Music Interviews

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Herbie Hancock

interview by Joy Williams
Published in Jazz Forum: the Magazine of the International Jazz Federation (Poland)

Herbie Hancock c Randy Bachman/Artist Publications

Cover Photo of Herbie Hancock
© Randy Bachman/Artist Publications

“I knew of jazz, but I didn’t like it. I always thought only older people liked jazz—you know, you had to be 19 or 20. But this guy was 13, my age, and I was wondering: ‘How could this kid create music?’ I was fascinated and I said, ‘I've got to learn how to do this. That's my instrument, and he can do it. Why can't I?’”

I entered the cream and cozy stucco home on a Southern California warm and sunny winter's day, full of fear and trembling. Herbie Hancock is a legend in his time, a jazz artist par excellence, who has crossed over to the big-time celebrity world of pop-rock and back again, with ease and credibility. What kind of man could do this, I wondered? What kind of man can think and act so much outside the rules, and yet make it all work?

As I ascend the lushly carpeted stairs, past the walls festooned with gold and platinum records, I expect to see some coldly mechanized, computerized man/machine, or perhaps some esoteric genius.

Instead, I'm greeted by a warm family room complete with shelves stuffed with art books, a wide-screen TV, a gilt-golden Buddhist shrine, and a relaxed and smiling Herbie Hancock. He's just finished chanting, clearing his mind and readying for our talk.

"I've been interviewed so many times before, I thought I'd give you something a little different," he smiles. And over the next several hours he proceeds to tell me the story of the growth and development of a remarkable artist....

"I got into jazz in high school," Herbie reminisces, "because…. At one of the student variety shows they had this jazz trio playing, and the piano player was improvising and I knew he was improvising. I didn't know what he was playing but it felt and sounded right; I could tell he knew what he was doing. And that was my incident. I knew of jazz, but I didn't like it. I always thought only older people liked jazz—you know, you had to be 19 or 20," he laughs. "But this guy was 13, my age, and I was wondering: 'How could this kid create music?' I was fascinated and I said, 'I've got to learn how to do this. That's my instrument, and he can do it. Why can't I?'

"So, he taught me how to play a simple riff and I somehow found a couple of other notes to play, then I learned how to watch his left hand and I learned where the notes were. I could read, you see, so I would watch his left hand and kind of find what notes to play. Then I would watch him improvise, and I would be fascinated by what he was doing. And I was always grabbing him and saying, 'Hey, man, let's have a little jam session.'

"He sounded like George Shearing. So, I remember going home and saying, 'Mama, mama, I gotta hear; get George Shearing records.' My mama said, 'You have some George Shearing records. Remember a couple of Christmases ago when you got mad at me when I bought these records, I bought you Earl Bostic and somebody else.... So we dusted them off and put them on, and I said 'That's the stuff.' "I took 'I Remember April' to try to learn the solo, to learn those block chords he used to play. I would take the needle and just put it on, and as soon as I'd hear a note I'd try to write it down, because I might never remember it otherwise. "But what wound up happening was that I got four bars down, and then when I got to the fifth bar I noticed there was something similar about the way the fifth bar sounded and the way the fourth bar sounded. And I began to notice that some of the notes were the same and I said, 'What is this?' That's when I began to be aware of voicings and of inversions. And then I started to find out what it is that is holding these two things together. That's when I began to understand what a chord is. So I learned theory to find a shorter method to take things off a record.

"But I also had to learn other things. When I'd take things off the record, I could count '1, 2, 3, 4,' and I heard there were a lot of eighth notes, but I also heard they weren't exactly eighth notes, but I wrote them down as eighth notes and I found out later that was the right thing to do. But they weren't exactly eighth notes; there was a certain thing with the feel, there was a little syncopation, see.

"I also noticed that sometimes things were playing right after the beat. 'Cause I noticed that I'd plan out the notes and then I'd try to play it and I'd have to say, 'It doesn't sound the same. What's the difference?' And I'd notice, 'Well, this note's longer than that other one. Or, he delayed this one.' And it fascinated me the way George Shearing could lay back like that. I said, 'How does he do it?' But I practiced on it. I'd find the notes, but I couldn't play with the same feeling. Then, when I got to Earl Gardner and Oscar Peterson and more bluesy kind of things, which I really like, then I had to learn to feel.

"How, I wonder, do you go about learning to play with feeling? Is there more to it than being 'born with soul?'"

Of course, Herbie maintains, you learn it like any classical musician does, you learn it by rote until it becomes natural: "At first I sounded like any stiff classical musician, trying to play that stuff. But I wanted it for the details. I wanted to make it sound like that. I found out a lot of little things about details, about accents and how much of an accent to make. And I just practiced on it and practiced on it. I found a lot of little things about details, about accents and how much of an accent to make. And I'd talk to this guy.... I got to where I could improvise a little bit, and then we would have this little duet thing and I would play the left hand and he'd play the right hand, and then we would switch around and he'd play the left hand and I'd improvise on the right hand. He taught me—the first moves, I learned from him.

"This was in high school, and he was really my first teacher. And it's funny, because now.... He never took the step that I took. He continued with music, but he began to make music as an arranger through doing society music. That stuff he didn't particularly like, but he liked the money. So, you know what he wound up doing? He writes music for the Ice Capades and he does the Las Vegas Moulin Rouge show stuff. And every once in a while I'll run into him. Some usher will come and say, 'There's a guy at the back door that says he taught you how to play jazz!'" Herbie laughs again as he reflects on the irony. "And I'll say, 'Let him in, 'cause he did.'"

So the boy who taught Herbie Hancock how to improvise opted for a safe and sane life, while his former student went on, first into the jazz stratosphere and eventually onto the pop charts and top-40 world of MTV, into movie soundtracks and to his own interview show.

Bill Cosby, Debbie Allen, Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock c Tommy Noonan/Artist Publications

Bill Cosby, Debbie Allen, Dizzy Gillespie and Herbie Hancock
Photo: © Tommy Noonan/Artist Publications

Most musicians who enter the world of avant garde jazz never move out of the genre, consumed with exploring their own esoteric world. But Herbie's muses led him elsewhere, and his longtime habit of looking inward and examining his own artistic motives eventually led him to explore ever more foreign musical territory.

"One thing I like about jazz," he says, "is that it emphasized doing things differently from what other people were doing. And that was fascinating, because you could do something different every time. I get bored easily, but later I learned that it is OK to do something that others have done. I took a different view of what it was I had been doing before and started to come to some realizations about the way I looked at life.

"Something was missing from what I had been doing. This was later on in my career and I had gotten into doing some really avant garde stuff. It was real elitist and real heavy and serious, and completely removed from anything else that was commonplace. And I looked at it and I said, 'Now, wait a minute. I've gotten so far above the ground that, instead of expanding, I'm eliminating. Something's wrong with this picture. Let me look at this and reevaluate.'

"I mean, looking ahead and examining is what led me to that." He nods and points to the Buddhist alter. "How you see things is what this does. I mean, it doesn't show you the vision, it opens you up so that you can see. You get a better vantage point. I chanted a lot during that period. From '70 to '73 I'd had a sextet, but the band was not self-supporting and I couldn't afford it, so I broke it up. And then I didn't know what kind of music I wanted to do, because I was just fed up to here with it. It wasn't fulfilling anymore. It wasn't fun and it wasn't a joy; it was pressure.

"So I chanted a lot and I started thinking, 'Do I consider myself and what I do better than what Sly Stone or what James Brown does?' I said, 'No, I never did.' But then I was thinking, 'Well, would I play that kind of music? No. Well, if I don't consider myself better than them, what then are my real feelings about this?' And I started to realize, actually, that I was just as snobbish as the people whose attitudes I disrespected."

Thinking back over his career, Herbie realized that "something had happened to me. When I first went to New York, I went with Donald Bird and he and I were roommates for a couple of years before I joined Miles (Davis). But Donald listened to a lot of different kinds of music and he played the first electronic music by.... I can't remember whether Donald Bird turned me on to Stockhausen or whether Tony Williams did....

"This was in 1961 as a wide-eyed, enthusiastic 21-year-old kid, so I was wide open to hear anything. I was fresh, newly in New York and I was just open to everything. It was just fascinating to me; like, all these different things were happening in music! Then, when I joined Miles' band and I met Tony Williams.... But Tony was much younger than me and he was already listening to Ornette Coleman and Elliot Carter and John Cage. Actually, I'd heard John Cage, but Tony was into it. I was sort of on the outside looking in, but he was into that stuff. So I was always wondering, 'What's he listening to? What is he hearing that I'm not hearing?'

"So I hung out with Tony all the time and I kept asking him, 'What is this rhythm? How do you to this, how do you do that?' I used to go to his place and he'd put on Coltrane records and he'd listen, and he'd hear certain things and he'd scream. What was he hearing? I'd listen, and eventually, finally, I could hear what Trane was doing and to open myself up to...

"See, there were certain rules I'd always used, and people like Trane, they would break those rules. I had to learn how to listen to that. And also there's an emotional element they open themselves up to that's being expressed."

Herbie pauses and reflects: "A method that doesn't use what you know. It's just pure, raw emotion. You don't know what that's going to sound like; you just do it because the urge is there. And you allow yourself to play off that plane. You're in this dark room of unknowns, you allow yourself to go there. But through finally getting to hear Trane's contemporary stuff, then I could hear Don Cherry and then I could hear all those other guys.

"And I loved it, I loved it! I wanted to be part of the newer stuff. As much as I respected Bird and musicians like Bud Powell and so forth, I wanted to be in with Miles and Trane, and eventually.... You asked me before about being an innovator and I mentioned that I've always been some kind of leader. I think it's something I got from my mom; it's kind of an achiever thing. Still, when I finally left Miles in '68 and got my own band, it was a logical step; because anybody that left Miles always had their own band."That was before synthesizers. The first thing I ever heard about synthesizers, they were being used in rock. I wasn't interested in rock at all, but I was fascinated by people like James Brown, once he did 'Papa's Got a Brand New Bag.' That, I liked."

In a roundabout way, this all led to Herbie's first personal exposure to synthesizers in 1970. "I had just read an interview in Playboy of Bill Cosby, and in the introduction to the interview it mentioned that he had a management company. He's a friend of mine from 1963, so I called Bill. He said, 'Good thing you called. I'm doin' an animated thing for television. It's from one of my concerts, called Fat Albert.' I knew that show was about black kids from Philadelphia. They weren't into jazz, they were into rhythm and blues. But I did like that kind of James Brown beat. Bill wasn't on Warner Bros Records anymore, but he was still good friends with Joe Smith and he played the tape for Joe and Joe loved it. He called me in New York and I wound up moving from Blue Note to Warners because of Bill Cosby."

The first album he did for Warners was called Fat Albert Rotunda, and it's the music from that show, but re-recorded. This time, it was Herbie's jazz band and not the funk session players from Los Angeles that he'd used on the show's soundtrack recording, and the record company wasn't happy with the results. "So then they figured maybe if they could get me with a producer that would kind of edge me toward that funkier stuff that would sell.... They chose David Rubinson, who came to hear my band to see what he had to do with it. But the band had not only had gotten away from doing the funkier Fat Albert stuff, it was much more avant garde. But instead of him pulling us over to what Warner Bros. wanted us to do, he became like the spokesman for our side, to try to figure how to keep the music as it was but put it in a form that was palatable enough to sneak it through Warner Bros. So the idea of using the synthesizer in our band came to be because he said that the synthesizer is associated with rock.

"David got this guy named Patrick Gleason and we let him do the intro to Crossings. I listened to what he had done and it was so gorgeous! It was fantastic! These sounds were so interesting, and we were into sounds. Well, after I put Patrick all over the record I asked him to join the band. He said, 'Travel with a band?' I said, 'I know, it's never been done.' There had been no jazz groups with synthesizer players and I think even rock groups didn't carry synthesizer players with them. This was before programmable synthesizers, so he could only do weird bleeps and squawks and a lot of white noise things. Because it wasn't programmable, how were you to move from one sound to the next while the music was still going? He eventually figured out some sort of choreography, but he was still very limited because he had to patch this stuff. I broke up that band in '72.

"Now, I had never played synthesizer but I'd asked Patrick millions of questions. So finally I was actually able, through the Arp company, to get an Odyssey out of them—I was endorsing Arp. I had just recently moved to California and I didn't bring my acoustic piano from New York because it wouldn't survive the trip. I figured I'd already started endorsing stuff, so maybe I could endorse an acoustic piano and get a free one. I didn't know it doesn't work that way for acoustic pianos! So for seven years I didn't have an acoustic piano—but I was able to get some synthesizers.

"Finally, I did the Headhunters record, and I did it myself. The difference between Sextet, the first LP for Columbia, and Headhunters was night and day. For Headhunters what happened was that I decided I was tired of this heavy, heavy music and trying to be an innovator, trying to be sort of... although I never really put myself in this category. I look back and who were the innovators? There's Charlie Parker and there's Miles, there's Trane. I'm none of those guys, so why am I beating myself up trying to find the lost chord all the time? Why don't I relax, play some nice music that people could....

"Another thing I began to notice: I'd go to a party somewhere and I'd say, 'Oh, I just finished doing my record.' I'd put it on and it interfered. It was so weird people couldn't talk anymore. So I said, 'Something's wrong.' The only way you could listen to that music was if you sat down and did nothing else and devoted your attention to doing this. It wasn't functional. Who in the hell has the time to sit down and do nothing but listen to music? People listen to music in their car, people put music on when they're doing housework. I said, 'No wonder my records have no sales. Life is hard enough as it is, why should I make it more difficult?'

"So I said, 'OK. I like Sly Stone, I love Sly Stone. So why don't I just try to do some kind of a funk record?' And I sat back and I realized that I could lose all the audience that I had. It may not be good, I may not even gain a new audience. But I had just a very, very strong urge to do this. I said, 'I like funk and I'm curious to see what I can do in that area and I want to try it. And if I don't try it, I'm a coward.' But it wasn't a funk record, it was a jazz-funk record. I wasn't trying to make a jazz-funk record; I didn't know what jazz-funk was!

"It kept integrating with these jazz elements, so after a while I stopped fighting. I kind of liked the direction we were going in; it was nice. And then we put the record out and it sold, I mean it sold a lot. I was shocked that I had a record on the pop charts—number 10 on the pop charts! Playing concerts in front of a lot of people, and they came to see me. I was a headliner! It was really something.

"At that time I also met Stevie Wonder who was recording Songs In The Key Of Life. He was recording in a studio called Crystal and any time I'd come in there he had something to lay on me. One time I went over to Crystal and he had this prototype of a synthesizer: you could get chords on it, four-voice chords! It was an Oberheim four-voice synthesizer. But it was a prototype, all the synthesizers before that were monophonic. When this four-voice came out I bought it and used to take that along to a few gigs.

"I met Tom Oberheim and he told me he was trying to figure out a way to make it programmable. I said, 'What do you mean?' I didn't know what he was talking about. Then one day, I guess he took a vacation or something, and he came back and said, 'I was sitting on the Bois de Boulogne in Paris and I figured it out.' Then he added four more voices and he had an eight-voice programmable synthesizer. Ah, that was more than anybody could hope for, it was incredible!

"Finally, I had to have a real technical person because I started to get heavy into technology then. So I hired this guy named Brian Bell. Brian had a mentor whom he could turn to, that was like Brian's god. So one day Brian said, 'OK, we've got to get a computer.' I said, 'Really? What kind should we get?'"

Nowadays, in addition to the acoustic grand piano in the living room, Herbie has a room out behind the house that is stuffed full of computers and disk drives and boxes of new music software and MIDI hook-ups and keyboards and emulators and tape decks and mixing boards and every manner of electronic music gadget imaginable at the time.

But will he return again to acoustic jazz?

"Why do people always ask me that? I always have the same answer: Why would I stop? I've always been doing it. What I always wonder is, why is it that whenever I make a record they think that whatever that thing is on that record, that's the only thing I do? Why do they think that I'm not going to also do acoustic records? Music is sound. I can change clothes, too, but nobody ever asks if I'm ever going to go back to wearing a T-shirt!"

Herbie's guiding vision, through all his learning and searching and creating is that "as a musician I feel you have a responsibility to other human beings to provide a service that always leads somehow toward the uplifting human experience. Somehow be constructive rather than destructive. Or else you're not fulfilling your raison d'être as an entity."


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