Hancock, Herbie (actually, Herbert Jeffrey)

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Hancock, Herbie (actually, Herbert Jeffrey)

Hancock, Herbie (actually, Herbert Jeffrey), highly influential jazz and fusion-funk pianist, keyboardist, composer, leader; b. Chicago, III., April 12, 1940. Classically trained, he won a competition to play with the Chicago Sym. Orch. at 11; the Mozart concerto he preferred to play wasn’t available so he had to learn another one quickly. In high school, he became interested in jazz through classmates, initially influenced by George Shearing, Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck, Horace Silver, and Erroll Garner. He began leading his own band, and also gigged with Coleman Hawkins, Donald Byrd, and others while he studied music and electrical engineering at Grinnell Coll. (1956–60). He worked for a time for the post office in Chicago while gigging at night. By February 1961 he had replaced Duke Pearson in the Donald Byrd- Pepper Adams Quintet. He moved to N.Y. (at the urging of Byrd) on June 18, 1961, and continued in the Quintet through at least the end of 1962. He also worked with Phil Woods around September 1962. He took courses at the Manhattan School of Music and the New School for Social Research. While recording with Byrd for Blue Note he was invited to make his 1962 debut album Takin Off, which featured the now-classic “Watermelon Man.” In the summer of 1963 he was contacted by Miles Davis to come to a rehearsal, and was later casually asked by Davis to join the quintet. He stayed until mid-1968, earning international fame for his brilliant soloing, accompanying and writing. Davis also introduced him to the electric Fender Rhodes piano. In 1966 Hancock wrote some music for the film Blow Up, which made the pop charts. Three years later, he composed the music for Bill Cosby’s TV special, Hey, Hey, Hey, It’s Fat Albert. In 1968 he organized a sextet, and soon he began using synthesizers as well as the Fender Rhodes in long, dreamy and freely improvised compositions. In 1972 he settled in L.A., and in 1973 he took up a form of Buddhism. In a pattern typical of his generation (see Chick Corea, Sonny Rollins), at the same time he began playing electric music with a decidedly danceable beat, scoring a big hit with “Chameleon,” a group-written piece from the album Headhunters, released early in 1974. Also typically, he began to divide his time between acoustic-piano work and electric playing. His acoustic jazz dates included touring and recordings with V.S.O.P. (which was the old Davis quintet with Freddie Hubbard and later Wynton Marsalis substituting for Davis) and in duet with Chick Corea. In all, he had 11 albums on the charts during the 1970s and early 1980s. His 1983 piece “Rockit,” a collaboration with Material from the gold-selling Future Shock album, won him a Grammy (Best R&B; Instrumental), and the video (including some stop-motion animation) won five MTV Awards. The title song from his next album Sound System also won a Grammy. He said he was even more moved when he won an Oscar in 1986 for his acoustic jazz soundtrack for Bertrand Tav-ernier’s film ’Round Midnight. (He acted in the film as well). Hancock went on to compose soundtracks for Colors and A Soldier’s Story. From 1989 to 1991 he hosted a music series for Showtime called Coast to Coast and in the mid-1990s performed on the Rock School instructional “how to play” series. Since the early 1990s, he’s been a partner in a video production company that develops interactive educational products (e.g., Rock School; CD-ROM history of jazz). In 1996 he toured Japan with Dave Holland and Gene Jackson and played a week at the Blue Note in N.Y. In 1997-98 he toured with a reunion of the Headhunters band.

Hancock is clearly one of the great jazz pianists, a brilliant and inventive musician with an amazingly flexible sense of time. At times surprisingly modest, for example, in his repeated denial that he can play unaccompanied piano successfully, he has found himself increasingly in the “pop star” category since 1973. Yet, he continually returns to playing acoustic jazz, and has been able to find an audience in both pop and jazz worlds.


Takin’ Off (1962); My Point of View (1963); Inventions and Dimensions (1963); Empyrean Isles (1964); Maiden Voyage (1965); Blow Up (music from the film; 1966); Speak Like a Child (1968); Prisoner (1969); Mwandishi (1969); Fat Albert Rotunda (1969); Crossings (1971); Sextant (1972); Headhunters (1973); Thrust (1974); Death Wish (music from the film; 1974); V.S.O.P. Quintet (1977); Tempest in the Colosseum (V.S.O.P.; 1977); Sunlight (1977); H. H. Trio (1977); Flood (live album issued in Japan; 1977); Live in Japan (1977); Evening with Chick Corea and H. H (1978); Live under the Sky (V.S.O.P.; 1979); In Concert (duets with Corea; 1979); Quartet (with W. Marsalis; 1981); Mr. Hands (1982); Future Shock (1983); Hurricane (acoustic trio concert video; 1984); H. H. and the Rockit Band (1984); The Best of H. H.: The Blue Note Years (1988); Jazz Africa (1990); Secrets (1991); Monster (1991); Man-Child (1991); Dis Is Da Drum (1995); Canteloupe Island (1995); 1+1 (duets with Wayne Shorter; 1996); Headhunters (1997); Gershwin’s World (1998); The Best ofH. H.: The Hits! (2000).

—Lewis Porter