The name Jan Hammer means different things to members of different generations. To fans of fusion in its early 1970s heyday, he is remembered as an integral part of the groundbreaking Mahavishnu Orchestra. To couch potatoes who lounged through the 1980s in front of the tube, he is the guy behind the infectious, driving soundtrack music to Miami Vice. In the late 1990s, Hammer is the mostly anonymous composer of scores for countless commercials, TV movies, and feature films. The one consistent theme that has persisted through composer and keyboardist Hammer’s long and varied career has been the drive to be original. Hammer has always managed to be on the scene at the dawn of some musical moment; he was on hand for the instant at which jazz and rock collided, and on the day a decade and a half later when the television industry started to pay closer attention to the “audio” part of “audiovisual.”
Hammer was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, on April 17, 1948. His mother, a jazz singer, and his father, a physician who had worked his way through medical school playing bass and vibes, encouraged their son’s musical interest from the start. By age four, he was playing the piano, and he began receiving formal training two years later. Hammer’s professional debut, accompanying his mother, came when he was 12 years old. Hammer described the house he grew up in to Down Beats Herb Nolan as, “the jazz center of Prague; every jazz personality passed through, and for a jazz musician it was an ideal place to grow up.”
As a high school student, Hammer formed a jazz trio with brothers Miroslav and Alan Vitous, a bassist and drummer respectively. By the time Hammer and Miroslav Vitous—who later became a founding member of the band Weather Report—were awarded first prize honors at the 1966 International Music Competition in Vienna, Austria, Hammer had ditched his original plan to be a doctor in favor of a career in music. He and Miroslav enrolled at the Academy of Muse Arts in Prague, where Hammer immersed himself in the study of classical composition and piano performance from 1966 to 1968. By night he honed his chops in jazz clubs from Munich to Warsaw, picking up jobs as a studio sideman along the way.
When Russian troops invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, Hammer decided to move to the United States, where he had been offered a scholarship to attend the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston. Hammer never really warmed to class work at Berklee, opting instead to devote his energies to finding jobs playing music. Hammer’s first U.S. gig, aboard a Boston Harbor cruise boat in November of 1968, netted him
Born April 17, 1948, in Prague, Czechoslovakia; immigrated to the United States, 1968; father was a physician and jazz musician; mother was a jazz singer; married Ivona; children: one daughter, one son. Education: Attended Academy of Muse Arts, Prague, 1966-68; attended Berklee College of Music, Boston, MA, 1968.
Jazz pianist in various clubs throughout Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Germany, 1967-68; performed at various venues in Boston area, 1968-70; arranger and piano accompanist for vocalist Sarah Vaughan, 1970-71; member of Mahavishnu Orchestra, 1971-73; leader of Jan Hammer Group, 1973-76; involved in numerous performing and recording projects as composer and/or keyboardist, 1976-; composer of musical scores for many motion pictures and television shows, 1978—composed and performed soundtrack for NBC series “Miami Vice,” 1984-87; Smythe & Co., composer for film, television, and advertising, 1997—.
Awards: International Music Competition, Vienna, Austria, first prize, 1966; Grammy awards, Best Instrumental Composition and Best Pop Instrumental Performance for “Miami Vice Theme,” 1985.
Addresses: Management —Elliott Sears Management, 7 Dunham Drive, New Fairfield, CT 06812.
$15.00. From there, he moved on to the Boston Playboy Club, where he secured steady work in the house band. Although quality work was hard to come by, returning to Europe seemed out of the question. Choosing chose to stay in the United States permanently, Hammer applied for and soon was granted citizenship.
In 1970 Hammer received his first major break when he was asked to join the band of renowned jazz singer Sarah Vaughan. Hammer jumped at the opportunity, and with virtually no advance rehearsal, he joined the trio for 13 months of extensive touring across North America and Japan. When his stint with Vaughan was over, Hammer resettled in New York, where his keyboard skills were much in demand. He performed with the likes of flautist Jeremy Steig and drum great Elvin Jones. Jones, a hero of Hammer’s since childhood, liked Hammer’s playing enough invite him to work on two of his albums, On the Mountain and Mr. Jones.
Hammer’s historic role in the development of jazz-rock fusion began to take shape in 1971. That year, he began jamming with guitar whiz John McLaughlin. Within a few months, these meetings led to the creation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, one of the most important fusion bands ever to play a note. Along with Hammer and McLaughlin, this original version of Mahavishnu featured violinist Jerry Goodman, bassist Rick Laird, and drummer Billy Cobham. That lineup recorded three albums over the next two years: The Inner Mounting Flame, Birds of Fire, and Between Nothingness and Eternity. These albums, and the band’s incendiary live concerts, combined the most appealing elements of rock with those of jazz, winning over fans of both idioms in the process. Between 1971 and 1973, Hammer and Mahavishnu played nearly 500 concerts, setting the standard for an entire generation of fusion artists to come.
Hammer’s involvement with Mahavishnu also provided the spark for his interest in the synthesizer as an instrument. The synthesizer allowed him to use his keyboard skills in ways previously impossible. The variety of sounds he was able to create ranged from effects usually associated with electric guitar to walls of noise never before heard out of any instrument. Hammer quickly became one of the most innovative synthesizer practitioners in the world.
By 1973 Hammer was feeling the strain of Mahavishnu’s busy touring schedule, which left him precious little time to compose and to indulge his other musical interests. He left the band after its New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1973, concert, and embarked on a solo career. Hammer’s first post-Mahavishnu project was the album Like Children, a collaboration with violinist Goodman. As a solo artist, Hammer’s first recording was The First Seven Days, which he recorded and produced at his own Red Gate Studio located in his upstate New York farmhouse. Perhaps as a reaction to his work with McLaughlin, The First Seven Days was a guitarless album from start to finish. As Hammer finished work on the album, he began assembling the Jan Hammer Group, which featured Steve Kindler—Goodman’s replacement in Mahavishnu—on violin, bassist Fernando Saunders, and drummer Tony Smith. The Group’s inaugural nationwide tour was a big success.
Part of that success hinged on Hammer’s development, in conjunction with technicians at his favorite synthesizer manufacturer, of a portable keyboard that he could wield freely the way a rock guitarist handles his or her instrument. On the momentum of the tour, the Group headed into the studio to record the album Oh, Yeah?, which, unlike The First Seven Days, contained eight distinct tunes rather than a single run-on concept piece. Oh, Yeah? showed an incredibly broad range of styles and influences, from rock and R&B to progressive disco-jazz and Hammer’s own strange vision of “country & eastern.”
In 1976 Hammer and his band hooked up with guitar hero Jeff Beck to record Beck’s blockbuster LP Wired. The Hammer Group toured with Beck for the next year. After over 100 concerts, the album Jeff Beck with the Jan Hammer Group was released using material recorded live during the tour. Four of the seven tracks on the live album were Hammer compositions. After the end of the band’s association with Beck, it released one more album under the name The Jan Hammer Group, the 1977 LP Melodies.
During the next several years, Hammer veered away from his jazz roots, more toward a purer rock and roll sound. He released a solo album, Black Sheep, then launched a new rock band, called simply Hammer. In the early 1980s Hammer kept busy working on collaborative projects with several artists on both sides of the rock/jazz border. On the rock side, he recorded with Neal Schon of Journey, James Young of Styx, and the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger. His jazz dab-blings included work with guitarists Al DiMeola and John Abercrombie. He also renewed his connection with Jeff Beck, whose album Flash included the Grammy-winning (Best Rock Instrumental Performance) Hammer composition “Escape.”
Meanwhile, Hammer began to try his hand at writing and recording scores for film and television. His earliest efforts came in 1978, when he wrote theme music for the British television series The Tube. In 1981 Hammer composed the score for “Oceans,” a Canadian television documentary. Hammer landed his first movie soundtrack job in 1983, composing the original score for A Night in Heaven. By that time, Hammer was being showered with offers to compose scores for feature films, made-for-TV movies, documentaries, and commercials. The offer that took his career in a new direction came in 1984, when he began writing music for the television series Miami Vice.
Hammer’s “Miami Vice Theme” became a number one single, and the show’s soundtrack album recorded quadruple platinum sales. Hammer also received Grammy awards for “Best Instrumental Composition” and “Best Pop Instrumental Performance.” Over the next four years, Hammer cranked out weekly soundtracks—a total of more than 70 episodes worth—for the show from his home studio. Hammer’s work on “Miami Vice” almost single-handedly created a new, pulsing, driving sound for television music that has since been imitated by countless composers for the small screen.
In 1987 Hammer had two million-selling albums: Miami Vice II and Escape from Television. The following year, he withdrew from the frenzied pace of his full-time Miami Vice gig in order to concentrate on other work. He built a new studio on his upstate New York property. From there, Hammer continued to compose mainly for film and television. Demand for his work remained heavy through the rest of the 1980s and into the 1990s. Hammer’s scores for television included music for the British TV series Chancer, HBO’s Tales from the Crypt, and two pilots for NBC’s Knight Rider 2000. For the big screen, Hammer’s work included scores for the films Sunset Heat and The Taking of Beverly Hills. In 1992 Hammer composed and performed original music for Beyond the Mind’s Eye, a multimedia extravaganza of computer animation and music that spent 112 weeks on Billboards music video charts.
Hammer released a new album, Drive, in 1994, marking the first original, non-soundtrack recording issued under his name in years. After Drive, it was back to scoring for Hammer. In 1995 and 1996, Hammer composed scores for at least two feature films, as well as music for several television projects. In 1997 Hammer signed a deal with the New York commercial music production firm Smythe & Co., where he was expected to create music for film, television, and advertising. Although composing for television commercials seems a long way from Hammer’s groundbreaking work with Mahavishnu and others, the artist himself sees it as a perfect forum for his talents. In Shoot magazine, Hammer revealed his feelings on the subject: “These days, if you want to create wide-ranging or cutting-edge music, the world of advertising is the only place to be.”
The First Seven Days, Nemperor, 1975.
(With Jeff Beck) Wired, 1976.
Black Sheep, Elektra/Asylum, 1978.
Hammer, Asylum, 1980.
(Contributor) A Night in Heaven (soundtrack), A&M, 1983.
(Contributor) Secret Admirer (soundtrack), MCA, 1985.
The Early Years, Nemperor, 1986.
Escape from Television, MCA, 1987.
Beyond the Mind’s Eye, Miramar/MCA, 1992.
With Mahavishnu Orchestra
The Inner Mounting Flame, Columbia, 1972.
Birds of Fire, Columbia, 1973.
Between Nothingness and Eternity, Columbia, 1973.
With Jan Hammer Group
Melodies, Nemperor, 1976.
Oh, Yeah? Nemperor, 1976.
Jeff Beck with the Jan Hammer Group, Nemperor, 1976.
With Al DiMeola
Electric Rendezvous, Columbia, 1982.
Tour de Force—Live, Columbia, 1983.
With Neal Schon
Untold Passion, Columbia, 1981.
Here to Stay, Columbia, 1983.
Original Television Soundtracks
Miami Vice, 1985.
Miami Vice II, 1986.
Miami Vice III, 1987.
Miami Vice/Greatest Hits, 1989.
Tales from the Crypt, 1992.
Down Beat, January 26, 1978; June 1985.
Keyboard, September 1985; January 1995.
Musician, May 1988.
Scholastic Update, March 21, 1986.
Shoot, March 21, 1997.
Additional material for this profile was obtained from the liner notes to the CD Jan Hammer: The Early Years (Nemperor, 1986) and material provided by Elliott Sears Management.
—Robert R. Jacobson
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