A name that’s become synonymous with jazz piano

Herbie Hancock

Herbie Hancock

Herbie Hancock. It’s a name that’s become nearly synonymous with jazz piano. From his early association with Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet, to his innovations with hard bop and fusion jazz, all the way to his still prolific solo career, Hancock is a true master of jazz.

It’s no surprise that Hancock was a piano prodigy. He started classical training at age 7, and only four years later, he played Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 26 in D Major with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Though he didn’t receive any jazz training, he was a fan of the early bebop group the Hi-Lo’s. When he was 20, he asked jazz pianist Chris Anderson to teach him to play jazz. That same year, he moved to New York to attend the Manhattan School of Music to study composition. He also began working himself into the New York jazz scene, starting with gigs with Oliver Nelson and Phil Woods. He signed to Blue Note Records shortly thereafter, and made his solo recording debut in 1962 with Takin’ Off.

Takin’ Off caught the attention of Miles Davis, and Hancock was invited to join the Miles Davis Quintet in 1963. He and Davis quickly developed a mutually beneficial relationship. Under Davis’ direction, Hancock’s musical abilities flourished. He developed new chords previously unheard in jazz, and found a way to incorporate orchestral quartal harmonies into the band’s rhythm section. He and the other members of the rhythm section, Tony Williams and Ron Carter, would become so adept at improvisation and seamless chord changes that their style would get a name -- “Time, No Changes.”

During this era, Hancock continued recording for Blue Note as bandleader. His albums Empyrean Isles (1964) and Maiden Voyage (1965) were back-to-back critical and commercial hits.

The late ‘60s were a time of great change for Hancock. He ended his association with Davis in 1968, and switched from Blue Note to Warner Bros. in 1969. Inspired by Davis’ 1969 album Bitches Brew, Hancock began experimenting with fusion jazz, known primarily for its funk influences and use of electric instruments. He started by composing the soundtrack to the hit children’s TV show, Fat Albert. Next, he formed a sextet, and together they’d record three other seminal works: Mwandishi (1971), Crossings (1972), and Sextant (1973). Crossings in particular is known for being the first jazz recording to feature a synthesizer.

By the mid-to-late ‘70s, Hancock would go almost full funk. He formed a new band called the Headhunters and recorded a string of albums that were met with a mixed response. Some believed he had strayed too far from jazz, while others saw this era as an opportunity for Hancock to expand his repertoire.

Hancock returned to “pure” jazz by the end of the decade. He joined the V.S.O.P. Quintet, a near-identical line-up to the Miles Davis Quintet, excluding Davis himself. They’d record a number of well-received albums, particularly 1977’s The Quintet. In 1981, Hancock recorded Quartet with Wynton Marsalis, and the two later went on tour together with Davis alums Williams and Carter, along with Marsalis’ brother Branford.

But Hancock’s biggest hits would always be more mainstream-friendly, funk-tinged singles. 1983’s “Rockit” netted him a Grammy nomination and became his biggest song to date. (It’s also considered the first jazz song to incorporate elements of hip-hop.) In 1986, he scored and performed in the movie ‘Round Midnight loosely based off the New York bebop scene. His efforts won him an Academy Award for Best Original Score.

Since the ‘80s, Hancock has continued to do his own thing, melding jazz, pop, R&B, and whatever genres he likes to create his own form of jazz. He’s recorded tribute albums for two of his heroes: 1994’s A Tribute to Miles and 1998’s Gershwin’s World. In 2005, he released a duet album titled Possibilities that featured the biggest pop acts of the time, including Christina Aguilera, John Mayer, and Annie Lennox. More recently, he collaborated with Kanye West on his album 808s & Heartbreak.

It’s easy to see why Herbie Hancock is a household name. He’s won nearly 15 Grammy Awards and an Oscar. He’s also a Kennedy Center Honors recipient, a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, and a member of the Downbeat Hall of Fame. A film composer, bandleader, and storied collaborator, as well as a bebop, fusion, and pop pioneer, Hancock embodies musical experimentation. And it’s this experimentation that is his true contribution to jazz. It began when he found ways to incorporate his classical training into improvising with Williams and Carter, and it continues with always finding ways to incorporate popular trends in music.

Herbie Hancock Videos

Herbie Hancock - Rockit

"Rockit" -- Herbie Hancock

The word "strange" doesn't begin to describe the mood created here.

Annie Lennox & Herbie Hancock - The Making Of Hush, Hush, Hush

Annie Lennox and Herbie Hancock -- "Hush, Hush, Hush"

The 2005 album "Possibilities" had Herbie Hancock working with a number of popular artists from different genres.

Herbie Hancock - An Amoeba Interview

Herbie Hancock Talks About His Love of Harmony

As one of those most popular and experimental jazz musicians around, Herbie Hancock has quite a broad list of influence.

Herbie Hancock Trio 'World of Rhythm'

"World of Rhythm" -- Herbie Hancock Trio

"World of Rhythm" is a recorded concert performance of the Herbie Hancock Trio.

Herbie Hancock "The River Of Possibilities Tour" - Jazz a Vienne 2008

Herbie Hancock Plays Jazz a Vienne 2008

France's Jazz a Vienne is one of the most popular jazz festivals in the world.

Umbria Jazz 2013, Herbie Hancock e Chick Corea al Santa Giuliana

Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea Play Umbria Jazz 2013

By 2013, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea are both almost half a century into their careers.

Herbie Hancock Headhunters 1974

The Herbie Hancock Headhunters Live in Germany

Most jazz enthusiasts know Herbie Hancock from his early days with the Miles Davis Quintet (the second great quintet, actually).

Herbie Hancock - AVO Session 2006

Herbie Hancock's 2006 AVO Session

This full-length concert gets off to an aptly funky start.

Herbie Hancock: The Ethics of Jazz | Mahindra Humanities Center

The Ethics of Jazz: Herbie Hancock Lecture at the Mahindra Humanities Center

Harvard University's Mahindra Humanities Center is a lecture hall that serves as a place of discussion for all lovers of learning.

Herbie Hancock "Watermelon Man" Live at Java Jazz Festival 2012

Herbie Hancock -- "Watermelon Man"

"Watermelon Man" is one of Herbie Hancock's most famous tunes.

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