Jazz Appreciation Month: Happy Birthday Herbie Hancock

Herbie Hancock, River: The Joni Letters Album Cover (Verve Music Group, Universal Music Group)

Herbert Jeffrey Hancock was born on April 12, 1940 in Chicago, Illinois. He began playing the piano at age 7, and four years later performed a Mozart piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He attended Grinnell College and double majored in music and electrical engineering, and as he told Wired Magazine, always refers to himself as a “free-footed techie.” When he graduated in 1960 he had already been performing in Chicago jazz clubs with Coleman Hawkins and Donald Byrd, and Bryd later invited him to join his quintet and move to New York City. Not long after that Blue Note Records gave him the opportunity to record as a leader, and he debuted with Takin’ Off.

In 1963, Miles Davis asked Herbie Hancock to join his quintet, consisting of Ron Carter on bass, Tony Williams on drums, and at different times George Coleman, Sam Rivers, and Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone. Herbie played with them for five years. During his time with Miles his solo career also moved ahead, where he composed the songs Maiden Voyage, Dolphin Dance, Cantaloupe Island, The Sorcerer, and Speak Like a Child, which have become jazz standards.

He left the Miles Davis Quintet in 1968 and continued his musical journey and started to use electronics and electronic instruments more heavily, like the Fender-Rhodes piano, the Mellotron, and the Hohner Clavinet. “I’ve been involved with technology for a long, long time, and I’m one of the people who really pushed musicians toward embracing the technology from the pioneering days and development of computers and digital technology,” he said in an interview with Wired Magazine

Check out this video from 1984 of Herbie Hancock and Quincy Jones demonstrating the Fairchild CMI (computer musical instrument), a digital sampling synthesizer.

In 1973 he released the album Head Hunters and in 1983 he released the song Rockit, which climbed to number one on the pop chart and won a Grammy for Best R&B Instrumental Performance.

In 2001 Herbie Hancock continued his exploration with the collaborative album Possibilities that featured Christina Aguilera, John Mayer, and many others. In 2008 he won the Grammy for Album of the Year for River: The Joni Letters.

Herbie Hancock has won 14 Grammy Awards over his expansive and celebrated career. In an interview with Time Out London they asked him to define jazz, and he replied, “well, jazz has been defined in a lot of different ways. One thing that sticks in my mind is that jazz means freedom and openness. It’s a music that, although it developed out of the African American experience, speaks more about the human experience than the experience of a particular people. You know, like it’s ability to take sometimes the worst of circumstances and challenges of life and turning them into something of beauty and creativity. So it has continued to evolve over the years.”

Mr. Hancock, Happy Birthday! Berklee City Music music celebrates you and all of you have done for jazz!

Herbie Hancock, center, accepting the album of the year Grammy Award for “River: The Joni Letters” from Usher. On the right is he album’s co-producer, Larry Klein. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Check out some of Herbie Hancock’s music on our Jazz Appreciation Month playlist.

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