Hancock, Herbie (1940—)

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Hancock, Herbie (1940—)

Herbie Hancock has forged a career that has pushed the envelope of jazz music and, in doing so, has reached a wider audience than any other jazz musician ever has. His 1973 album, Head Hunters, is the biggest selling jazz record in history. This Chicago native is easily among the most eclectic musicians of any genre. Hancock has worked within the field of jazz playing free, bebop, and fusion styles, and outside performing world music, hip-hop, funk, and dance music. Along with Miles Davis, he helped create the style known as jazz fusion in the late 1960s and, as a solo artist during the early 1970s, Hancock was one of the first to pioneer the use of synthesizers within jazz. And on his 1983 hit single, "Rockit," he introduced the mainstream pop world to turntable scratching, an element of hip-hop music that uses a turntable and an album as a musical instrument by manually manipulating the sounds it makes. Throughout his long career, Herbie Hancock has continually evolved and challenged genre boundaries in all forms of music.

A child prodigy, Hancock studied music in school and, at age 11, performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at a young people's concert. He later formed a high school jazz group, played with the likes of Donald Byrd and Coleman Hawkins at local Chicago jazz clubs, and then left for New York City in 1960 to join and record with Donald Byrd's combo. Soon after working with Byrd, Hancock was offered a solo contract with the jazz label Blue Note, which released his 1962 debut, Takin' Off. The album spawned the hit and soon-to-be jazz standard "Watermelon Man," positioning Hancock as an important jazz band composer. During the 1960s, Hancock wrote such classics as "Maiden Voyage," "Dolphin Dance," and "I Have a Dream" (a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr.).

After an extended stint in Miles Davis' second legendary quintet (which also included Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams), Hancock released a number of solo albums. He then formed his first important group, Mwandishi, which included Joe Henderson, Johnny Coles, Garnett Brown, Albert "Tootie" Heath, Buster Williams, and, of course, Hancock. From 1969 to 1972, the Mwandishi band explored funk and rock fusion, and was one of the first jazz groups to use a synthesizer, specifically the Moog. Displeased with the poor commercial reception of the records this group produced, Hancock disbanded Mwandishi, but not before he released Sextant, a landmark album that heavily incorporated the synthesizer into the band's laid-back funk vamps.

Hancock then formed the Headhunters, an instrumental jazz/pop/rock/funk combo (featuring Hancock, Bennie Maupin, Paul Jackson, Harvey Mason, and Bill Summers), that became hugely popular. That group's 1973 album, Head Hunters, sold more records than any jazz record had ever sold before, beginning a steady stream of success for Hancock that included 17 albums charting from 1973 to 1984. Due to his widespread popularity, many charges of "selling out" were leveled against him—charged which he dismissed them as merely being "elitist." His popularity culminated with the release of 1983's "Rockit," an electro-funk breakdancing staple that featured the turntable wizardry of Grandmaster D.S.T., marking the first time the art of the hip-hop DJ was heard by a mainstream audience. This song has been cited as a major inspiration for a generation of hip-hop DJs and artists which followed.

During the rest of the 1980s and 1990s, Hancock released a handful of modestly-selling albums, which included the world music fusion of Ids Is DA Drum and, in 1998, an album by the reformed Headhunters.

—Kembrew McLeod

Further Reading:

Porter, Lewis, and Michael Ullman, with Edward Hazell. Jazz: From Its Origins to the Present. Englewood Cliffs, Prentice Hall, 1992.

Vincent, Rickey. Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of the One. New York, St. Martin's Griffin, 1996.