Pure Jazz Magazine covers the music called Jazz from a very unique perspective not seen in most publications.
The Eclectic Universe of Herbie Hancock by Patricia A. Kelly Herbie Hancock’s discography is seemingly an endless sea of music; from his first, Taking Off in 1962 to his current work in progress- this ‘crossover’ artist has won at least 14 GRAMMYS, including the tribute album, The Joni Letters in 2008, the second only award given in Jazz since Getz/Gilberto in 1965. Let’s take a look at some of the most familiar, or most enduring of his classics, to demonstrate JAZZ as the genre he’s most contributed to in his 50 yr plus career with songs, and a catalog so vast and diverse it needs its own museum. When you listen to the music of Herbie Hancock, you hear sounds of an ageless master pianist, and Jazz composer of multi-dimensional sounds still blessing listeners. His incredibly brilliant catalog of music, movie, and television scores have garnered respect, honor and praise not only from his peers, but also from the world. Herbie’s covered it all, --standard JAZZ, pop, jazz fusion, electronic, mixtures of classical and folk in new creations; acid, and its alterations--making JAZZ-- heaven music for the soul. Clearly in Herbie’s case he was a child who knew what he loved artistically. Born in Chicago, April 12, 1942, Herbie Hancock (named after the singer Herb Jeffries) is one of three children born into a loving, hard working family. At six he met a child his age, a neighbor, Levester whose piano caught his eyes. He allowed him to touch it, and recalled, “I loved the feel of the keys under my fingers, even though I didn’t really know what I was doing. “ Herbie’s self-discipline, persistence, and love for a musical instrument was very telling. His roots planted in a disciplined genre, this first pillar of genius was formed. He shared his joy with his mother who moved on this idea. “We need to get this boy a piano.” -Winnie Hancock, Herbie’s mother Classical music lessons began at seven, encouraged by his mother. The first fruits were on display February 5, 1952, when 11-yearold Herbie Hancock won First Place with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for his performance of The First Movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 26 in D Major, K. I reminisced thinking the exact opposite when my own father attempted to teach piano notes, and my elder brothers, John Jr., Herbie’s age, being prompted to play trumpet. I don’t regret not wanting my piano lessons as it was something I didn’t feel. I wanted to sing. We don’t have enough space to run though everything, but will take a look at his most prominent pieces of wax. Among our favorites are: the Essential Herbie Hancock, a compilation of twenty songs which include Hidden Shadows(instrumental), Chameleon, Come Running To Me, Butterfly, 4 A. M., Tell Me A Bedtime Story. I was surprised to learn Herbie made the original standard, “Jazz is about being in the moment, at every moment.” -Herbie Hancock but Q (Quincy Jones) did a recording with a more electronic sound in 1978 of Tell Me A Bedtime Story. This song makes one ask-- why didn’t they collaborate? In his memoir, “Possibilities” (Viking Press, 2014) Herbie notes the day Emmett Till’s body was returned to Chicago. His family drove past the A. A. Rayner’s Funeral Home, and he witnessed masses of people sobbing and weeping, reflecting emotions unglued. “Jet magazine published a full page close-up photo of Emmett till’s swollen, destroyed face, and although our parents tried to shield us from seeing it, curiosity got the better of me… seeing the cruelly disfigured face of a boy my age, from my own neighborhood who’d been brutally murdered for nothing at all. I had nightmares for weeks afterwards.” – (pg. 18/19) Even Emmitt’s nightmare reappearing in Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, or Kalief Broder’s inhumane solitary confinement in Rikers, injustices won’t stop us creativity, musically, or in life. His training, and background met the free world of JAZZ-- a genre he’s changed forever with pioneer sounds spanning a 50 + plus year career. What fascinates this writer are the stories behind songs, how/what triggered a song’s creation and if there’s a theme/thread throughout the music? As a teen, Herbie attended the Wendell Philips school, and stood on the corners with friends in early ‘karaoke’ style, singing hits of R& B groups like The Five Thrills and the Ravens. He heard Jazz on WGES deejay Al Benson’s radio show. The Hi-Lo’s vocal group was another influence; Page 40 - Pure Jazz Magazine
Claire Fisher’s arrangements credited for where he learned “farther-out voicing” but the radio man, known as the ‘Godfather’ of Chicago Black Radio’ had a robust variety. Hancock never had a jazz teacher, but he had something much more enduring, and valuable –his listening ear. Jazz is not so much taught with instructional words, but by listening, playing—hearing sounds; the drum’s call, saxophone, guitar, and horn players all combined made sophisticated stuff. It’s difficult to describe or comprehend its multi-rhythms, scats, and improvisation. He wanted to learn this! Herbie also studied under Chris Anderson (“his harmonic guru”), in 1960 after ‘begging him to be his student’. While struggling to decide between disciplines at Grinnell College, his engineering background would transform the music he played. His analytical, logical mind mixed sounds with new harmonies in jazz compositions. The advances in computer technology resulted in further uncharted avenues-- electronic jazz, synthesizers (he’s among the first to use them), funk in masterpieces such as Future Shock, and The Imagine Project. Herbie also toiled with the late Coleman Hawkins, and later, Donald Byrd at Roosevelt University in Chicago, where he earned degrees in electrical engineering, and music. (This school also awarded Hancock an Honorary Degree of Fine Arts in 1972). He also studied composition with Vittorio Gianni at the suggestion of the late Donald Byrd. As he went on to play with Phil Woods, and Oliver Nelson, the break came with his first solo recording, Takin Off on the Blue Note label in 1962. The world renowned, Watermelon Man, from this recording gave Mongo Santamaria a delicious, Latin-flavored hit single. Taking Off also got the attention of Miles Davis. He’d heard of Herbie. As the young pianist’s reputation grew, the quintessential Miles Davis called with an invitation to join his second quintet. At 21 Herbie Hancock linked with Wayne Shorter (tenor sax), Ron Carter bass, and legendary drummer, Tony Williams, a tenderloin at 17. Herbie credits Miles for-- “the cutting edges of Jazz.” As he recognized one night playing; rule number one in JAZZ—there’re no mistakes. Even onstage live. If you think you hit the wrong key, change, and make it an opportunity to find new directions to take a note. Exploration is free, and limitless. This icon Miles Davis, by example left a lifetime of Jazz education with his class of musicians. “Miles never talked about the mechanics of music, the notes and keys and chords of it. He was more likely to talk about a color or a shape he wanted to create. Once, when he saw a woman stumble while walking down the street, he pointed at her and told us, “Play that.” (pg. 61) Herbie redefined the roles of Jazz’ rhythm section, and helped to make the ‘post-bop sound.’ “We had to find the right personnel, and establish a level of comfort, and trust together.”- Herbie The men learned how to” play fast,” and absorb Miles’ idea. There’s no such thing as ‘wrong notes’ when playing with Miles who consistently challenged Herbie. Once with the idea for him to play piano with one hand, and these five words Miles dropped changed his life; …” just don’t play the butter notes.” Then someone later claimed...”Miles meant the bottom notes.” The Quintet’s tightness with the icon were cool years. Bitches Brew (1970) is among the Jazz classics of the Davis period. The crew’s feisty, fearless leader, a man of few words, taught by example. While performing with Miles, Herbie continued recording for BLUE NOTE. He managed to record dozens of sessions as a sideman with the likes of Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Bobby Hutchinson, Donald Byrd, Hank Mobley, and others. ‘In jazz, every member of the band works with every other member to create something beautiful. There’s no judgment and no competition just a collaborative effort…” They turned out clubs like the Village Vanguard, the London House, International Jazz Festivals, toured Japan, with light, humorous moments—when Wayne Shorter shouted, “Hey Herbie, check out the luggage!” (a women’s legs)! JAZZ is one of the few known American Pure Jazz Magazine - Page 41