Herbert Jeffrey Hancock (born April 12, 1940) is an American pianist, keyboardist, bandleader, composer and actor. Hancock started his career with Donald Byrd. He shortly thereafter joined the Miles Davis Quintet where he helped to redefine the role of a jazz rhythm section and was one of the primary architects of the post-bop sound. In the 1970s, Hancock experimented with jazz fusion, funk, and electro styles.
Hancock’s best-known compositions include “Cantaloupe Island”, “Watermelon Man” (later performed by dozens of musicians, including bandleader Mongo Santamaría), “Maiden Voyage”, “Chameleon”, and the singles “I Thought It Was You” and “Rockit”. His 2007 tribute album River: The Joni Letters won the 2008 Grammy Award for Album of the Year, only the second jazz album to win the award, after Getz/Gilberto in 1965.
Hancock was born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Winnie Belle (Griffin), a secretary, and Wayman Edward Hancock, a government meat inspector. His parents named him after the singer and actor Herb Jeffries. He attended the Hyde Park Academy. Like many jazz pianists, Hancock started with a classical music education. He studied from age seven, and his talent was recognized early. Considered a child prodigy, he played the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 26 in D Major, K. 537 (Coronation) at a young people’s concert on February 5, 1952, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (led by CSO assistant conductor George Schick) at the age of 11.
Through his teens, Hancock never had a jazz teacher, but developed his ear and sense of harmony. He was also influenced by records of the vocal group the Hi-Lo’s. He reported that:
“…by the time I actually heard the Hi-Lo’s, I started picking that stuff out; my ear was happening. I could hear stuff and that’s when I really learned some much farther-out voicings – like the harmonies I used on Speak Like a Child – just being able to do that. I really got that from Clare Fischer’s arrangements for the Hi-Lo’s. Clare Fischer was a major influence on my harmonic concept…he and Bill Evans, and Ravel and Gil Evans, finally. You know, that’s where it came from.”
In 1960, he heard Chris Anderson play just once, and begged him to accept him as a student. Hancock often mentions Anderson as his harmonic guru. Hancock left Grinnell College, moved to Chicago and began working with Donald Byrd and Coleman Hawkins, during which period he also took courses at Roosevelt University (he later graduated from Grinnell with degrees in electrical engineering and music. Grinnell also awarded him an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree in 1972). Byrd was attending the Manhattan School of Music in New York at the time and suggested that Hancock study composition with Vittorio Giannini, which he did for a short time in 1960. The pianist quickly earned a reputation, and played subsequent sessions with Oliver Nelson and Phil Woods. He recorded his first solo album Takin’ Off for Blue Note Records in 1962. “Watermelon Man” (from Takin’ Off) was to provide Mongo Santamaría with a hit single, but more importantly for Hancock, Takin’ Off caught the attention of Miles Davis, who was at that time assembling a new band. Hancock was introduced to Davis by the young drummer Tony Williams, a member of the new band.
Miles Davis Quintet (1963–68) and Blue Note Records (1962–69)
Hancock received considerable attention when, in May 1963, he joined Davis’s Second Great Quintet. Davis personally sought out Hancock, whom he saw as one of the most promising talents in jazz. The rhythm section Davis organized was young but effective, comprising bassist Ron Carter, 17-year-old drummer Williams, and Hancock on piano. After George Coleman and Sam Rivers each took a turn at the saxophone spot, the quintet gelled with Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone. This quintet is often regarded as one of the finest jazz ensembles yet.
While in Davis’s band, Hancock also found time to record dozens of sessions for the Blue Note label, both under his own name and as a sideman with other musicians such as Shorter, Williams, Grant Green, Bobby Hutcherson, Rivers, Byrd, Kenny Dorham, Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard.
Hancock also recorded several less-well-known but still critically acclaimed albums with larger ensembles – My Point of View (1963), Speak Like a Child (1968) and The Prisoner (1969) featured flugelhorn, alto flute and bass trombone. 1963’s Inventions and Dimensions was an album of almost entirely improvised music, teaming Hancock with bassist Paul Chambers and two Latin percussionists, Willie Bobo and Osvaldo “Chihuahua” Martinez.
During this period, Hancock also composed the score to Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blowup (1966), the first of many film soundtracks he recorded in his career. As well as feature film soundtracks, Hancock recorded a number of musical themes used on American television commercials for such then well known products as Pillsbury’s Space Food Sticks, Standard Oil, Tab diet cola and Virginia Slims cigarettes. Hancock also wrote, arranged and conducted a spy type theme for a series of F. William Free commercials for Silva Thins cigarettes. Hancock liked it so much he wished to record it as a song but the ad agency would not let him. He rewrote the harmony, tempo and tone and recorded the piece as the track “He Who Lives in Fear” from his The Prisoner album of 1969.
Davis had begun incorporating elements of rock and popular music into his recordings by the end of Hancock’s tenure with the band. Despite some initial reluctance, Hancock began doubling on electric keyboards including the Fender Rhodes electric piano at Davis’s insistence. Hancock adapted quickly to the new instruments, which proved to be important in his future artistic endeavors.
Under the pretext that he had returned late from a honeymoon in Brazil, Hancock was dismissed from Davis’s band. In the summer of 1968 Hancock formed his own sextet. However, although Davis soon disbanded his quintet to search for a new sound, Hancock, despite his departure from the working band, continued to appear on Davis records for the next few years. Appearances included In a Silent Way, A Tribute to Jack Johnson and On the Corner.
Fat Albert (1969) and Mwandishi (1971)
Hancock left Blue Note in 1969, signing with Warner Bros. Records. In 1969, Hancock composed the soundtrack for Bill Cosby’s animated prime-time television special Hey, Hey, Hey, It’s Fat Albert. Music from the soundtrack was later included on Fat Albert Rotunda (1969), an R&B-inspired album with strong jazz overtones. One of the jazzier songs on the record, the moody ballad “Tell Me a Bedtime Story”, was later re-worked as a more electronic sounding song for the Quincy Jones album Sounds…and Stuff Like That!! (1978).
Hancock became fascinated with electronic musical instruments. Together with the profound influence of Davis’s Bitches Brew (1970), this fascination culminated in a series of albums in which electronic instruments were coupled with acoustic instruments.
Hancock’s first ventures into electronic music started with a sextet comprising Hancock, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Billy Hart, and a trio of horn players: Eddie Henderson (trumpet), Julian Priester (trombone), and multireedist Bennie Maupin. Patrick Gleeson was eventually added to the mix to play and program the synthesizers.
The sextet, later a septet with the addition of Gleeson, made three albums under Hancock’s name: Mwandishi (1971), Crossings (1972) (both on Warner Bros. Records), and Sextant (1973) (released on Columbia Records); two more, Realization and Inside Out, were recorded under Henderson’s name with essentially the same personnel. The music exhibited strong improvisational aspect beyond the confines of jazz mainstream and showed influence from the electronic music of contemporary classical composers.
Hancock’s three records released in 1971–73 later became known as the “Mwandishi” albums, so-called after a Swahili name Hancock sometimes used during this era (“Mwandishi” is Swahili for “writer”). The first two, including Fat Albert Rotunda were made available on the 2-CD set Mwandishi: the Complete Warner Bros. Recordings, released in 1994. “Hornets” was later revised on the 2001 album Future2Future as “Virtual Hornets”.
Among the instruments Hancock and Gleeson used were Fender Rhodes piano, ARP Odyssey, ARP 2600, ARP Pro Soloist Synthesizer, a Mellotron and the Moog synthesizer III.
From Head Hunters (1973) to Secrets (1976)
Hancock formed The Headhunters, keeping only Maupin from the sextet and adding bassist Paul Jackson, percussionist Bill Summers, and drummer Harvey Mason. The album Head Hunters (1973) was a hit, crossing over to pop audiences but criticized within his jazz audience. Stephen Erlewine, in a retrospective summary for AllMusic, said, “Head Hunters still sounds fresh and vital three decades after its initial release, and its genre-bending proved vastly influential on not only jazz, but funk, soul, and hip-hop.”
Drummer Mason was replaced by Mike Clark, and the band released a second album, Thrust, the following year, 1974. (A live album from a Japan performance, consisting of compositions from those first two Head Hunters releases was released in 1975 as Flood.) This was almost as well received as its predecessor, if not attaining the same level of commercial success. The Headhunters made another successful album called Survival of the Fittest in 1975 without Hancock, while Hancock himself started to make even more commercial albums, often featuring members of the band, but no longer billed as The Headhunters. The Headhunters reunited with Hancock in 1998 for Return of the Headhunters, and a version of the band (featuring Jackson and Clark) continues to play and record.
In 1973, Hancock composed his soundtrack to the controversial film The Spook Who Sat by the Door. Then in 1974, he composed the soundtrack to the first Death Wish film. One of his memorable songs, “Joanna’s Theme”, was re-recorded in 1997 on his duet album with Shorter, 1+1.
Hancock’s next jazz-funk albums of the 1970s were Man-Child (1975), and Secrets (1976), which point toward the more commercial direction Hancock would take over the next decade. These albums feature the members of the Headhunters band, but also a variety of other musicians in important roles.
From V.S.O.P. (1976–) to Future Shock (1983)
In 1978, Hancock recorded a duet with Chick Corea, who had replaced him in the Davis band a decade earlier. Hancock also released a solo acoustic piano album, The Piano (1979), which was released only in Japan. (It was released in the US in 2004.) Other Japan-only albums include Dedication (1974), V.S.O.P.’s Tempest in the Colosseum (1977), and Direct Step (1978). VSOP: Live Under the Sky was a VSOP album remastered for the US in 2004 and included a second concert from the tour in July 1979.
From 1978 to 1982, Hancock recorded many albums of jazz-inflected disco and pop music, beginning with Sunlight (featuring guest musicians including Williams and Pastorius on the last track) (1978). Singing through a vocoder, he earned a British hit, “I Thought It Was You”, although critics were unimpressed. This led to more vocoder on his next album, Feets, Don’t Fail Me Now (1979), which gave him another UK hit in “You Bet Your Love”.
Hancock toured with Williams and Carter in 1981, recording Herbie Hancock Trio, a five-track live album released only in Japan. A month later, he recorded Quartet with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, released in the US the following year. Hancock, Williams, and Carter toured internationally with Wynton Marsalis and his brother, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, in what was known as “VSOP II”. This quintet can be heard on Wynton Marsalis’s debut album on Columbia (1981). In 1984 VSOP II performed at the Playboy Jazz Festival as a sextet with Hancock, Williams, Carter, the Marsalis Brothers, and Bobby McFerrin.
In 1982 Hancock contributed to the album New Gold Dream (81,82,83,84) by Simple Minds, playing a synthesizer solo on the track “Hunter and the Hunted”.
In 1983, Hancock had a pop hit with the Grammy-award-winning single “Rockit” from the album Future Shock. It was the first jazz hip-hop song and became a worldwide anthem for breakdancers and for hip-hop in the 1980s. It was the first mainstream single to feature scratching, and also featured an innovative animated music video, which was directed by Godley and Creme and showed several robot-like artworks by Jim Whiting. The video was a hit on MTV and reached No. 8 in the UK. The video won in five categories at the inaugural MTV Video Music Awards. This single ushered in a collaboration with noted bassist and producer Bill Laswell. Hancock experimented with electronic music on a string of three LPs produced by Laswell: Future Shock (1983), the Grammy Award-winning Sound-System (1984), and Perfect Machine (1988).
During this period, he appeared onstage at the Grammy Awards with Stevie Wonder, Howard Jones, and Thomas Dolby, in a synthesizer jam. Lesser known works from the 1980s are the live album Jazz Africa (1987) and the studio album Village Life (1984), which were recorded with Gambian kora player Foday Musa Suso. Also, in 1985 Hancock performed as a guest on the album So Red the Rose (1985) by the Duran Duran spinoff group Arcadia. He also provided introductory and closing comments for the PBS rebroadcast in the United States of the BBC educational series from the mid-1980s, Rockschool (not to be confused with the most recent Gene Simmons’ Rock School series).
In 1986 Hancock performed and acted in the film ‘Round Midnight. He also wrote the score/soundtrack, for which he won an Academy Award for Original Music Score. His film work was prolific during the 1980s, and included the scores to A Soldier’s Story (1984), Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling (1986), Action Jackson (1988, with Michael Kamen), Colors (1988), and the Eddie Murphy comedy Harlem Nights (1989). Often he would also write music for TV commercials. “Maiden Voyage”, in fact, started out as a cologne advertisement. At the end of the Perfect Machine tour, Hancock decided to leave Columbia Records after a 15-plus-year relationship.
1990s to 2000
After a break following his departure from Columbia, Hancock, together with Carter, Williams, Shorter, and Davis admirer Wallace Roney, recorded A Tribute to Miles, which was released in 1994. The album contained two live recordings and studio recording songs, with Roney playing Davis’s part as trumpet player. The album won a Grammy for best group album. Hancock also toured with Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland and Pat Metheny in 1990 on their Parallel Realities tour, which included a performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in July 1990, and scored the 1991 comedy film Livin’ Large, which starred Terrence C. Carson.
Hancock’s next album, Dis Is da Drum, released in 1994, saw him return to acid jazz. Also in 1994, he appeared on the Red Hot Organization’s compilation album Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool. The album, meant to raise awareness and funds in support of the AIDS epidemic in relation to the African-American community, was heralded as “Album of the Year” by Time Magazine.
1995’s The New Standard found Hancock and an all-star band including John Scofield, DeJohnette and Michael Brecker, interpreting pop songs by Nirvana, Stevie Wonder, the Beatles, Prince, Peter Gabriel and others.
A 1997 duet album with Shorter, entitled 1+1, was successful; the song “Aung San Suu Kyi” winning the Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Composition. Hancock also achieved great success in 1998 with his album Gershwin’s World, which featured readings of George and Ira Gershwin standards by Hancock and a plethora of guest stars, including Wonder, Joni Mitchell and Shorter. Hancock toured the world in support of Gershwin’s World with a sextet that featured Cyro Baptista, Terri Lynne Carrington, Ira Coleman, Eli Degibri and Eddie Henderson.
2000 to 2009
In 2001 Hancock recorded Future2Future, which reunited Hancock with Laswell and featured doses of electronica as well as turntablist Rob Swift of The X-Ecutioners. Hancock later toured with the band, and released a concert DVD with a different lineup, which also included the “Rockit” music video. Also in 2001 Hancock partnered with Brecker and Roy Hargrove to record a live concert album saluting Davis and John Coltrane, entitled Directions in Music: Live at Massey Hall, recorded live in Toronto. The threesome toured to support the album, and toured on-and-off through 2005.
The year 2005 saw the release of a duet album called Possibilities. It featured duets with Carlos Santana, Paul Simon, Annie Lennox, John Mayer, Christina Aguilera, Sting and others. In 2006 Possibilities was nominated for Grammy Awards in two categories: “A Song for You” (featuring Aguilera) was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance, and “Gelo No Montanha” (featuring Trey Anastasio on guitar) was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Performance, although neither nomination resulted in an award.
Also in 2005 Hancock toured Europe with a new quartet that included Beninese guitarist Lionel Loueke, and explored textures ranging from ambient to straight jazz to African music. Plus, during the summer of 2005, Hancock re-staffed the Headhunters and went on tour with them, including a performance at The Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival. This lineup did not consist of any of the original Headhunters musicians. The group included Marcus Miller, Carrington, Loueke and Mayer. Hancock also served as the first artist in residence for Bonnaroo that summer.
Also in 2006 Sony BMG Music Entertainment (which bought out Hancock’s old label, Columbia Records) released the two-disc retrospective The Essential Herbie Hancock. This set was the first compilation of his work at Warner Bros., Blue Note, Columbia and Verve/Polygram. This became Hancock’s second major compilation of work since the 2002 Columbia-only The Herbie Hancock Box, which was released at first in a plastic 4 × 4 cube then re-released in 2004 in a long box set. Also in 2006, Hancock recorded a new song with Josh Groban and Eric Mouquet (co-founder of Deep Forest), entitled “Machine”. It is featured on Groban’s CD Awake. Hancock also recorded and improvised with guitarist Loueke on Loueke’s 1996 debut album Virgin Forest, on the ObliqSound label, resulting in two improvisational tracks – “Le Réveil des agneaux (The Awakening of the Lambs)” and “La Poursuite du lion (The Lion’s Pursuit)”.
Hancock, a longtime associate and friend of Mitchell, released a 2007 album, River: The Joni Letters, that paid tribute to her work, with Norah Jones and Tina Turner, adding vocals to the album, as did Corinne Bailey Rae. Leonard Cohen contributed a spoken piece set to Hancock’s piano. Mitchell herself also made an appearance. The album was released on September 25, 2007, simultaneously with the release of Mitchell’s newest album at that time: Shine. River won the 2008 Album of the Year Grammy Award. The album also won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz Album, and the song “Both Sides Now” was nominated for Best Instrumental Jazz Solo. That was only the second time in history that a jazz album had both those Grammys.
On June 14, 2008 Hancock performed with others at Rhythm on the Vine at the South Coast Winery in Temecula, California, for Shriners Hospitals for Children. The event raised $515,000 for Shriners Hospital.
On January 18, 2009, Hancock performed at the We Are One concert, marking the start of inaugural celebrations for American President Barack Obama. Hancock also performed Rhapsody in Blue at the 2009 Classical BRIT Awards with classical pianist Lang Lang. Hancock was named as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s creative chair for jazz for 2010–12.
2010 to present
In June 2010 Hancock released The Imagine Project.
On June 5, 2010 he received an Alumni Award from his alma mater, Grinnell College. On July 22, 2011, at a ceremony in Paris, he was named UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for the promotion of Intercultural Dialogue. In 2013 Hancock joined the University of California, Los Angeles faculty as a professor in the UCLA music department where he will teach jazz music.
On December 8, 2013 he was given the Kennedy Center Honors Award for achievement in the performing arts with artists like Snoop Dogg and Mixmaster Mike from the Beastie Boys performing his music.
He appeared on the album You’re Dead by Flying Lotus, released in October 2014.
Hancock is the 2014 Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University. Holders of the chair deliver a series of six lectures on poetry, “The Norton Lectures”, poetry being “interpreted in the broadest sense, including all poetic expression in language, music, or fine arts.” Previous Norton lecturers include musicians Leonard Bernstein, Igor Stravinsky and John Cage. Hancock’s theme is “The Ethics of Jazz.”
Hancock’s next album is being produced by Terrace Martin, and will feature a broad variety of jazz and hip-hop artists including Wayne Shorter, Kendrick Lamar, Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, Flying Lotus, Lionel Loueke, Zakir Hussein and Snoop Dogg.
On May 19, 2018, Hancock received an honorary degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Since 1972, Hancock has practiced Nichiren Buddhism as a member of the Buddhist association Soka Gakkai International. As part of Hancock’s spiritual practice, he recites the Buddhist chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo each day. In 2013, Hancock’s dialogue with musician Wayne Shorter and Soka Gakkai International president Daisaku Ikeda on jazz, Buddhism and life was published in Japanese.