Interview by A.B. Spellman for the NEA
November 4, 2003
Edited by Don Ball
STARTING WITH CLASSICAL
Q: As a young man you seemed to be headed to a classical career. The first time anybody heard of you was playing the Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D Major with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. So you must have come from a family that gave you some support in the home for music.
Herbie Hancock: Absolutely. My parents were very much music lovers. Both my mother and father had taken piano lessons when they were kids. My father didn't remember very much. He remembered part of one little piece, but my mother remembered a little bit more and she could still read music. Both my parents were from Georgia, and they're part of that migration from the South to cities like Chicago—you know, the African-American migration. And my mother, in particular, wanted to make sure that her children had "culture." Now for her, culture in terms of music was classical music, not jazz, not rhythm-and-blues. You know, that was more a common music but the more refined music, in her view, was classical music. Not that anything was wrong with rhythm-and-blues and jazz, but she wanted to make sure that we heard, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and got that side of things. That's because of America and the role models that Americans followed. At that time, there weren't African-American role models. We weren't visible from that side of things. So she made sure that on Saturdays we listened to the opera and that we heard a lot of classical music. In a way, they knew, because we lived in Chicago, that we were going to get the blues anyway, you know? So they didn't have to be emphasized.
Q: You went off to Grinnell College and you had this weird double major with electrical engineering and composition.
Herbie Hancock: Actually it wasn't a double major. My first two years, I was technically a pre-engineering major because it was a college, not a university, and it didn't have an engineering school. And then I changed my major at the end of my second year to music composition. But when I was a kid, I already showed interest in science probably before I showed any interest in music because I used to take watches and other things apart. I was always curious: How does this work, how does that work? I wanted to see how things worked and I would put things back together again but they wouldn't always work when I put them back together.
When I was six, my mother noticed that whenever I would go to my best friend's apartment, the first thing I would do is say, “Can I play your piano?” He had gotten that piano from his parents when he was six, and he and I were about the same age. Anyway, when my mother noticed that I had this interest in the piano, she, on her own, decided that she and my father would get me a piano which I got for my seventh birthday. And that was the beginning.
Q: This double interest in engineering and in music seems to have hooked up in your career as you were one of the first musicians to start doing fairly serious work on the new electric instruments that came out in the late '50s and '60s.
Herbie Hancock: I had no idea when I went to college that there would ever be a way to marry the two things I was interested in, which were science and music. I started playing jazz when I was about 14, when I was in high school—you know, when you're that young, you learn really quickly, and I'd developed along pretty good lines by the time I was in college. I put together a big jazz festival and so jazz was drawing me in like a magnet; not that I was moving away from classical music but it wasn't sustaining my direct interest as much as it had in the past. I never thought that there would be a way of combining science and jazz until synthesizers came along and the newer technologies. So when that happened, for me it was very natural. I didn't have to cross that barrier of fear of electronics. So I was already into it, you know?
TURNING TOWARD JAZZ
Q: What is it that turned you to jazz?
Herbie Hancock: It was funny. Two things in a way. First of all, whenever I had been exposed to jazz prior to when I was 13 or 14, I didn't pay any attention to it. I thought, “Well, you'd have to be older to get into that kind of music. You have to be at least 19.” Well, when I was 12 and 13, 19 was older, you know? Anyway, when I was about 14, I saw, at one of the variety shows that my high school used to give every semester, one of the students who was in my class [play] with a jazz trio. He played piano and he improvised on my instrument. See, piano was my instrument [and I saw] a guy my age doing something that I couldn't do on my instrument.
So I said, “I've got to learn how to do that.” So I started meeting with this guy. He was in one of my classes. I knew this guy very well. I actually tried to learn some basic things on the upright bass because it looked simpler, just so I could have jam sessions with this piano player and watch what he was doing with his hands and ask him questions. So I was always trying to pull him out of class, saying, “Hey, let’s go up to the band room and play something.” And he showed me some basic things about jazz. He really loved George Shearing, and his style grew out of the George Shearing sound, and so he said, “Get some George Shearing records.”
I remember going home and telling my mother, “Mama, we've got to get some George Shearing records.” My mother said, “Herbie, you have some George Shearing records." I said, "What?" She said, "Remember two years ago when I brought you some records and you got mad at me because I didn't get you the ones you wanted?" She said, "Those records were George Shearing records." And so I went to the record cabinet, there they were. 'Course they weren't vinyl, 12-inch records, they were the old 78s. I put them on and I heard that sound that my friend at school was playing. So that was the beginning.
GETTING TO NYC
Q: Now by the time you got to New York you were working at a very, very high level. You came in, you worked with some of the top musicians in the city of that generation. So what happened in between to get you up there?
Herbie Hancock: Well, I played a lot of jam sessions in Chicago. Even though I went to college in Grinnell, Iowa, I would come home during the summers and work in the post office during the day. And then at night I would play some gigs and play some jam sessions. After college, I went back to Chicago, worked in the post office and that following September, I got a gig in Chicago working with Coleman Hawkins.
This is 1960. So this is the first international musician that I ever worked with. It was a great honor to work with Coleman Hawkins, the master of the saxophone. And he played “Body and Soul” every night and it was just wonderful. But I couldn't keep up with my job at the post office because after about three days, I was getting a fever and I was getting sick, so I knew I had to either quit one gig or the other. The people at the post office—and there were a lot of musicians at the post office—they were saying, "You better not quit this gig. This is a good-paying gig and it's steady.”
I quit anyway. And so then I depended on getting work from the phone ringing and people calling me about gigs. Anyway, I was living with my parents so it wasn't a crisis. And a few months later, in December, I got a chance to work with Donald Byrd and Pepper Adams and their quintet. It was supposed to be for a weekend in Milwaukee and it turned out that they really liked what I was doing and so they hired me permanently. And I told them, "I would love to go to New York. I mean, it's my dream to go to New York and, you know, play with a band like this, but you have to ask my mother."
So Donald called my mother and told her. Anyway, it all worked out. I went with their blessings. And so the wonderful thing is, I got a chance to go to New York with a working band. I wasn't there alone.
The first gig I played was at the Five Spot, which is not a bad place to start. The Five Spot was a very hot jazz club back in those days, you know. Thelonious Monk had made it famous. And so that first time I worked at the Five Spot, many of the jazz greats came by to hear this new kid in town, who was me, and they wanted to see what I was doing. And so I got to meet Horace Silver, and Bill Evans came by, and various musicians came by, and out of that I started getting calls from musicians to play some gigs or some record dates with them. And so, I started recording.
This was now 1961. So I started making records with people and then finally in 1962, I made my own first record called Takin' Off. And I wrote a song called “Watermelon Man” for that record. And who knew that this was going to happen, that the song became a huge hit? Not my version. Mine was a minor hit, but I got a chance to work with the great Cuban conga player Mongo Santamaria.
So when I was working with Mongo for this particular [weekend session], Donald Byrd came to one of the gigs and Donald had a conversation with Mongo about the relationship or the link between African-American music and Afro-Cuban music since the roots from Africa were pretty much the same. And Mongo said he had never found that, the real link. And Donald asked me to play the song “Watermelon Man” for Mongo, and I was wondering, "What is he talking about? This is a little, funky jazz tune." So I went up and started playing. This was when we were taking a break at this supper club. So I started playing it and Mongo said, "Keep playing it." So then he got up on the conga drums. Soon as he started playing, it, that Afro-Cuban sound fit like a hand in a glove with “Watermelon Man.” And one by one his other musicians came up and joined in. The bass player learned the bass line and their other musicians heard the chords, and we all started playing it. Meanwhile, one by one, the people in the supper club who had been sitting at the tables talking, one by one they got up and pretty soon they were all dancing and screaming. It was a pretty amazing event. Anyway, that was kind of how I started and how I got recognized by other musicians in the New York scene.
INTRODUCTION OF WORLD MUSIC
Q: In your later rearranged version of “Watermelon Man,” you introduced it with this wonderful bit, which I thought was a wonderful translation of an African experience into an African-American piece. Were you listening to a lot of African music then?
Herbie Hancock: My first recording was in 1962. I re-recorded it in 1973 on a record I did called Head Hunters, and the intro for the song was this hindewhu sound that comes from the Pygmies in Africa. That was performed also by Bill Summers who was our percussionist. When he was at the college, he was in the ethnomusicology department and his emphasis was on West African music, so he knew full well about the hindewhu sound. I heard him do that and it sounded great so I said, "Yeah, let's. It would be a wonderful introduction.”
Q: Jazz has evolved since that time so that now jazz has this great gift for absorbing everything. I'm seeing a sort of a progression of the music as it sort of takes in more and more of the world.
Herbie Hancock: I think one of the great beauties, and there are many, of jazz is that it will lend itself and borrow from other cultures, other kinds of music, other genres. It has that openness which I think is important for its support of the continuing evolution of jazz. If jazz is a closed music, I think it will close off its [evolution]. So as long as it’s open, it will continue to evolve and continue to grow.
THE MILES DAVIS QUINTET
Q: Now in '63, of course, you had the wonderful opportunity of working with one of the all-time great small ensembles, Miles Davis's band with Tony Williams on drums and Ron Carter on bass and of course Wayne Shorter on saxophone—great musicians and some very interesting personalities. Could you give us a couple of stories about that band, about that experience?
Herbie Hancock: I joined that band when I was 23. We were all pretty much in our twenties. Miles was in his mid-thirties, you know, sort of latter mid-thirties at the time. And for some reason I wasn't aware that Miles was that young. Miles always seemed to be this timeless, ageless musician. He always seemed to be somehow a father figure but always on the forefront of the advancement of jazz. It was an irreplaceably important experience for me to work with the best of what jazz had to offer at that time—Miles plus the sidemen who were the best in their instruments, Tony Williams being the great young genius of the drums. I mean, who would have thought there'd be a guy 17 years old that would have the ability to work with the great Miles Davis? But Tony certainly fulfilled that.
So each of these musicians was so creative, and Miles provided the atmosphere for us to create. Miles used to tell us, "I pay you to practice on the bandstand in front of the people, not to practice some slick figure in your room, and then say, 'Oh, I'm going to throw this on them tonight’ and then go back and play it in front of the people." That wasn't what Miles was interested in, and he wasn't interested in us playing perfect. I always say now, if I'm playing perfect, then I'm not working hard enough. You know, if it gets too easy, I'm not working hard enough. But Miles actually chastised George Coleman for doing that. He was practicing some slick runs in his room and then George came down to the club and played the slick lines that he had been practicing, and then Miles scolded him for that, because Miles wanted always to capture the real spirit of the music, which is to capture the spirit of the moment.
Q: Now this rhythm section that you guys had, for a lot of people who listened to the music, was considered the greatest rhythm section, certainly comparable to the one that came out of Kansas City with Walter Page and Count Basie and Jo Jones.
Herbie Hancock: Well, thank you for that compliment. Miles certainly had several great rhythm sections. I mean, he had the other one with Philly Joe Jones and Red Garland and Paul Chambers—can’t get any better than that. I mean, it's just an honor to be included in that list. But John Coltrane's band was the other major band that was on the scene making cutting-edge music at the time. There were several great bands, but I think those two were considered the top: Miles's band and Coltrane's band. At the time I was with Miles's band. And when George Coleman—who actually played saxophone with Miles before Wayne did and was very much influenced by John Coltrane—would play, Tony Williams and I would break up the time and do all kinds of innovative things, because we were also influenced by Coltrane and also by many of the avant-gardists. I had previously worked with Eric Dolphy and Tony Williams, who was totally into the avant-garde. He helped me to learn how to listen to Ornette Coleman and several of the other avant-gardists. And so we would do these new things under George Coleman but under Miles, we would play a more conservative or more traditional role because we thought Miles would be comfortable with that.
But I remember when we went to play a gig in Detroit, Miles said, "Why don't you play behind me the way you play behind George?" And I looked at Tony and we said, “OK.” And so the next show that we played, we started breaking up the time behind Miles and doing all these things, and Miles would just play a couple of notes and then his body would twist, and a few more notes and twist again, because it was kind of throwing him. But we kept it up and Miles, that's what he wanted. The next day we went back, we played the gig again, and Miles was not twisting and turning so much. He was playing longer phrases. But we kept throwing that stuff at him. And by the third day, Miles came in, and he wasn't twisting and turning at all. Miles was coming up with all kinds of new solutions that were beyond the conventional chord structure and the conventional rhythmic structure. And then I was the one that was kind of twisting and turning and playing in a more erratic way, because Miles took the ball and he ran with it and took it further toward the goal line. I had to figure out a whole new way of playing, which somehow I did, thanks to that experience. It forced me to look at it from a different standpoint and find a way to deal with this new direction that we were taking. Miles said, after that, "I don't want to play any chords anymore.” And so a whole new direction took place from that point on.
Q: You also had wonderful writers in the group. How did you guys approach repertoire?
Herbie Hancock: What used to happen, most of the time, is that Miles would say, "Okay, it's time for us to make a record," and he would make the appointment, book the studio and inform us that we're going to meet at the 30th Street Studio on such and such a day to make a record. So we, the sidemen, would write tunes or bring tunes that we had already written and bring our stuff to the recording session and we would work on the tunes there, make the arrangements there sight unseen. It wasn't that we would rehearse somewhere else before the recording studio. No, we'd do it all right there. And Miles preferred that because he felt that he could really get the fresh evolution of the music that way and stay true to the concept of capturing the moment. It also really challenged us to create with kind of a snap of the finger in a really short span of time.
The other thing I should tell you is that most of the stuff that I recorded with Miles was done in one take because the idea was, if we got through the melody and there weren't any major mistakes in playing the melody, then what happened after that was going to go on the record. So we had to get used to the fact that it's like playing a concert. You get one time and that's it. So it really challenges you to put all your best into that one time of playing the piece, and it's a kind of yardstick for improvisation and for developing the best that your own personal creativity has to offer.
THE INFLUENCE OF FUNK
Q: Well, it seems to me that Sly Stone had a big impact on you and Miles and a lot of jazz musicians at the time. Tell me about that.
Herbie Hancock: I'll tell you that back in the early '60s jazz was such a great magnet [that] somehow, little by little, I became more closed minded about other areas of music. I had more of a tunnel vision about jazz, and so I really stopped listening to R&B. I still continued to listen to classical music because I felt it was "worthy," you know? But I kind of dropped my interest in R&B altogether. But when I joined Miles's band, I began to notice Miles would have album jackets of Jimi Hendrix or maybe the Stones or the Beatles or flamenco artists. Manitas de Plata, I remember he had several recordings of his.
Now, Miles, to me, was the coolest of the cool. He was the epitome of the cool cat, you know? He was The Cat. And so when I noticed that Miles was very open about music, then I looked at myself and I said, “What's wrong with me?” You know, if Miles thinks it's cool, then it's got to be cool. So that's when I began to open up more and I'm so happy I did. I began to notice, for example, that James Brown was doing rhythmic things that were more interesting than some of the more traditional R&B things that I was hearing at the time. And then, of course later on, I heard Sly Stone and I loved the stuff he was doing. That was some of the funkiest stuff I ever heard in my life, particularly a song called “Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin.” That always got to my bones. So that sparked this interest in Sly Stone. And I actually wrote a tune that was dedicated to Sly Stone called “Sly” on Head Hunters.
Q: Head Hunters was a very successful record for you. I think it sort of let everybody know the direction that you were going to go into for the next few years.
Herbie Hancock: Yeah. I did Head Hunters because the previous band and the previous direction that I had been working in was a much more avant-garde, spacey kind of music. We were definitely interested in connection to the motherland, Africa, you know? And as a matter of fact I was given the name Mwandishi, which is a Swahili name meaning composer; so I kind of added that to my name. In a way, we were just looking for a way to symbolize our support of the whole Civil Rights movement, and that was our way of doing it, by adopting the Swahili names. So everybody in the band had a Swahili name, even before Head Hunters.
I loved that band, you know? I loved the direction we were going in. It was very exploratory and I learned a lot and it offered a lot to explore not only improvisation but also composition. At a certain point, I got tired of playing a music that was rarely grounded in the earth. Something in me was not quite getting satisfied at a certain point and that's when I decided I wanted to play a lighter kind of music; one that was not so demanding of the listener. One that could be more fun to listen to and was danceable, you know? I wanted to explore that. And that's when I did the Head Hunters record. I put musicians together to work in that direction. Originally, the idea was not to do a jazz album but to do some kind of funk record, but as we were developing the music, it took another kind of shape which combined not only the funkiness of R&B but the exploration and improvisation of jazz. And so rather than just hold onto this one idea, I said, "Okay, the music is kind of telling us where to go, so let's follow this and see what happens." And so we did this record called Head Hunters and I just happened to be at the right place at the right time again and it became the largest selling jazz album in history at that time, which was 1973. And people today are still sampling “Chameleon” from the Head Hunters album.
OPENNESS TO OTHER OPPORTUNITIES
Q: You have worked on projects outside of jazz as well.
Herbie Hancock: Well, a long time ago when I used to live in New York, I somehow made a decision that I wanted to be the most versatile musician in New York, so I welcomed the opportunity to work in areas that were outside of jazz even. I recorded with Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé once as a kind of studio session. I did some work as a studio musician. And I worked with Connie Francis one time. I had to play some country blues. I knew city blues, but I didn't know country blues. Anyway, I was able to figure it out. And I did something that they were pleased with, so I welcomed those situations, again, thanks to Miles. Miles is the one that opened me up to the importance of being open. I welcomed the idea of being open to the playing of music just as a piano player, and other opportunities came my way: doing film scores, writing music for television commercials and radio commercials, even stretching to the few and rare opportunities I had to act on television or in films. I welcomed those opportunities because for me they were opportunities to grow and to learn and to find out more about not only what's out there but what's in here, in me. And I always hope that I will continue to have that kind of attitude and to continue to be a student, primarily to be a student of life.
Q: Would you recommend this approach to other young musicians now, to try to master as many kinds of music as possible?
Herbie Hancock: I've never considered myself a master of as many kinds of music as possible. I know that if anything, I probably know the most about jazz. I do recommend that openness is the best policy and to explore and find out as much about things as you can because music is not about music. Music at its best is about life. And so the more you develop your life, the more you expand and stretch yourself and the more you develop a broader palette, the more you have to express in music. So yes, I do recommend having an extremely open attitude about music, about people, and about life.
Q: Does Buddhism help you get to this kind of openness?
Herbie Hancock: Buddhism is totally supportive of this openness. Buddhism talks about the infinite, that life itself is an expression of infinity and that human beings are capable of expressing themselves in so many different ways and that having the openness allows you the possibility of expressing in several ways. But it also opens up a greater possibility of you developing appreciation of what others have to contribute. Appreciation of others is very important in Buddhism because appreciation of others is very important in life. And Buddhism is certainly about life.
Q: Is this perhaps a fact of the kind of generosity you've shown in trying to help young musicians and availing yourself to go and work with programs like the Thelonious Monk Institute where you're brought into contact with young musicians and helping them along with the music and thereby sort of steering them toward life?
Herbie Hancock: Yeah, musicians feel that our future as human beings is with our young people. And in this specific area of jazz, of course, the future of jazz also lies with our young people. And so, yes, Buddhism is very supportive of the overview; to be able to see beyond just your particular direction or your agenda to a much broader view, so you see not just the trees, but you see the forest. And so, if this music is to survive, which I certainly hope it does because it really teaches some of the best characteristics that a human being has to offer, then it's important for me to be supportive and to do what I can to make sure that not only am I able to somehow hand down things that I've learned to young people, but also to open up a broader view so that their voice can be heard, because I can learn from them. We can all learn from young people as well as share what we've learned with them. And any organization that is designed to further the music and work toward the future evolution of the music, I want to be supportive of, and the epitome of that, as far as I can see, is the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz.
THE JAZZ SCENE TODAY
Q: How do you see the jazz scene today compared with when you were coming up?
Herbie Hancock: Well you know, when I came on the scene back in the '60s, jazz appeared to be a very healthy, vital scene. There were a lot of clubs compared to now, more activity on radio stations compared to now, so there [were] more opportunities for the exposure of jazz at that time. Those many avenues for the exposure of jazz have kind of closed down and become very limited today. There are fewer radio stations that are playing jazz, especially more straight-ahead or hard-core jazz. In a way, it has kind of forced musicians to look into other avenues to use what they've learned with jazz and to make a living, and so many musicians have also become educators. But that's good news and bad news. The good news is that they can spread the music to other people, to young people. The bad news is they spend less time actually performing. The concert situation opened up a lot more [halls] for groups to play. I mean, I rarely play clubs anymore. I play primarily concerts. The good news about that is that I can perform for more people at one single concert. The bad news is that the kind of intimacy that the audience is able to experience and that the musicians are able to experience with the audience is not the same, you know?
There is intimacy involved but not [like] it was. In a club, that's a small place. It's really physically intimate. In a concert, it takes a lot of inner strength to project the intimacy and the abandon that you'd have performing in a club, and to take the rigidity out of that situation of playing in front of a lot of people. But it can be done, it can be done.
The scene has changed a lot and what I'm looking for is that the radio audience, for example, which has traditionally been the primary avenue for the exposure of jazz. Yes, pop music is all over the place and tons of songs performed by singers. It's gotten to the place where people think that if there's instrumental music going on that it's not really music, because it's not complete if there's no singer on it. This sounds strange to me because that's pretty much all I do is instrumental music. The exposure of music today—pop, jazz, classical—through the radio has gotten so narrow-cast rather than broadcast. We have to start throwing that word broadcast away if this continues. Narrow-cast is forcing a very similar kind of music to come through your radio. It's forcing musicians to write only for the kinds of music that they think will get the air play.
That’s the bad news. What I hope to be the good news is that I feel a restlessness with people, that they're not really being satisfied by what they're hearing because they're not hearing enough variety. And somehow in the future I'm hoping there [will] be some kind of backlash that will force the exposure of a greater variety of music, because of the power of jazz and the power of the experience of creating in the moment. People can feel the honesty in that, they can feel it in their hearts, they can feel it in their bones, that there will be a greater opportunity for exposure of jazz and therefore a wider audience.
I'm seeing a lot more young people coming to my concerts these days than in the past. The [number of] young people coming to jazz concerts seems to be increasing. Granted, I've had music in the past that has fortunately appealed directly to young people. When I did Head Hunters, for example, in the '70s, and then I did Rockit, which put me in a position to kind of expose the hip-hop scene to the general audience, and we can see what happened to that. That's just spread all over the world. But at the same time, these people are coming to the concerts, they know about Rockit, they know about “Cantaloop” which came from Cantaloupe Island, which is a song I wrote that was a pretty big hit in the mid-90s. They're hearing more. They're hearing some music that perhaps they hadn't heard before or they heard about, and they seem to really be enjoying it. And so, it's wonderful to see more and more young people in the audience, I think that's going to be a trend that we see happening more and more in the future.