Grounded and well-rounded
Jazz pioneer, bandleader, composer, Oscar and Grammy winner, technical wizard, academic, philanthropist, Buddhist.
It’s a list that presents Herbie Hancock’s life in snapshot.
Sixty-two years after a boy of 11 astonished a youth concert audience with his virtuosity on piano, playing the first movement of a Mozart concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the full inventory of achievements and attributes would be much longer.
And there’s one striking omission, a simple job description that might be expected to come first: musician.
Its absence reflects Hancock’s spirituality. “Practising Buddhism,” says the architect of crossover jazz styles, due to make his Middle East debut at the Abu Dhabi Festival next March, “has brought several revelations to me.” Prominent among these, as he explains on his own website, is that he no longer sees himself as a musician.
“That’s not what I am,” he says. “It’s what I do. What I am is a human being [which] includes me being a musician. It includes my being a father, a husband, a neighbour, a citizen and an Afro-American.”
Yet even with the addition of those everyday roles, we barely scratch at the surface of a man who has been an extraordinarily versatile fixture of six decades of artistic expression.
Music has been good to Hancock, enabling him to navigate a small ocean of other activities from film scores and acting to serving as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) and a jazz professor at the University of California. His film work includes soundtrack composition for audio books and a documentary on basketball by the former NBA star and Muslim convert Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Yet Hancock’s career has not been a voyage without the occasional squall. The diversions into rhythm and blues, soul, synthesised pop and funk endear him to lovers of each genre, but have also brought him some disdain from jazz purists.
And he had to rise above one early setback, being fired by Miles Davis, a monumental figure of US jazz.
It was Davis who had, in Hancock’s early 20s, identified his exceptional talent and snapped him up for his Second Great Quintet, arguably one of the finest combos in jazz history. Still in the 1960s and still playing with Davis, he began collaborating with other artists, composed his first film score – for Michelangelo Antonioni’s risqué thriller Blow-Up, starring David Hemmings, Sarah Miles, Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Birkin – and formed his own sextet.
He also found time to marry Gigi Meixner, who was photographed with him in silhouette for the striking cover sleeve for his sixth album, Speak Like a Child. That record was released in 1968, the year of their wedding; now in its 46th year, the marriage has produced one daughter, Jessica, who helps to handle Hancock’s business affairs.
The wedding was also responsible, indirectly, for the sacking, an event that Hancock recalled with a smile in an interview with London’s The Independent newspaper nearly 40 years later.
The journalist, who spoke glowingly of Hancock’s reputation as “one of the nicest men in jazz”, asked if it was true he had been thrown out of the band for being late back from the honeymoon.
But there was more to it. “My wife and I went to Brazil for our honeymoon,” Hancock replied. “Then I got food poisoning on my wedding night.” Gigs were missed as a consequence but, even when his pianist returned to the US, Davis was suspicious of the food poisoning excuse “because he knew all the members of the band were thinking of leaving”.
Hancock’s job had already been offered to another young pianist, Chick Corea, as he discovered when preparing his post-honeymoon resumption of live work. This was gruffly confirmed by Davis, ending a five-year partnership and filling him with apprehension; looking back, he welcomes the sharp push it gave him. Suddenly without work, he accelerated plans to form his own band and was soon playing the music that he had been writing in every spare moment.
Fourteen Grammy awards, one Oscar and scores of albums later, the scope and success of life beyond Miles Davis vindicates Hancock’s retrospective view that the split was a blessing in disguise. And, despite their abrupt parting of ways, Hancock continues to worship Davis as a “life mentor”.
Hancock was born in Chicago in 1940, one of two children of Wayman and Winnie Hancock, and will turn 74 three weeks after his Abu Dhabi show. His parents gave him a childhood filled with music, enrolling him for classical piano lessons at seven.
In high school, he was drawn increasingly to jazz, a musical form that he would later describe as medicine developed from poisonous roots in slavery.
He had academic ability, too, and combined music and electrical engineering for degree studies at Grinnell College in Iowa. His musical career took off after graduation when he moved to New York and played with the trumpeter Donald Byrd.
From his first album, Takin’ Off, for Blue Note Records, came a hit, Watermelon Man, a cross between 16-bar blues and the 1950s development of bebop known as “hard bop”. It enjoyed modest top 100 success in the US as a single, but did rather better as a poppier Latin cover version by the Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria, and that reached the top 10.
Hancock had written the piece as a commercial venture, and welcomed the spell of financial security that the royalties brought. He refused to see it as a “sell-out”, insisting it had structural strength and almost mathematical balance.
The Miles Davis Quintet years then began, yielding such standards as ESP, Nefertiti and Sorcerer. The bond between the two men survived the 1968 rift and, in the following year, Hancock played on two of his albums, In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, which saw the birth of jazz-fusion.
With his own band, The Headhunters, Hancock once again courted mainstream appeal, an eponymous album that achieved a jazz first by going platinum with more than a million sales. It also produced the crossover hit single Chameleon.
As the 1970s progressed, he steadily won more popular acclaim with jazz-fusion and rhythm and blues while maintaining conventional roots in collaborations with Corea and Oscar Peterson. His Oscar award came later, awarded in the Best Music, Original Score category for Bertrand Tavernier’s 1986 US-French movie Round Midnight. The formidable procession of Grammy awards also began in the 1980s.
The Headhunters disbanded in the mid-1970s, but re-formed for a comeback in 1998 with an album for Hancock’s own label and a tour with the Dave Matthews Band. In the same year, Hancock recorded Gershwin’s World, on which he played with artists including Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and Wayne Shorter. Mitchell became a close friend; his River: The Joni Letters in 2007 was a tribute to her work. With Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Corinne Bailey Rae, Luciana Souza and Leonard Cohen – plus Mitchell herself – contributing vocals, it was also a major success, earning rave reviews and two Grammy awards. One was for the Album of the Year, an honour that falls rarely into a jazzman’s hands.
In other collaborations, Hancock partnered musicians and singers as diverse as Sting, Annie Lennox, Christina Aguilera, Paul Simon and Carlos Santana.
Beyond studio and live performance, and the University of California professorship, he has been named by the Los Angeles Philharmonic as a creative chair for jazz and is chairman of the respected Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz.
A confirmed democrat and champion of Barack Obama, Hancock is a founder of the International Committee of Artists for Peace and holds the French honour of Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres.
Among causes that he supports are women’s rights, Aids prevention, homelessness and cancer relief. After he had performed at a number of charity events, Joni Mitchell gave him a watch engraved with the words “He played real good for free”. The Independent headlined its interview “Too good to be true” and, perhaps unkindly, attached no question mark. It’s difficult, however, to unearth serious detractors beyond jazz snobs who deplored his adventurous spirit.
Hancock practises Buddhism, engaging in the daily “nam-myoho-renge-kyo” chant of the Nichiren branch of the religion. The catalyst for this profound change for a man brought up in the Christian tradition came more than 40 years ago when he was mesmerised by a bass solo played by Buster Williams, a band member who was already a convert.
As Hancock told the multifaith website Beliefnet.com, his initial reaction – “I heard you were into some new philosophy or something and if it can make you play bass like that, I want to know what it is” – led to a deeper philosophical discussion and his decision to embrace Buddhism.
Yet it’s undeniably music, in a broad range of styles, that gives Hancock his international army of admirers, keeping him touring and recording well into his 70s.
Perhaps his appearance at the Emirates Palace Auditorium on March 21 will prove instructive for those interested in learning a little about the man behind that music.
To precede what the Abu Dhabi Festival organisers call an “electrifying concert filled with classic and modern jazz, fusion and funk”, early birds are promised a pre-gig talk. Hancock’s problem, if he tries to cover a life from child prodigy to elder statesman of music, may be knowing when to stop and still have time for the show.
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