June 14, 2024

Herbie Hancock Speaking With
Herbie Hancock
By Mark Ruffin

Monday, April 12th was proclaimed Herbie Hancock Day by Mayor Daley of Chicago. He was surprised with the announcement and a 64th birthday cake at a free open to the public question and answer session at Symphony Center on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. Beforehand, JazzUSA.com’s Mark Ruffin, interviewed Herbie Hancock for PBS/Chicago outlet WTTW-TV and the show Artbeat Chicago. JazzUSA: You’re home, and since you’ve left home in the late 50’s, early 60’s, you’ve built this great career winning an Oscar, multiple Grammy awards, a MTV award…..

HH: Five MTV awards. (laughs) Let’s get that straight. The reason I say that is that it was actually the first year that they had MTV awards, and that’s when Rockit was a big hit and it was sort of like the beginning of the whole MTV thing. Of course, MTV had been around, but it was the first time that they had the awards. There were only at the time, as far as I know, three artists that were Black artists that had music videos that were on MTV. So there was this whole question about discrimination with MTV. They told me later that they were following a radio format for Top 10 radio or something. At that time all the Top 10 records were by White groups. Anyway, the fact that we won five, nobody won four. Michael Jackson won three for Thriller. So that was an exciting time for me.

JazzUSA: Did you know that you and Eminem are the only two people ever to have won a Grammy, an Oscar and a MTV award? No one else has ever done that.

HH: Really? I didn’t know that. (laughs)

JazzUSA: Tell me, from the beginning, you’re a Hyde Park grad, was there something from the beginning, something growing up that linked your music becoming even bigger than jazz?

HH: Thank you for your compliment about the expansion of the music. To me, I realized that it’s because of jazz that I’ve been able to venture into so many different areas of music. If I had picked another music to be my foundation, I wouldn’t have been able to be that flexible, because they lend themselves that easily to the kind of flexibility that jazz does. But, really it was kind of my basic curiosity about things that led to me venturing into a lot of different genres.

JazzUSA: You were a various curious kid too. I saw a picture where you’d won a spelling bee very early on in your life. You were a classical pianist early on in your life, and in college you studied electronics. So, there was this strong curiosity in you. How did your growing up in Chicago… did growing up in Chicago have anything to do with the development of that?

HH: Absolutely. First of all, Chicago is a great town for nurturing creativity. We see that, for example, not only in the field of music, but in the field of comedy for example. You know it was Second City that really started Saturday Night Live. Second City is Chicago. Second City is a comedy club here where a lot of the performers from Saturday Night Live, John Belushi, some of those other fellows, they kind of started their career there. Also for the jazz scene in Chicago, there was always an audience and a spirit to encourage the development of young players here. So, I was able to develop a lot of skills and learn from a lot of great musicians here in Chicago.

JazzUSA: There was also a lot more jazz clubs than there are today, certainly. At the Jazz Showcase, for instance, right now, a lot of local rhythm sections are used when national acts come in. Did you have the opportunity to do that when you were young, playing with big names?

HH: One of the, actually, the first big name that I played with was Coleman Hawkins and he came through Chicago, using what we call a pick-up band. Jodie Christian was the pianist that was the number one pianist all the time. But Jodie was working. He had a gig. So, it was the drummer, a guy named Lewis Taylor that had suggested that they try me to play with Coleman Hawkins. And he knew that I was young and that there were other guys that were around, like Willie Pickens was around and Billy Wallace was another pianist, several other pianists that were around that were kind of mainstays, more or less, more than I was. I was kind of new on the scene, fresh out of college. Anyway, I was also working at the post office in the daytime. (laughs) I had to be at work at the post office at 8:15 in the morning. The gig at night was from nine o’clock in the evening to four in the morning, except on Saturday. On Saturday, it was from nine in the evening to five o’clock in the morning. By the time I got home, I could only sleep for about an hour and a half, two hours, then I had to get up, go to work and deliver the mail. I lasted about two days then I got sick. So on the third day, I quit the post office, (laughs) better choice.

JazzUSA: Eventually, Donald Byrd was the one that heard you in Chicago and got you to New York, is that right?

HH: Right. Again, this was thanks to someone in Chicago that believed in me, a club owner by the name of John Cort. He owned a club called the Birdhouse. He was a friend of Donald Byrd’s, and Donald had a group. He and Pepper Adams had a quintet. This was in wintertime that they came through Chicago on their way to Milwaukee. They, I guess, flew into Chicago and were driving to Milwaukee. But there was a blizzard that night and their piano player had gotten stranded somewhere. So they needed a pianist just for the weekend. It was a ten-day engagement, starting on the weekend and ending at the next weekend at a club called Curo’s in Milwaukee. So, I was suggested.

JazzUSA: And that band took you to New York?

HH: What happened was that I played those three days in Milwaukee, and they liked me so much that they said they wanted to keep me on with the group and that they would fire the other piano player (laughs) which was what he did as a matter of fact. And Donald said ‘we would love for you to move to New York and become a permanent member of the band.’ I said ‘I would love to, but you have to ask my mother, (laughs) which they did. I called my parents, handed the phone to Donald, and he assured them that he was gonna watch over me and that everything would be fine.

JazzUSA: How long did you last with the band once you got to New York?

HH: Two years. I took my first plane flight going to New York right after that, which was the beginning of 1961.

JazzUSA: You’ve logged a lot of miles since then, brother.

HH: (laughs) Sure have.

JazzUSA: Okay, you’re in New York, and first there was, Watermelon Man. For a lot of people, that was the first song they heard by you. But it wasn’t you that made it into a pop hit, it was Mongo Santamaria. How did all of that happen?

HH: I wrote the song in 1962, a little over a year after I had arrived in New York. I wrote the song for my own first record called Taking Off. I actually had a hit going. They only had one chart at that time, everything went on there, whether it was jazz, pop, country, everything, the Top 100. I got up to about 80 on the chart. That was doing very well for a jazz record at that time. Then I worked with Mongo Santamaria one weekend, because he was between pianists. The former pianist, which I found out maybe 30 years later, was Chick Corea, and Rogers Grant was coming in. So I played this weekend with Mongo and Donald Byrd came by one of the gigs and was having a discussion with Mongo about a link between Afro-Cuban music and Afro-American music, and where is the African link. Anyway, it was Donald who suggested, ‘why don’t you play that tune for Mongo?’ This was during a break between shows, so I started playing it on piano, then Mongo got up on the drums and started playing this beat and it just fit perfectly. Then little by little, the band joined in. Then little by little, the people, who were sitting, it was a supper club, they were sitting at tables, little by little, they started getting up dancing. Pretty soon everybody in the place was dancing, and they hadn’t danced all night. But on that tune they danced. Then Mongo asked if he could record it. I said absolutely. I wrote the tune and I published it, so it was truly mine.

JazzUSA: And it became a bit pop hit.

HH: Yeah, it was like in the top ten.

JazzUSA: You were only 23 at the time, how did that feel?

HH: It felt great because I had just joined Miles Davis’ band when the tune was a huge hit. So here I was playing with the top jazz group and walking down the street and hearing my song, Watermelon Man, playing out of everybody’s window in New York, during that summer. It was great.

JazzUSA: So, how did you hook up with Miles? What was that first connect like, the phone call?

HH: Well, there were rumors that Miles was looking for me, and of course, I didn’t believe any of the rumors. But, it turned out that they were true, because I kept hearing more and more rumors. Donald Byrd was my roommate, and he told me, he said, ‘when Miles calls…’ I said, ‘Miles is not going to call.’ He said, ‘yes he will, and when he calls, tell him that you’re not working with anybody.’ I said, ‘no Donald, I couldn’t do that to you. You brought me to New York. You started my career. You’re the one who told me to keep my publishing company and put my songs in my publishing company and all of that, and you helped set all that up.’ And he said, ‘shut up.’ (laughs) He said, ‘listen to me. Tell Miles that you’re not working with anybody.’ Funny thing was about a half-hour later Miles called, and his first question was (imitating Davis’ famous raspy voice) ‘you working with anybody?’ And I said no. (laughs) The next day I went to his house to I thought audition. We did that for about three days and then he said, ‘tomorrow, we’re going to record,’ and I was shocked. We recorded the record Seven Steps To Heaven. Actually, I’m on half the tunes and Victor Feldman is on the other half.

JazzUSA: That’s a great record too. So, the Miles Davis Quintet took off, became this world famous band, and you also caught Miles in a period of transition, where he went from acoustic to In A Silent Way, and Bitches Brew and you were there for most of that too. How did you view this transition to a more electronic based music?

HH: It was inevitable. Miles was always a very open musician, and electronics were a new thing. Of course, the electric guitar had been around since the 30’s. But now that was being extended to synthesizers. There was a whole new viewpoint of electronics. Of course it was being really captured in the rock market, so electronics was like a youth-oriented concept in a way. It was associated with the young music that was coming in, rock and roll, and so forth. Many of the jazz musicians were curious about figuring out a way to incorporate the two and just curious about what the result would be when you combine elements from rock or funk, and so forth, with jazz elements, and Miles was at the forefront of that. Actually the first fusion, we call it fusion now, record, or group, was not Miles with Bitches Brew. It was actually Tony Williams. He had a group with John McLaughlin on guitar and Larry Young was the organist.

JazzUSA: That was the original Tony Williams Lifetime. HH Yeah, Tony Williams Lifetime. They came out with that sound before Miles made that transition and I think Miles heard that and decided he wanted to work in that area. Then Bitches Brew came out and just blew everybody’s mind.

JazzUSA: But you took to electronics especially it seems. You formed the Mwadishi band, with one of my favorite horn sections ever and Eddie Henderson, Bennie Maupin and Julian Priester, then of course Headhunters. At one time, Headhunters was the biggest selling jazz album of all time. Is that right?

HH: Right, when it came out.

JazzUSA: But, when you recorded it, you weren’t thinking like that.

HH: Oh no. (laughs) I mean who knew? Who knew that the record was going to have that kind of impact. I was just as surprised as everybody else.

JazzUSA: Was it a jam session that started Chameleon and it became this big thing.

HH: No, Actually, we developed it together. We sat down and worked on different parts of it. I have the original music for Chameleon, and its very different from what we wound up with with the final recording. The bass line is completely changed, and the melody had some changes in it. We kind of refined it, but different people in the band helped shape it.

JazzUSA: And as your career grew, you walk this line, acoustic, electric, all the time since Mwadishi band. Then came Rockit. That was a whole different audience that you tapped into there. And you’ve seemed to have always had that knack. Everything was elastic. Maiden Voyage was elastic. Chameleon, Watermelon Man was elastic, I mean you made an electric version of that. Where did that come from being able to tap into folks like that.

HH: I think part of it is my own curiosity about things and a kind of openness that is due primarily to Miles Davis. I noticed that he was very open, even when I had tunnel-vision about jazz, Miles was very open. But also, I began practicing Buddhism in 1972. That really supported the concept of openness and supported the areas that it takes to venture beyond the comfort zones and into other areas that you may not be too familiar with. So that was a major help. If it hadn’t been for Buddhism, I’d never made Headhunters. That I know. I chanted onto that. My chanting led to that.

JazzUSA: Tunnel-vision from Herbie Hancock, that just doesn’t sound right.

HH: Well I had it


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