April 12, 1940 pianist and composer Herbert Jeffrey “Herbie” Hancock was born in Chicago.
Though grounded in Bill Evans and able to absorb blues, funk, gospel, and even modern classical influences, Hancock’s piano and keyboard voices are entirely his own, with their own urbane harmonic and complex, earthy rhythmic signatures – and young pianists cop his licks constantly.
Takin’ Off Having taken up the piano at age seven, Hancock quickly became known as a prodigy, soloing in the first movement of a Mozart piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony at the age of 11. After studies at Grinnell College, Hancock was invited by Donald Byrd in 1961 to join his group in New York City, and before long, Blue Note offered him a solo contract. His debut album, Takin’ Off, took off indeed after Mongo Santamaria covered one of the album’s songs, “Watermelon Man.” In May 1963, Miles Davis asked him to join his band in time for the Seven Steps to Heaven sessions, and he remained there for five years, greatly influencing Miles’ evolving direction, loosening up his own style, and, upon Miles’ suggestion, converting to the Rhodes electric piano. In that time span, Hancock’s solo career also blossomed on Blue Note, pouring forth increasingly sophisticated compositions like “Maiden Voyage,” “Cantaloupe Island,” “Goodbye to Childhood,” and the exquisite “Speak Like a Child.” He also played on many East Coast recording sessions for producer Creed Taylor and provided a groundbreaking score to Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow Up, which gradually led to further movie assignments. Fat Albert Rotunda Having left the Davis band in 1968, Hancock recorded an elegant funk album, Fat Albert Rotunda, and in 1969 formed a sextet that evolved into one of the most exciting, forward-looking jazz-rock groups of the era. Now deeply immersed in electronics, Hancock added the synthesizer of Patrick Gleeson to his Echoplexed, fuzz-wah-pedaled electric piano and clavinet, and the recordings became spacier and more complex rhythmically and structurally, creating its own corner of the avant-garde.
Head Hunters The next step, then, was a terrific funk group whose first album, Head Hunters, with its Sly Stone-influenced hit single, “Chameleon,” became the biggest-selling jazz LP up to that time. Now handling all of the synthesizers himself, Hancock’s heavily rhythmic comping often became part of the rhythm section, leavened by interludes of the old urbane harmonies. Hancock recorded several electric albums of mostly superior quality in the ’70s, followed by a wrong turn into disco around the decade’s end. In the meantime, Hancock refused to abandon acoustic jazz. After a one-shot reunion of the 1965 Miles Davis Quintet (Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, Wayne Shorter, with Freddie Hubbard sitting in for Miles) at New York’s 1976 Newport Jazz Festival, they went on tour the following year as V.S.O.P.
Jazzvisions: Jazz AfricaHancock continued his chameleonic ways in the ’80s: scoring an MTV hit in 1983 with the scratch-driven, proto-industrial single “Rockit” (accompanied by a striking video); launching an exciting partnership with Gambian kora virtuoso Foday Musa Suso that culminated in the swinging 1986 live album Jazz Africa; doing film scores; and playing festivals and tours with the Marsalis brothers, George Benson, Michael Brecker, and many others. After his 1988 techno-pop album, Perfect Machine, Hancock left Columbia (his label since 1973), signed a contract with Qwest that came to virtually nothing (save for A Tribute to Miles in 1992), and finally made a deal with Polygram in 1994 to record jazz for Verve and release pop albums on Mercury.
He was also named Creative Chair for the New Los Angeles Philharmonic.