Skip to page content

 

HERBIE HANCOCK is a true icon of modern music. His 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.

Hancock 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. Few artists in the entire music industry 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, Hancock was discovered by trumpeter Donald Byrd, who asked him to join his group. Byrd also introduced Hancock to Alfred Lion of Blue Note Records; 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 on 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, Hancock appeared 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. In 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 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. 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, he had 11 albums in the pop charts during the 1970s.

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. 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.

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 straight ahead 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 Grammys in 1999, including Best Traditional Jazz Album and Best R&B Vocal Performance for Stevie Wonder's "St. Louis Blues."

Hancock's career outside the performing stage and recording studio has continued. 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. 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.

He 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.

At the end of 1999, Hancock joined two partners - his manager David Passick and former Verve Records president Chuck Mitchell - to form Transparent Music. In a unique arrangement, Hancock 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 reunited 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, entitled Future2Future, was released in September 2001.