960s. Even after he left, Miles’ group, Herbie continued to appear on Davis’ groundbreaking recordings In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew, which heralded the birth of jazz-fusion.
Simultaneously with his work for Miles, Hancock’s own solo career blossomed on Blue Note with even more classics like Maiden Voyage, Empyrean Isles, and Speak Like A Child. 1n 1966, he composed the score to Michelangelo Antonioni’s film, Blow Up. This led to a successful career in feature film and television music, including Bill Cosby’s Emmy-winning Hey, Hey, Hey, It’s Fat Albert, and later, Death Wish, Colors, Jo Jo Dancer Your Life Is Calling, Action Jackson, Harlem Nights, and his Oscar-winning Round Midnight. After leaving Miles Davis in 1968, Hancock stepped full-time into the new electronic jazz-funk that was sweeping the world. In 1973, Headhunters, the second LP in his new deal with Columbia Records, became jazz’s first platinum album. With its Sly Stone-influenced hit single “Chameleon,” this album (and its follow-up Thrust) signaled, once and for all, that Herbie Hancock would not be pigeonholed or categorized.
By mid-decade, Hancock was playing to stadium-sized crowds all over the world, and had no fewer than four albums in the pop charts at once. In total, Herbie had eleven albums in the pop charts during the 1970s. What’s even more remarkable about Herbie’s 70s output is the inspiration and inexhaustible supply of samples he provided for the generations of hip hop and dance music artists to follow, almost twenty years after these recordings were at their peak popularity. But it would not be the only time in his career that his work would have such an influence.
Not content to travel one creative path, Hancock also stayed close to his acoustic jazz heart in the 70s. He recorded and performed with VSOP (a reunification of the 60s Miles Davis Quintet, substituting the great Freddie Hubbard for Davis), with various trios and quartets under his own name, and in duet settings with fellow pianists Chick Corea and Oscar Peterson.
In 1980, Hancock introduced the young Wynton Marsalis to the world as a solo artist, producing the trumpeter’s debut album as a leader. In 1983, a new pull to the alternative side led Herbie to a series of collaborations with the notorious musical architect Bill Laswell. The first, Future Shock, again struck platinum, as the single “Rockit” rocked the dance and R&B charts, winning a Grammy for Best R&B Instrumental. Moreover, the video of the track, created by Kevin Godley and Lol Crème, won five MTV awards. Sound System, the follow-up to Future Shock, also received a Grammy in the R&B instrumental category. Once again, Herbie Hancock had blazed a new path for younger musicians to follow. Numerous television appearances over the years led to two hosting assignments in the 1980s. The first, Rock School, was an innovative educational music show for PBS, the second, Showtime’s Coast To Coast, was a unique series of in-concert performances, interviews and collaborations, and ran from 1989-91. Hancock once again scaled the charts in 1994, but in a most unique way. A British hip hop group called US3 sampled a classic Hancock Blue Note side, “Cantaloupe Island” for a track called “Cantaloop” which became a huge international hit for Herbie’s old label. The track went Top 20 in a number of countries and was licensed countless times for TV commercials and promos, leading to the resurrection of many great Hancock tracks throughout the decade. Hancock signed to the Polygram Label Group in 1994. After an adventurous pop-oriented project for Mercury Records, Dis Is Da Drum, he moved on to Polygram’s Verve label, forming an all-star band to record 1996’s Grammy-winning The New Standard. This album, another landmark, adapted rock and R&B tunes from recent times to a straightahead jazz format. In 1997, an eloquent and daring album of duets with Wayne Shorter, 1+1, was released. The legendary Headhunters reunited in 1998, recording an album for Herbie’s own Verve-distributed imprint, and touring with the Dave Matthews Band at the arena-rock giant’s own request. But the crowning achievement of Herbie Hancock’s Verve years thus far has been Gershwin’s World. Recorded and released in 1998, this masterwork brought artists from all over the musical spectrum together in a celebration of George Gershwin and his entire artistic milieu. Herbie’s collaborators included Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Kathleen Battle, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Wayne Shorter and Chick Corea. Gershwin’s World won three Grammies in 1999, including Best Traditional Jazz Album and Best R&B Vocal Performance for Stevie Wonder’s “St. Louis Blues.” The entire music world celebrated this album as one of the very finest in Herbie Hancock’s incomparable career.
Hancock’s career outside the performing stage and recording studio has continued apace. In 1996, he founded the Rhythm Of Life Foundation. This organization’s mission is twofold: to help narrow the gap between those technologically empowered and those who are not; and to find ways to help technology improve humanity. The philosophy of the foundation is based on the communication of multi-cultural awareness and tolerance among communities, instilling a sense of courage and creative initiative in children, and educating one another about our rich and complex ethnic heritage.
Hancock also holds several prominent artistic and cultural appointments. Since 1991, he has been the Distinguished Artist in Residence at Jazz Aspen Snowmass in Colorado; a non-profit organization devoted to the preservation and performance of jazz and American music.
Herbie also serves as a member of the Board of Trustees of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, the foremost international organization devoted to the development of jazz performance and education worldwide. He has taken on a number of roles on behalf of the institute, from competition judge to master class teacher, to guest performer with the Institute’s prestigious college program.
At the end of 1999, Herbie joined two partners—his manager David Passick and former Verve Records president Chuck Mitchell—to form Transparent Music, a multi-media music company dedicated to the presentation of barrier-breaking music of all types, at all tiers of distribution including recordings, films and TV, concert events and the Internet. In a unique arrangement, Herbie will continue to make smaller-group jazz recordings for Verve and larger scope projects for Transparent.
In yet another innovative stylistic move, his first work for Transparent will reunite him with Bill Laswell in the creation of a 21st Century collaboration with some of the young hip-hop and techno artists who have drawn on his massive influence to create their own music of the future. The album released in spring, 2001, and is entitled FUTURE2FUTURE.
As he enters his fifth decade of professional life, Herbie Hancock remains where he has always been: in the forefront of world culture, technology, business and music. Though one can’t track exactly where he will go next, you may be sure that he’ll leave his own inimitable creative style and imprint wherever he lands.