Jazz Profiles from NPR
Herbie Hancock
Produced by John Diliberto

Herbie Hancock  

Herbie Hancock is arguably the most influential practitioner of modern jazz piano since Thelonious Monk. From the bebop stylings of Bud Powell and Wynton Kelly, the classical legacy of Ravel and Debussy, and not least from the diverse genres of contemporary music exploding around him, Hancock has forged a style all his own.

Listen writer Michael Cuscuna, guitarist Pat Matheny, and saxophonist Wayne Shorter talk about Hancock's music

Born on April 12, 1940 in Chicago, Hancock grew up a family wasn't particularly musical. At age seven he began studying European classical music, which continues to influence both his playing and composing. At the same time, he was tuning in to jazz pianists like George Shearing, Oscar Peterson, and Erroll Garner.

Listen to saxophonist Bennie Maupin talk about Herbie's love for classical music

By the time Hancock entered Grinnell College in the late 1950s, he was not only an accomplished classical pianist, but also a formidable talent on the boards in jazz and R&B. Still, electrical engineering was the major that first drew his interest in higher education -- it would later inform his experimentations in electronic jazz fusion.

Listen to Herbie talk about his love for science and how decided to study music

I showed interest in science even before I showed interest in music when I was a kid. My first major in college, I chose electrical engineering because I was afraid of choosing music for practical purposes.

-- Herbie Hancock  

Even while studying science in college, Herbie played jazz professionally in Chicago, sitting in with legends like Coleman Hawkins and trumpeter Donald Byrd. Herbie's reputation as an astute pianist was starting to spread on the scene. Byrd encouraged him to travel to New York and join him in the studio for the trumpeter's 1962 album, Free Form.

When the 22-year old Hancock began recording his first album that same year -- a collection of cover songs -- his compositional skills were so impressive that Blue Note Records co-founder Alfred Lions urged him to focus solely on originals. Thus, Hancock's debut album, Takin' Off, became the first debut album in Blue Note's history to contain all original compositions.

Takin' Off contained "Watermelon Man," which not only became a hit for percussionist Mongo Santamaria, but was revised by Hancock himself as a funk classic on his 1973 Headhunters album.

Listen to Herbie reveal the origins of "Watermelon Man."


Hancock quickly matured into one of Blue Note's top artists during the 1960s, while simultaneously taking an active role in one of jazz's most beloved ensembles -- trumpeter Miles Davis' mid-1960s quintet -- with Tony Williams on drums, bassist Ron Carter, and pianist Wayne Shorter (left).

Listen to saxophonist Wayne Shorter recall how Miles heard about Hancock

Hancock and the other members of the quintet formed a dynamic relationship with Miles whereby both group and leader pushed each other to new musical heights. This version of the Miles Davis Quintet quickly became one of the most enduring and influential small ensembles in the history of jazz.

Listen to writer Michael Cuscuna and bassist Ron Carter discuss the magic of the Miles Davis' mid-'60s quintet

As he worked with Miles, the musical directions of that ensemble began to inform Hancock's own albums like the immortal 1965 album, Maiden Voyage. The title track from Maiden Voyage, has become a standard in the jazz songbook, ironically, though, it started out as a commercial jingle for Yardley's Men's Cologne.

Listen to Herbie talk about the making of "Maiden Voyage"

After working with Miles during the sensational post-bop 1960s, Hancock followed the trumpeter's lead in exploring electric instruments and funk sensibilities that would later become jazz fusion. It was with Miles that Hancock began playing the electric piano and soon afterwards, he and fellow Miles associates Joe Zawinul and Chick Corea were recognized as the premier electric keyboard players in jazz.

Listen to Herbie recall his first time playing electric keyboards


As Hancock discovered new directions in electric fusion with his own ensembles like Mwandishi and Headhunters, he also began writing scores for films and television like Bill Cosby's animated television special, Fat Albert (left) and movies like Blow Up and Death Wish.

Listen to Cuscuna talk about Herbie's film scoring talents

Hancock's music in the late 1960s and early '70s was just as striking and adventurous as his early work on Blue Note. It was during this time that he switched from Blue Note to Warner Brothers Records, marking a creative departure as well, primarily in the form of his fusion ensemble Mwandishi.

Listen to Bennie Maupin talk about the concept behind Mwandishi

I think I will always be involved with youth-oriented music because I haven't forgotten that I was young once. The seeds of youth will stay alive as long as you don't kill them.

-- Herbie Hancock  

Mwandishi was a precursor to Hancock's more radio-friendly Headhunters, in that it opted for long melodic explorations with chord-less improvisations. Mwandishi recorded two albums for Warner Brothers before Hancock made another label switch, this time to Columbia Records -- the label documents much of his better known fusion works.

Mwandishi recorded just one album for Columbia, Sextant, and disbanded after poor sales and concert attendance. Hancock started studying Buddhism and through his faith and his love for R&B music, he created the Headhunters ensemble.

Listen to Herbie recall how Buddhism helped steer him into a new musical direction

Headhunters CD  

Headhunters was more a funk-based ensemble with jazz sensibilities. Hancock wrote one of his most beloved fusion classics for the group -- "Chameleon," a song influenced by the '70s dance movement and the Rufus Thomas song "Funky Robot."

Listen to Maupin talk about the making of "Chameleon"

Although many jazz purists vilified his funk experiments, Hancock still worked on bebop innovations of the past in groups like V.S.O.P. But in 1983, he teamed up with bassist and producer Bill Laswell to record the landmark album Future Shock, which contained the revolutionary jazz-hip-hop hit, "Rockit."

Listen to producer Bill Laswell talk about the inspirations for "Rockit"

Hancock continues to balance the acoustic and electric, the tradition and the modern. His 1998 Grammy-award winning CD Gershwin's World and his most recent disk, Directions in Music: Live at Massey Hall (Verve, 2002) with saxophonist Michael Brecker and Roy Hargrove, reveal his wide-ranging commitment to the music. Not content to rest on any of his significant laurels, Herbie continues to push the limits and definitions of jazz and pop.

Listen to Herbie talk about how he still gets inspiration from youth culture


View the Herbie Hancock show playlist


More InfoBrowse the NPR Jazz Web site -- NPRJazz.org

ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for Herbie Hancock's album Maiden Voyage

More InfoHerbie Hancock's Official Web Site