The extraordinary Herbie Hancock was born in Chicago on April 12, 1940. A child prodigy, he performed a Mozart piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony when only eleven.
In high school, electronic science absorbed Herbie and listening to Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans triggered his passion for jazz. This dual interest prompted him to major in both music and electrical engineering at Grinnell College.
Herbie joined trumpeter Donald Byrd’s group in 1960 when they were recording for the legendary Blue Note Records label. In 1963, owner Alfred Lion signed Herbie as a solo artist and recorded Takin’ Off. The immediately successful debut album did indeed take off and contained Herbie’s first hit composition, Watermelon Man.
That same year, Miles Davis invited Herbie to join his quintet with Ron Carter on bass, Tony Williams on drums and Wayne Shorter on tenor. Herbie spent five years with this group. Many fans and critics regard this quintet as the greatest small jazz group of the ’60s. Their recordings are classics and include ESP, Nefertiti, and Sorcerer. After Herbie left the group he continued to perform on groundbreaking recordings with Miles such as In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew, heralded as the birth of jazz-fusion.
Simultaneously, while working with Miles, Herbie’s solo career blossomed as he continued recording classic albums for Blue Note including Maiden Voyage, Empyrean Isles, and Speak Like A Child. During this time he also composed his first film score for Blow Up, opening the door to a successful future in film and television scoring.
Herbie’s credits for movies and TV now include Bill Cosby’s Emmy-winning Fat Albert Special, Hey, Hey, Hey, Death Wish, Colors, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, Action Jackson, Harlem Nights, and his Oscar-winning ‘Round Midnight.
After leaving Miles in ’68 and through the ’70s, Herbie focused on the new electronic jazz-funk sweeping the world. In 1973 he recorded Headhunters, his second LP for Columbia Records, which became the first jazz platinum album. The follow-up LP Thrust confirmed that Herbie Hancock was beyond categorization. By mid-decade, he was playing to stadium-size crowds all over the world and had no fewer than four albums in the pop charts at once. Herbie had a total of eleven albums in the pop charts during the ’70s and produced an inexhaustible supply of samples that heavily influenced future generations of hip hop and dance music artists.
Thanks to Herbie’s forte to follow diverse creative paths concurrently, the ’70s produced some outstanding acoustic jazz. He recorded a reunification of the ’60s Miles Davis Quintet substituting Freddie Hubbard for Miles, led various jazz trios and quartets and performed dynamic piano duets with both Oscar Peterson and Chick Corea.
To conclude the decade, Herbie produced a debut album released in 1980 introducing young trumpet player Wynton Marsalis to the world. This was Wynton’s first album as leader and solo artist.
The ’80s brought a series of collaborations with the notorious musical architect Bill Laswell that led to new alternatives and produced the first Future Shock, another platinum album. The single, Rockit, topped the dance and R&B charts, won a Grammy for Best R&B Instrumental and received five MTV awards for the track video. Sound System, the follow-up album, also won a Grammy in the R&B Instrumental category. Once again, Herbie set the trend for future musicians.
The positive impression of Herbie’s previous TV appearances prompted PBS to invite him to host their early ’80s innovative music education show, Rock School, and he accepted. Subsequently, from 1989 through 1991, Herbie hosted Showtime’s Coast to Coast, which was a unique series of in-concert performances, interviews and collaborations.
Herbie recorded a pop-oriented project for Mercury Records called Dis Is Da Drum, before moving to Polygram’s Verve label in 1994. At Verve he formed an all-star band and recorded The New Standard, a landmark album that adapted recent R&BB tunes to a straight-ahead jazz format and won a Grammy award in ’96. The next year Wayne Shorter and Herbie produced an eloquent and daring album of duets titled, 1+1, followed by a reuniting of the Headhunters recorded by Verve before they toured with the rock giant Dave Matthews Band in 1998.
To date, the crowning achievement of Herbie Hancock’s Verve years is Gershwin’s World, recorded in 1998. This masterwork was a melange of artists united in a celebration of Gershwin’s music that included Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Kathleen Battle, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Wayne Shorter and Chick Corea. The album, celebrated as one of the finest in Herbie’s incomparable career, won three Grammy awards in 1999 for Best Traditional Jazz Album and Best R&B Vocal Performance for Stevie Wonder’s rendition of St. Louis Blues.
In a recent unique arrangement, Herbie is now producing small group jazz recordings for Verve, and larger scope projects for Transparent, a multi-media music company dedicated to the presentation of barrier-breaking music of all types. Transparent is a partnership between former Verve Records president Chuck Mitchell, Herbie, and manager David Passick.
The first album for Transparent FUTURE2FUTURE, released in 2001, reunited Herbie and Bill Laswell in collaboration with young hip-hop and techno artists whose work has been strongly influenced by Herbie. The latest small group Verve album, released in June ’02, features Herbie, Roy Hargrove and Michael Brecker in a celebration dedicated to Miles Davis and John Coltrane titled Direction In Music.
Herbie Hancock’s vision extends beyond music, to a world where the contributions of all cultures are welcomed, acknowledged, appreciated, and incorporated into the society. His conviction that communication and education are the keys to attaining this goal, coupled with a strong desire
to instill courage and creative initiative in children, inspired Herbie to establish the Rhythm of Life Foundation in 1996. The organization mission is twofold: to help narrow the gap between the technologically empowered and those who are not; and to seek ways to help technology improve humanity.
Education holds a primary position in Herbie’s life. As a board member of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, which is dedicated to jazz performance and education, Herbie has served as a competition judge, master class teacher, and guest performer with the Institute’s prestigious college program. For eleven years he has served as the Distinguished Artist in Residence at Jazz Aspen Snowmass, a Colorado based non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and performance of jazz and American music.
We gratefully applaud Herbie Hancock’s five prolific decades of leading-edge contributions and can only wonder, “What’s next, Herbie?”