Entry for July 10, 2007


A Conversation With Herbie Hancock, Pt. 2

How did you make your exit from Miles’s band?

What happened was, at a certain point I knew that I wanted to pursue my own direction–I wanted to be able to play my tunes. I had written “Maiden Voyage,” “Speak Like A Child” and some other pieces that were not quite appropriate for the way Miles’s band was developing. And I wanted to pursue that, I wanted to see if any of my tunes would stand the test of playing them night after night, you know? And Tony also knew that he was–not itching to get out, none of us were itching to get out, but we wanted to, we had this urge pulling us to kind of define ourselves as individuals apart from Miles’s group. And Wayne too. What happened was that actually I had gotten sick. I got married, had my honeymoon in Brazil, got food poisoning down there, and when it was time to go back to work, there were a couple of gigs that were coming up with Miles, and the doctor told me no way should I go back–my liver was too swollen or something. I was under a doctor’s care. So Miles found out about Chick, and Chick played those gigs for me. That’s when Miles became aware that Chick had the talent and had the aptitude to be able to fill that place as pianist for his band. By that time, Ron was not the bass player with the band anymore. The last gig I played with Miles was the first gig I played with Dave Holland. So he had a new bass player–he knew he was losing everybody else–Wayne, Tony and myself–at some point, so he felt that since he found out that Chick could really take my place, that if he could get Chick to come in before Tony and Wayne left then he could like slowly replace people without having to completely replace the sound.

Looking at record credits, though, it looks like there were a number of later sessions that sometimes had three keyboard players or so–including Chick, Joe Zawinul, and even Keith Jarrett.

Oh yeah. I continued to make records with Miles when I was in town. As a matter of fact, I happened to be in town for every record that he made up to that up to a certain point, except for Bitches Brew. I was out of town. That’s the only reason I’m not on Bitches Brew.

What were the dynamics of three keyboard players of your repute on one session–was that an interesting thing?

Oh, absolutely, absolutely. We did In A Silent Way–I was still with Miles when we did that–and the next record was Bitches Brew, and then after that was On The Corner, which I was on…a few other funny records, different kinds. What Miles would do, he wouldn’t go to make “a record,” he would just go and record some pieces. Later on they would compile different pieces and make a record out of it. So these were all separate session. Especially starting with In A Silent Way, even before that, a lot of the end product was due to editing.

I’d heard that with some of Teo Macero’s editing that, say, on In A Silent Way, there’s nearly a five-minute repeat section of the same music heard earlier.


Now with computers it doesn’t even make a difference.


You certainly popularized the Fender Rhodes electric piano in jazz. How was that switch for you–did you take to it instantly?

I would say myself and Joe Zawinul, we were both doing that. But it was really due to Miles. The first time I played electric piano was on a Miles Davis session, when we did…it was the record that had “Stuff” on it that Tony Williams wrote, Miles In The Sky. Anyway, I went to the studio and I looked around and there was no piano there. I did notice in the far corner there was an electric piano, but I mean I never played that in a Miles session–I never played it period. I thought that was a toy. I asked Miles, “What do you want me to play?” He said, “Play that,” and pointed at the electric piano, the Fender Rhodes piano. And I’m thinking, that toy? So I said OK, and I plugged it in and turned it on, and I played a chord, and I loved the way it sounded. Because it had this kind of guitar, vibes piano kind of mixture that was very mellow, you know. And you could turn it up, you could turn up the volume. So I could compete with Tony Williams–which was, as funny as it sounds, I loved the fact that when Miles would play or Wayne would play, they’d play with the kind of power and volume that comes out of those instruments, that Tony could really dig in. But when it came to piano solos, I wanted to play with that kind of volume, so Tony could continue to dig in without having to hold back because it’s piano and its soft. You know, the microphones weren’t as developed as they are now. And there’s still problems with feedback now, but there are ways around that. Anyway, with the electric piano I could just crank it up and Tony could just dig in, which was great. So anyway, that was my introduction to the Rhodes, and I learned a very important lesson. Because I had never played one, but had an opinion about it–an opinion that was based on other people’s ideas, not my own–and when I actually played it, it dispelled that false opinion. That opinion which I myself would not have held, anyway. So I learned not to take other people’s opinions as my own. A great lesson to learn.

How did you decide to structure your Mwandishi group? With the exception of the trombone, it seemed structured much like Miles’s Quintet.

Here’s what happened. When I did Speak Like A Child, I loved the sound of those instruments–that kind of Gil Evans-ish sound, but I found out a way of doi
ng it with just three horns. I mean, you could tell it was influenced by Gil. Incidentally, I was so crazy at the time I did Speak Like A Child, I wanted to be able to write something, to do a record that had the Gil Evans influence, but with the least number of instruments that was possible. So I thought, well probably the least number of instruments might be five. But that’s not enough of a challenge–I’ll do it with four. But since I said that, I’m going to do that with three. .Make it impossible. I made that challenge for myself. I was gonna try to do that with three instruments. How, I had no idea, when I started off. Then I made certain decisions about which instruments to take because of ranges and the color of the sound of the instruments–but anyway, without getting into all these musical details, I got what I got. Which I was very happy about. And I decided that was the sound that, whenever I left Miles’s band, that was the kind of band I wanted to have. And so it started off with a Speak Like A Child kind of band–that way I could play “Maiden Voyage,” I could play all the kind of things I played, and still use that sound from the album, but also kind of pad some of the tunes that I had written prior to that sound. That was 1968, the first gig that we played. In ’69 it developed further. Just because of the influence of the avant-garde–and I guess my choice of people. As personnel began to change, the band got further and further out–so by the time I got Julian Priester and Eddie Henderson, well Bennie Maupin had kind of been in the previous band–Billy Hart was a new person in the band. And I had Buster Williams and Bennie from before. And it began to take on a new kind of avant-garde-but-spiritual kind of tone to the band. Then we really began to stretch out, we really began to shoot for the fences so to speak.

I think I saw you on Soundstage back then on PBS–maybe you were playing out of Chicago?

Yep. Ken Ehrlich’s show. As a matter of fact, one time I did that show and at the end I did one piece with Chick–oh no, that was later on, I was on there I think with the Headhunters band, and then Chick was opposite us, I did one piece with Chick–and it came off so well, just the two of us, that a few years later he and I did a tour together. We wound up doing that tour, which was pretty extensive, and then we did another one.

Your milestone of 1973 would have to be the Headhunters album. What was the major factor in the stylistic change?

What happened was, this avant-garde direction had as far as I was concerned reached its peak, and kind of reached a big wall, I thought. I certainly had. It stopped being fun for me. Something was missing, or something wasn’t being satisfied, or something was not quite right. And I began to kind of dread actually playing with that band. And that’s when I knew that was the end of that direction for me. I began to feel like I was dabbling is space so much, I kind of needed to feel the earth again, feel rooted some kind of way. And the music had gotten so heavy and so intense, I wanted to play something that was lighter and more fun. It could still be a challenge, it could still be serious but not so serious–something that was more a joy than a chore. So by that time, actually starting from the time that I was with Miles, and I had gone through a period of being a jazz snob–I noticed that Miles was listening to everybody, and just realizing that he was listening to Jimi Hendrix and James Brown, that kind of said to me that it was OK to be broadminded about music. So even though the Mwandishi band had kind of dabbled in funky kind of rhythms a little bit, jazz-rock kind of rhythms–it was still very much an avant-garde sort of band. What happened was, I broke up that band and I wasn’t sure what kind of music I wanted to do–and I practiced Buddhism. I had actually been practicing at that time not quite a year, and it was during the time that I was actually chanting that I decided that I wanted to do like a funk album. Because one of my favorite people was Sly Stone–especially that song “Thank You For Letting Me Be Mice Elf Again”–that was probably the funkiest thing I’d ever heard. It still is, I guess. So it was a challenge to me, it was pretty daring for me–I realized that I might never gain a new audience, I might lose my base audience, I might make a record that just wasn’t good, didn’t have it. Although when I was a kid I listened to rhythm and blues and classical music before jazz.

Of course you gained a large new audience, but did you lose a segment of your audience too–the jazz snobs of the time?

Not from the people, I got that from critics. If people didn’t like Headhunters, they didn’t buy it.. But they didn’t stop buying Speak Like A Child. They felt like I could do what I want. If I wanted to record that, fine. But the critics thought how dare I record this record? And actually it wasn’t a funk record. As we began to put it together, it began to take on its own character, and fortunately I decided to follow the path it was carving out by itself.

When Sony released a lot of those records recently it gave people a chance to listen to them with 1999 ears. I was surprised how sophisticated they sound now–how there were rhythmic things going on back then that I couldn’t even hear, but now are obvious. They sounded good then, and they sound great now. Do you look back with pride on those records?

Oh, I’m very happy I recorded and wrote those pieces. I’m saying I wrote those pieces, but actually most of those records from that time on were collaborations. The guys in the band also had a hand. I got all the credit for it because I was the leader. But “Watermelon Man,” the intro that was on the Headhunters record–was Bill Summers, doing this kind of pygmy style, that was Bill Summers’s idea, but he put it on my record. And I wrote the song “Watermelon Man” already–so when people sample that, I get paid. One more thing I should probably add, during that time, up until ’73 or so, I had already done two movie scores…Blow Up and I did one called The Spook Who Sat By The Door, which hardly anybody ever saw.

The Blow Up soundtrack’s been reissued a lot. That’s a beautiful

Thanks. That got–one of the pieces from Blow Up got sampled. When Bootsy Collins produced the record by the group Deee-lite, he found something from Blow-Up that he sampled, and it became their hit record, “Groove Is In The Heart.” I don’t know if he sampled it or re-recorded it, but it was the bass line from a song I did on Blow Up.

I assume you got paid for it.

Oh, sure. I always get paid for it.

People are hearing you and don’t even know they’re hearing you. I like that. I bet you like it too.

Sure. The song was a hit and I didn’t even recognize the bass line, I didn’t even remember it–because it was on the soundtrack album Blow Up, but it wasn’t actually used in the film. I wrote it for the film, but it wound up on the cutting room floor. But for the album. I put it on the album.

I know you did some television stuff back then, too.

Right. Maybe a year or so after Blow Up I got called to do a TV commercial, or jingle, and the people that hired me to do it were rally happy with what I did, so I wound up doing several things for them. And that was my exposure to really working not just with visuals, but learning the timing techniques and how to catch action, and basically the techniques that you use in writing film scores for synching music and actions. I learned how to do that by doing TV commercials, just the technical part of that. And by the time I did Death Wish, I guess that was the first time I really formally wrote for a full orchestra–because I not only scored the music but I orchestrated it myself. And after that I started using orchestrators–I mean, it’s a huge job to write the music and orchestrate it in the time that’s allotted, you know? I mean, I still orchestrate it basically–the basic ideas come from me, but I have someone execute it. The orchestration itself takes so long to do. And since that’s the drudgery of it, having to write all that stuff out–conceiving it is the main thing.

Looking at a sheet of awards and accolades you’ve received, it looks like an onslaught began in the early ’80s and has continued since. What do you think was happening?

I guess the way to describe it is that it really expanded. Prior to that my work had primarily been focused on performing and recording. And I guess doing Headhunters was the first recording that was a clear departure from what I had done before, because I’m using synthesizers, as opposed to the Mwandishi band which was pretty much the opposite. But then, like you said, film scoring began to take off in a way, I started taking on different kinds of challenges, by hosting a TV show. Actually I think it kind of demonstrates an opening up of my attitude, and opening up of my mind and my whole vision about challenges and the kinds of things I might reach for. Again, I have to go back to my practice of Buddhism.

Forgive my ignorance, but exactly what sort of Buddhism do you practice?

Well, we say SGI, those three letters. It means Soka Gakkai International. We chant “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo”–the same thing that Tina Turner does in that film What’s Love Got To Do With It? That’s a true story, too, because I was practicing Buddhism at the time, and I remember Tina practicing. They made certain changes in it to make it work for film, but it’s basically the truth. But for me the Buddhism was really helping me to open myself up. And helping me to see myself more as a human being and not just as a musician. To see that what I am all the time is a human being, but I’m only a musician when I’m playing music, or writing music, or talking about music, and that when I’m with my family, I’m a husband or father, and I’m with my parents, I’m their son. When I’m with my neighbors, I’m a neighbor, when I’m voting, I’m a citizen, you know? But what I always am is a human being. And if I’m a human being, then why not? If I’m trying to find out what this human being is, if an opportunity comes up to do an acting job, why not? If the opportunity comes up to write for films, why not? Why not at least look at it? And I think if I hadn’t been practicing Buddhism I probably would not have seized those opportunities. I might’ve, its hard in hindsight, but I suspect that I wouldn’t have decided to try these opportunities that were outside of the area of music.

You largely introduced Wynton Marsalis to the American public then, and in many ways were regarded as a very young elder statesman to a batch of so-called “Young Lions.” Many of them were occasionally criticized for emulating the exact same sound you’d popularized with Miles 20 years previously. What did you think about that issue?

First of all, I would be the last person to say that a musician doesn’t have the right to do what he wants to do, because that was a criticism that was given to me often over the years, especially when I did the Headhunters records. Critics said I didn’t have a right to do that–which, were do they get off telling me what sort of rights I have? I never signed a contract that said I had to play jazz–or one that said I have to be a musician. You know? I can do what I want. I would apply the same thing to other musicians, they can play whatever they want. So I can’t criticize them for doing what they want to do. Now the question is, why would they be reaching back into history and playing music that was generated in a different time in response to those times? I would say the positive aspect is the fact that a musician would want to go into some detail to find out about the history of the music. It’s a learning process, you know? Its also an area of respect for elders, people and the styles that were generated in the past that evolved into the music that came later on, which I find no fault with. My criticism doesn
t cover any of those areas, I only find fault if a musician has an attitude that if you don’t do that, you’re not playing real music. I find fault with narrow-mindedness.

When you signed to Verve in the ’90s, you seemed to move to various “projects”–the Headhunters reunion, the Gershwin tribute, even an album covering songs by people like Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. Do you have some overall strategy you’re pursuing?

I want to find new and fresh ways of looking at an idea. Looking at a project that I decide to undertake. In other words, when I did the Gershwin record, my feeling was that a lot of people–and in the past I would’ve done the same as I expected other musicians to do–which is to kind of take the beautiful tunes that Gershwin wrote and makes some arrangements on them and put yourself into the improvisation. And that you claim as your own. But I wanted to go a step further with that project. I wanted to reexamine what the expected way would be for a jazz musician to pay this kind of tribute to Gershwin, and find a new a fresh way of looking at the pieces. So when this project was presented to me by Bob Sadin, who wound up being the record producer, what interested me was not just the tribute to Gershwin, but in that proposal he stated the idea of having every piece have a different musical setting. And I liked that idea. So we pursued that, and in trying to define what those settings would be, it meant that we had to explore other kinds of possibilities and other ways of looking at these pieces, so it meant rearranging things and just finding different vantage points. I was so intrigued by the process of doing it and very happy about the end result, that I can see that, as you’re stating, it seems like there’s a purpose involved, a kind of clear direction, project-oriented direction, as you stated. But it really stems from the fact that…My feeling is that there isn’t enough, or there’s a lot more room for looking at even conventional things and finding, not just unconventional but fresh ways of dealing with what may already exist.

You’ve make significant inroads in the interactive world. How long have you been plugged in, and how excited are you by the potential it offers? When you go home, if you’re not sitting by your piano, are you sitting by your computer?

(Laughs) Unfortunately, you’re right. I definitely spend more time at the computer than I do at my keyboards. There’ s a keyboard all right, but its alphanumeric–QWERTY keyboard. But see–I was into science when I was a kid, you know? It’s something that’s part of me. I’m naturally drawn to it–that’s why I was naturally drawn to synthesizers. Making Headhunters was not really me stepping outside of my role, it was me exposing a side of me that people weren’t aware of. And of course the critics weren’t aware of it–they had no idea how attached I was to science. And to me, synthesizers were the perfect marriage of the two things I was interested in–music and science. Now I’m much more interested in people than I am in music or science–but it’s at a different level. If you’re interested in people, it doesn’t exclude being interested in music or science, there’s a whole different level.

What was the intent of your Rhythm Of Life Foundation, and what sort of work does it do?

Well, in a nutshell the Rhytnm Of Life direction is science for humanity–or technology for humanity. In other words, using technology in ways other than for business–which is primarily how we look at technology today, basically business machines. But to try to use technology to address the real issues of the human being. The kinds of things that you see on the headlines of newspapers, the kinds of issues that people have to deal with day to day. The kinds of issues that children deal with–peer pressure, which is not limited to children. As a matter of fact, most of the problems that kids have are the same kind of problems that adults have, and vice versa. This is what I’m looking at. I think there’s an opportunity for the development of a whole new kind of industry that’s based off of using technology to address human issues rather than just business issues. So OK. A foundation gives away money. The foundation was formed basically to encourage the technology community to start looking at the human question, because there’s so much attention to money and power today that I think the human being has fallen even lower on the list of priorities, unfortunately. Although it kind of backfires in our face every time we turn around. And I think in the not-so-distant future, circumstances are gonna kind of force us to–its already beginning–to turn our head a little bit and kind of look at what we’re doing. The whole impeachment things…

Give me an example of how technology can refocus on helping people.

OK, here’s one example. The development of programs that kind of encourage examination of issues you have to deal with. What the Rhythm Of Life Foundation wants to do is encourage kids to learn programming, and for them to develop programs that deal with the issues in their life. They can be games, they can be adventure themes–this is just an example–but frankly, if I had the real answer to your question, I would be doing the stuff myself. My feeling is that the people who develop the technology age who weren’t born into it, are too jaded to even know how to do what I can only suspect can be done. But the kids who were born into that age are the ones that have the capacity for coming up with some answers. There are kids who know how to use a mouse who haven’t learned how to talk yet. The question you ask me is a very valid one, my real answer is–I don’t know how to do it, I just know that nobody’s even tried. I shouldn’t say nobody’s tried–I’m not aware of there being much of an attempt, if at all, in examining the technology for that kind of purpose. Of course technology’s used in the field of medicine, but that’s not exactly what I’m talking about. I’m talking about technology in a whole new way.

That’s certainly a very noble cause.

And believe me, we need it. You know, what led me to that is watching CNN and my own concern about the world that I live in, and being on tour in Europe and watching CNN–which in most cases is the only thing I could watch because it’s the only thing in English–and l
ooking at what’s going on in the world and crying. I got sick of crying, you know? And realized I can’t sit and wait for somebody to do something. If I want something to get done then I have to do it. Just to have that attitude–even if I’m not the one to do it, have the attitude, don’t wait. Get started. In fact, on a more practical level, at this point, we have developed the Rhythm Of Life Organization, which can take money–and we are working with mayor’s office in San Francisco because a multimedia gulch up in that area, and it’s so close to Silicon Valley. The first project is to actually build a building in a more or less distressed area, and the building will be for education and advanced technology. And the word “advanced” is actually a redefining of “advanced,” meaning advancing towards humanity–but of course including the traditional meaning of advance technology too. We’ve got a board of directors, we had the first preliminary board meeting–it’s already set up. Nonprofit status, there’s been some initial seed money that’s come in to do this initial set-up and we’re partnered with another organization led by a guy in Pittsburgh to build this facility to do what he did in Pittsburgh, and our interest in technology, new uses of technology. And that’s what this building will be about. And it’s not just for kids, it’s for adults too. But I personally am more interested in this facility and this kind of direction and its relationship to teenagers, because I got this kind of gut-level feeling that just like in the ’60s, people in their 20s kind of start setting a whole new tone for the future. And I think that’s going to come from people in their mid to late teens, if we give them a chance.

When music historians of the future write about you, what do you think they’ll largely focus on?

I ain’t dead yet. (laughs) So I don’t even look at stuff like that. What I’m more concerned with is what is it that I want to encourage, what is it that I want to inspire. I’m more concerned about certain concepts like risk-taking. I think that’s extremely important–to encourage people to take risks, as far as their development is concerned, whatever their pursuit is–in their job, whatever kind of job it is. Don’t be afraid to take risks. And a lot of times it’s not encouraged. As a matter of fact the way things are set up now, there are more things discouraging risk-taking than encouraging it–and I think that’s one of the things that’s a negative as far as the way things are flowing today. Even in the business world–IPOs and the bottom line. Everything seems to be based on the status quo and not taking risks.

Speaking of which, you’ve been signed up to a label that just merged with another company. Is that touching you even now?

I guess we’ll see, huh? (laughs) It’s funny, because I actually met Edgar Bronfman many years ago, on a couple of occasions. I knew his ex-wife, and when he first moved to California I was invited to their housewarming, and on another occasion he actually produced a record–I think it was a Bill Evans record that I was asked to participate on. But I haven’t seen him in…that was before he took over the company. I’d love to see him now–I will at some point try to see if I can make contact with him, just to say hi, maybe have dinner or something. Who knows? But as far as this deal is concerned, it’s affected the company, but it happened at a time when Gershwin’s World, my record was coming out. But because the company, Verve loves Gershwin’s World, they decided to make it their top priority, and the really have done their best to promote the record, and its done very well in, for example, Japan and France in particular, and other European countries too. And it’s done well in the States. But sales, record sales in general are really down from what they used to be, because there’s so many records out now, that those numbers don’t come up like they used to–so in terms of today’s market, the company is very satisfied with what Gershwin’s World has done. It’s just real difficult to get airplay. The thing is, I do promote risk-taking–but it’s at great risk, but I don’t like the way things are going. What used to be broadcast is now very narrowcast. When I see new young musicians talking like business people instead of talking like creative people–using words like “demographic” and “market”–they’re not talking about creativity, they’re talking about product. That scares me.

But there is of course a major difference between art and product: Art lasts where product doesn’t. There’s a reason why Sony reissued some of your older records a while back, or why Blue Note released the box set–because it was great stuff when you made it and it’s great stuff now. It lasts.

Fortunately for jazz, jazz records do sell basically for a long time. The rock ‘n’ roll scene is very, very different. Rock in general. “Commercial” music. As a matter of fact, I totally agree with you–it’s not even just a one-hit wonder–one hit can last as quick as the eye can blink. It’s amazing how short-lived artists can be.

We’ve touched on a lot of great stuff here. Is there anything we haven’t discussed that you think we really need to?

We didn’t mention “Rockit.” That was a pretty big record. I’ve gotten, now, two platinum records–Headhunters and Future Shock, which has “Rockit” on it. You know what? I found out that Future Shock was platinum in something like 1994–but because it was on Columbia Records, now Sony, nobody ever called me to say it got platinum. The way we found out was through the Internet. My assistant just happened to go to the RIAA website, just to see, you know, and BOOM, there it is, platinum. Future Shock. So we called ’em on it. They haven’t sent the record yet, they said they would, but it hasn’t happened yet. It’s amazing.

What of your stuff do you find getting sampled the most?

They sample “Chameleon” probably the most, “Rockit” gets sampled a little bit, but not that much. And “Watermelon Man.”

Tell me the record that you made in your heart of hearts that you wish more people had heard.

You know, I was kind of disappointed in the response I got for Dis Is Da Drum. I thought that I would get more attention from the public, that that record would get more attention than it did. The people who have heard it seem to all really like it, but an awful lot of people just never heard it. That’s one of the problems, just exposure. That’s beginning to change now–with the Internet and exposure–but how that’s going to manifest itself and what the path to getting the attention of people, even though its accessible, how that’s going to pan out is really hard to say, because that’s so new. That whole idea of the playing field being level and not the end result, the process, how its gonna evolve, is a really interesting thing for me and for a lot of people out there.

We’re just one step away from the first major, major artist saying, that’s it for the labels–if you want to buy my music, buy it direct from me.

Yep. Yep. And you know what? I told the people from Polygram when I first signed with them, you guys need to get someone who’s hired specifically to follow the technology and check out these things like that. Because I saw the handwriting on the wall–OK, records may be physically available for some time, but it’ll be just one of several choices. Anytime you can download it on to your hard drive, you may not want the record, the physical record, to be there. On the other hand, for some records you may want it physically to have it. I don’t think it’s the death necessarily of CDs, but it sure is going to change their impact on the public. And retail is whole different ball game, too. And the record companies were just so afraid of retail–so afraid of losing their Blockbusters and their Tower Records and all of that. And I tried to tell them, you cannot stop this train from coming this way. I told them they should join the retailers and co-develop a whole new business. They weren’t listening then. Record companies are kind of slow. (laughs)


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