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Spotlight: Herbie Hancock

Jazzed Magazine • January 2015Spotlight • February 5, 2015

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herbie-smalAmongst the most accomplished and acclaimed jazz artists of the past fifty-plus years, Herbie Hancock has also been, at times, one of the most divisive figures within the genre. Hancock’s refusal to be pigeonholed by tradition or convention has led his career to crisscross through disparate musical traditions, including (but hardly limited to) funk, bop, gospel, blues, electronic, R&B, modern classical, and hip hop. Much like his early musical partner and mentor, Miles Davis, Hancock’s muse knows no boundaries. “Herbie was the step after Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk,” said Davis of Herbie, “and I haven’t heard anybody yet who has come after him.”

Hancock’s truly is a life of, in, and defined by music. A piano prodigy who was performing Mozart concertos with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra by the age of 11, Herbie gravitated towards jazz in high school and continued to pursue that passion at clubs in the Windy City while also studying music at Grinnell College in Iowa. After being invited to join Donald Byrd’s band in NYC, Hancock embarked on an instantly significant solo career and his debut disc, Takin’ Off, remains a classic. Next up was a defining point in his evolution, as Miles Davis asked Herbie to join his band in 1963 – just in time for the Seven Steps to Heaven sessions – where he remained for the next five years, with both artists impacting and influencing each other’s musical directions.

Forays into funk and electric music in the late ‘60s and 1970s enhanced Hancock’s reputation as a fearlessly creative innovator, while subsequent decades saw more and more musicians of all styles – Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Seal, Jeff Beck, George Benson, Derek Trucks, the Marsalis Brothers, among many others –  flocking to collaborate with one of the unquestioned giants of contemporary jazz.

Throughout it all, Herbie Hancock has been an enthusiastic ambassador for jazz and music education, as well as a strident supporter of initiatives promoting human rights and peace. Hancock serves as the Institute Chairman of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, is founder of The International Committee of Artists for Peace, was designated an honorary UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador in 2011, is a professor at UCLA, and last January was named Harvard University’s 2014 Norton Professor of Poetry.

In between promoting his highly praised new memoir, Possibilities (Viking), touring Europe, and preparing for delivering the keynote address at the 2015 JEN Conference, Herbie took a few moments to talk with JAZZed about his experiences as a musician and educator, and how he approaches both music and life. 

JAZZed: Can you talk a little bit about your early development as a musician? 

Herbie Hancock:  I started at the age of seven, when my parents bought me a piano for my birthday. I have an older brother and I had a younger sister and all of the three of us started taking lessons about three months after I got the piano.  At that time, jazz wasn’t taught in any school that I was aware of, but at seven years old, I was not even interested in it.

To me, jazz – that was my parents’ music.  I mean, they played it around the house and they were into some of the big bands like Count Basie and some others. My mother, particularly, wanted us to study classical music because, to her, classical music was culture.

Makes sense. So how did you get hip to jazz?

During my second year of high school there was a concert – a variety show that the senior class used to give every year. In that show the piano player, Don Goldberg, was actually in my class, so he was my age, and he was improvising on my instrument! By then I had playing piano for about seven years and was pretty good.  Even though I didn’t really understand what Don was doing, I could sense that it was organized and it seemed like they were all having fun. Anyway, I went to him after the show and talked to him and asked. “How do you do that?” So that was the beginning.  He said, “If you like what I am doing, maybe you should get some George Shearing records.” 

Was there any educator from your early career as a young music scholar who had a lasting impact on you and, if so, what was it about, his or her or their teaching styles that resonated with you?

Well my first teacher taught me how to read, but about two or three years later I had another teacher, Martha Jordan.  She really taught me about dynamics and “feel.” That was very important to my own development as a player.

Later on you studied with Chris Anderson. What about his playing appealed to you? Can you discuss your time with him as his student?

Chris, even though he was blind, he would use imagery.  In other words, he might talk about the sound of water flow over the rocks or some other metaphors when discussing playing music.

That was effective for you?

Well, it was. It was definitely different! [laughs]

I was in college and I went to school in Iowa.  But in the summers I was at home in Chicago and at one point I heard Chris Anderson at a jam session and his playing just got to my heart.  His harmonies… I’ve learned a lot about harmony from Chris. He taught more about stimulating me to open up my ears to some other approaches to harmony.

Sometimes Billy Wallace and Harold Mabern and Chris and I would get together and we would decide on a ballad to work on and each guy would play in sequence and use substitute harmonies.  We would keep going around and around and then when we exhausted that song, we’d take another ballad and do the same thing.

First off, what a group of players!

Oh yeah. [laughs]

Also, what a good exercise to really stretch your abilities and challenge yourself.

Yeah, so that kind of developed my ear for harmony and developed my eagerness to reach the other ways to harmonically express the music.

One topic that we often revisit in this magazine, is how – in broad stroke terms – there are two avenues of education as musician, one being the traditional classroom or private lesson approach and the other being sort of learning by doing. What are the benefits to learning in a classroom setting compared to, as you did, playing and recording at such young age with people like Miles and others?

Well, in the classroom you are being taught by a teacher who is telling the class what other musicians have done and imparting the rules that have resulted from what they had done. What we often don’t realize is that we are actually taught these rules that were created by people who broke the rules.

That’s a good point.

The people who only follow the rules – we don’t wind up knowing who they are. They didn’t make a difference. So we are taught to follow rules that were made by people who didn’t follow rules! [laughs] That’s why, when I teach, I try to tell students, “I am telling you what other people did. Now I want you to go out and do something else, yourself.”

That’s where the dangers are for traditional teaching. It can be confining, depending on the teacher.  It can either discourage self-discovery or it can just simply not encourage it. Both things are very dangerous to creativity.

For me, by the time I got to college I had learnt so much from playing jam sessions, basically on the streets, from other musicians that had shown me what they had learnt and shared their experiences with me. So I didn’t learn so much about that in college. Harmony is something I have learnt primarily from the street.


But when it came to things like orchestration and learning about the fingerings of other instruments – bowing techniques and so forth – there was a class called “Instrumental Techniques” and I did study that in college.  That was something that I hadn’t learnt on the street.

Was harmonic exploration part of the appeal when, as a high schooler, you watched your classmate, Don, improvising on the piano?

Well, first, when it came to this transition from classical music to jazz, harmonically, were vocal groups. One was the Four Freshmen, because they sang something that was a little more advanced than what we call barbershop harmony. The Hi-Lo’s were the next group that had a big impact on me, and they were even more advanced than the Four Freshmen, particularly their arrangements by a guy named Clare Fischer. And they blew my mind. I tried to figure out what they were singing, and not just the notes, but where they fit in this scheme of things, harmonically.  And some of the techniques that were used in writing for that group.

That was early on, so it must have been after I heard this guy Don Goldberg.  I’m not sure exactly where that would all fit in but it certainly was in my early teens.

What were some artists that continued this interest in harmonic development?

Later, Bill Evans was a big influence on me, but I had already been studying with Chris Anderson, prior to hearing Bill Evans.  Later on I began to listen to people like Stravinsky and even electronic composers – Stockhausesn was a big influence. Later on, Chick Corea was an influence.

But in the early timeline, I would say from George Shearing, I then listened to Erroll Garner and then it was Oscar Peterson.  Then I heard some of the west coast musicians like Chet Baker, and some other musicians.

But then I started to hear the east coast musicians and that was a little harder edged, and I could feel that more.  That’s when I started to cross over and listen to Art Blakey and the  Jazz Messengers and later on Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter, and of course Miles. Miles was always the top musician for me.

What was it like to getting to record or to play with him at such a young age?

Well, first let me tell you that I may have dreamed of playing with Art Blakey’s group or with some other well-known groups, but I never dreamed that I would ever play with Miles.  Not in my wildest dream.  That was a whole different category.  That’s like being up with Zeus [laughs].  So when I did get the opportunity to play with Miles it was like the pinnacle of my dreams.

I can imagine.

Yeah and it might have been beyond the pinnacle.  It was the pinnacle, but beyond my dreams! [laughs]  And it was unbelievable for me to be able to hear his sound and his approach, night after night. It was just a thrill.

You are one of only a handful of people who can claim to have that perspective, that experience. Was there anything in particular that you took away from, or learned, from sharing the stage, sharing the recording studio, sharing the jamming process with Miles that was specific to working with him?

Well the first thing that I had noticed about Miles was that he really knew how to listen.  And so that pointed out the importance of listening. That was the first thing.  Because I could tell that he was listening to me by the notes that he played, but I could tell that he was listening to the drummer, Tony Williams, by the rhythms that he would play.  I could tell that he listened to Ron Carter, the bass player, by the flow of the notes that he employed.

What an experience. Moving on to your solo career, while your music is rooted in jazz, nonetheless it often stretches the boundaries of musical genres. How important is it to you to be considered a “jazz artist”? Do such categories have much meaning for you, or do you just follow your own muse and leave it to fans and journalists to categorize, if they so choose?

My foundation is very much in jazz.  That foundation, however, has made it possible for me to explore those other genres and those other territories, and expand to the point where some of the music that I played is difficult to categorize into this single genre of “jazz.” Jazz gives you that flexibility.

One of the first things I tell people that I teach is that knowing how magnetic music is, sometimes kind of encompassing it may kind of fuel your life and your perspective.  The best thing that you can do to improve your music is to work on your life.

Really, and what do you mean by that?

Because nobody wants to hear B Flat 7 and B Major 7. That’s not music. [laughs]

What’s the material, where does the material come from for expression? It comes from living life.

So when people, musicians, tell me, “I am wasting my time because I’ve got this job working at McDonald’s,” I tell them, “You are not wasting your time at all.  You have the opportunity to learn what being a human being is about and that’s the source material for music.”

What a great lesson to impart. 

Yeah, it is! [laughs]  Well, I didn’t realize that until after I started practicing Buddhism. Indeed, I realized that a lot of lessons I learnt from Miles, for example, not only apply to music, but apply to life, too. I mean, I mentioned only one of them, which is listening closely, and that applies to life, too. I have a book that just came out and I tell stories in there about things I learnt from Miles and then how, later on, I realized they’re applicable as life lessons.

When I first went to Miles’ house, I was auditioning with Tony Williams and he and I were the first people that were asked to come to his house. Ron Carter actually had already been in kind of an interim group that Miles had and so had George Coleman and, anyway, they were at the house and then Tony and I were the new guys. Miles only played for a few minutes and then he threw his phone down on the couch.  Said, “Aah, shit,” and then he ran upstairs.  We didn’t see him for the rest of the day, which was another two or three hours, but then Miles came down and told us to come back the next day.  I found out years later that when Miles threw his phone on the couch and ran upstairs, he actually ran upstairs to his bedroom and he listened to us over the intercom.


Because he knew that we would be intimidated if he was down there.  He wanted to hear us kind of unencumbered by that intimidation. Which is a sign of both compassion and wisdom – two qualities that apply to life, too. Miles was always nurturing us; I mean, he loved us. He was always encouraging us to bring our tunes, and he would work on the tunes to make them, quote-unquote, right.  And so I learned a lot about space and provocative shaping of that rendition of the music.

How about when students are learning from you, nowadays? What is your favorite thing about teaching younger scholars, teaching jazz?

I would say there are two things.  One of them is sharing my experiences and experiences and the other thing is learning from the students.

That’s great.  Okay, last question:  Any words of advice to your fellow jazz educators?  

Yes. Be careful of stifling that which we may not be able to see so easily, and that is: what the student may be able to offer as a rule-changer.

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