Thank You Herbie Hancock

I usually get a chance to speak to my mother every day. She always would like someone to talk to and she has the normal concern about my well-being. My reasons are somewhat the same, but I am able to delve into a little African-American history with every conversation. My mother and I grew up on the south side of Chicago albeit at different times. However, as a youngster she was surrounded by and lived quite close to many whom we now view as great historical figures. She many times speaks about growing up with Lorraine Hansberry, author of A Raisin in the Sun, as a neighbor in her apartment building. I love hearing the stories of young Hansberry living with her family in her formative years before going on to become one of the most prolific writers of all time. Regrettably, so many of our young people today do not even know about Ms. Hansberry, which is a sad lack of historical knowledge. My mother is happy that I came along at a time when public schools were still teaching history in a way to help young folks understand and appreciate their particular surrounding. I must agree with her and celebrate the teachers who increased my thirst for historical awareness. My personal interest eventually moved toward music and a subsequent affinity for musical history. When discussing musical history, the subject is vast and full of master musicians of various genres and times. Nevertheless, this week I chose to feature a wonderful living historical figure in master jazz pianist Herbie Hancock.

Born in Chicago in 1940, Herbert Jeffrey Hancock was a child piano prodigy who performed a Mozart piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at age 11. Like many jazz pianists, Hancock started with a classical music education from age seven.  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: “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.”  He began playing jazz in high school, initially influenced by Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans. He also developed a passion for electronics and science, and double-majored in music and electrical engineering at Grinnell College.

In 1960, Herbie was discovered by trumpeter Donald Byrd. After two years of session work with Byrd as well as Phil Woods and Oliver Nelson, he signed with Blue Note as a solo artist. His 1963 debut album, ‘Takin’ Off’, was an immediate success, producing the hit “Watermelon Man.” In 1963, Miles Davis invited Herbie to join the Miles Davis Quintet. During his five years with Davis, Herbie and his colleagues Wayne Shorter (tenor sax), Ron Carter (bass), and Tony Williams (drums) recorded many classics, including ‘ESP’, ‘Nefertiti’ and ‘Sorcerer’. Later on, Herbie made appearances on Davis’ groundbreaking ‘In a Silent Way’ and ‘Bitches Brew’, which heralded the birth of jazz-fusion.

When you mention the name Herbie Hancock, my thoughts automatically turn to innovation. It seems that Hancock is always somewhere close when something new is introduced to the world of music. It is Herbie Hancock’s sense of musical invention that led to his receiving a Kennedy Center Honor and recognition December 2013. However, a few words uttered by Hip Hop artist Snoop Lion (formerly known as Snoop Dogg) really caught my attention. “Herbie we love you, baby,” he said. “Thank you for creating hip-hop.”

What Snoop said did not surprise me in one sense because most hip hop artists understand the parental relationship that jazz music has with the hip hop genre. It is the fact that Snoop Lion actually spoke about a particular jazz artist and publicly thanked him for his contribution. Snoop could easily look back to 1983 and Hancock’s hit song “Rockit” for a reference.  It was the first jazz hip-hop song and became a worldwide anthem for the break dancers and for the hip-hop culture of the 1980s. It was also the first mainstream single to feature scratching. Of course there are many musicians who should be considered light-bearers for Hip Hop, but Herbie Hancock is truly deserving of the Kennedy Honor and more importantly recognition from younger artists of all genres.

What’s next for Hancock? He still is performing and creating music and a little more! Herbie Hancock recently delivered the first of several lectures he’ll give at Harvard as a professor of poetry. His first lecture was titled “The Wisdom of Miles Davis”. Thank you Professor Hancock.

(photo by Douglas Kirkland)

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