A Conversation With Herbie Hancock, Pt. 1
(In February 1999, I had a very lengthy, very informative conversation with jazz pianist Herbie Hancock. for a profile of him I was writing for Billboard. I could use only a fraction of the interview, which was a shame–especially as his views on the record industry, voiced near the end of the interview, were startlingly prescient. A fabulous musician who was a complete pleasure to speak with. –dd)
When you were 11 years old, you performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. What did you play, and do you remember how you felt?
Actually the way it happened was I won a contest. They had a young people’s concert series in Chicago presented by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. They select a young instrumentalist on each instrument of the orchestra as a winner of that instrument. I won for piano. And your prize is to be able to play the piece you auditioned with with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I was delighted of course. I played a Mozart B Flat concerto, the first movement of the concerto. It was the first time I signed autographs after a concert, for one thing. That was pretty interesting. (laughs) That was fun, it was something I always heard about, but wow–some little girl asked me for my autograph. (laughs) She was about 7 years old or something like that. The other thing that was notable for me at the time was when I received the card saying that I in fact had been selected as winner for the piano, the same letter said that unfortunately they couldn’t find the orchestral parts for the concerto that I auditioned with. So that I would either have to learn a new concerto or forfeit playing with the orchestra. And that was a drag. So I learned a new concerto. (laughs) And I didn’t have nearly have as long a period of time available to learn it–I had the first one down cold, but the second one I wasn’t quite as secure with. But those were the circumstances. So I did my performance. The following week, the classical pianist Myra Hess was performing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Guess what piece she played? She played the one that I auditioned with–the one they said they couldn’t find the parts for. I was there, so I know what she played.
I wonder why–did they not want to overshadow her performance there the next week?
It could’ve been that. It could’ve been racial–because we’re talking about 1952. That was a long time ago. There weren’t that many black performers performing with the Chicago Symphony. I have no idea. But it was that time in the evolution of race relations in the United States.
It’s intriguing that that’s how it would happen and of course that’s what you’d remember most.
See, I wasn’t thinking that way, but my music teacher was the one, she figured that’s what it was. It could’ve been a combination of things. But I mean, how could they do that to an 11-year-old kid, you know? That’s pretty awful.
But you met the challenge. There are no recordings of that around, are there?
You were playing in jazz clubs prior to college, but you finally entered as an engineering major. What were your long-term plans?
When I graduated from high school I wanted to be practical. By that time I was 16 years old and I’d been playing piano for nine years–since I was seven. I just thought, you know, how few people could actually make it in the field of music. So since science was something that I became interested in before music–something I continue to be interested in–I thought this would be practical, you know. People need more engineers than they do musicians. Or it’s easier to get a job having a degree in engineering than to hope for the luck and talent to be able to survive as a musician. So I chose electrical engineering. But after two-and-a-half years, one day I looked in the mirror and said, “Who are you trying to kid?” (laughs) When it became very, very obvious to me that my heart was set on music, that’s when I changed my major to music composition. I found myself being more intrigued by music, and working harder at music, and being really pulled by music. My spirit was moved much more by music than it was by science.
What was your first most significant break professionally?
Those kinds of things come on different levels. When I finally came out of college–I went to school in Iowa, Grinnell College–when I finally went back to Chicago, my hometown, I went back to work in the post office again as I did every summer, and then continued when fall came around because I was finished with school. And a few months later, I worked with Donald Byrd, a great jazz trumpeter, and Donald actually hired me just for a weekend to play a gig in Milwaukee, which was not that far from Chicago. Anyway, there was a big blizzard and his regular piano player had gotten stranded somewhere, so he needed someone for the weekend. So I filled in–and I guess that he and the band liked what I was doing and they asked me to stay on with the band. And I said I would love to, but you’ve got to ask my parents. (laughs) I was 20 years old and still living with my parents, you know? So they got my parents’ blessing, and in January 1961 I moved to New York.
Who were you listening to–and what were your professional aspirations?
I can give you sort of a chronology of people. The first one was really George Shearing–because the thing that got me interested in jazz, when I was about 13 or 14, was I went to a variety show that my high school gave. And one of the performances was by a jazz trio led by a piano player that was in my class. And I’d always thought that you’d have to be older to play jazz–at least 19 or something. (laughs) When you’re 13, 19 is older. So anyway I heard this guy improvising on my instrument, doing something I didn’t know how to do, and I became fascinated by it. I didn’t know what I was listening to or didn’t understand it, but it sounded organized, and I could tell that the guy knew what he was doing. So he and I became friends, we started hanging out a lot more, and I asked him questions. He really loved George Shearing–that was his favorite pianist. I remember going home and telling my mother, “I’ve got to get some George Shearing records,” and my mother saying, “You have some George Shearing records.” And I said, “No I don’t–what do you mean?” She said, “Remember about two years ago when I bought some records for you for Christmas and you got angry that they weren’t the records that you wanted? Those were George Shearing records. You still have them in the record cabinet.” So I went there, and there they were. It was amazing–of all the people she could have picked it was George Shearing. I have no idea how his name came out of the pack–she could’ve picked Oscar Peterson or Erroll Garner. Anyway, George Shearing was first, then Erroll Garner, then Oscar Peterson, then there was a West Coast phase–people like Dave Brubeck and Pete Jolly–then I heard East Coast jazz, and I flipped over that. That was the thing that was closest to my heart. Then I was hearing Horace Silver and finally groups like Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and eventually Miles Davis.
You moved to New York and spent a couple of years as a session player, playing largely with Blue Note artists. Was it a formal arrangement–how did the work itself happen?
When I joined Donald Byrd’s group, Donald had a contract with Blue Note. So the first gig that I played in New York, after I’d been there three months, we got a gig playing at the Five Spot. A lot of musicians got a chance to hear me when we worked there for about a week–and that kind of started me recorded as a sideman with many other people. But soon after I’d been in New York, Donald invited me to come up to his apartment in the Bronx and he said that I could stay there. He was kind of like my big brother. So we were sharing his apartment in the Bronx, and he kind of weaned me into New York, because I was pretty green. (laughs) So Donald was the person who was always kind of teaching me about the ways of the music business. He was the one that originally encouraged me to get my own publishing company, and he’s the one that first took me over to Miles Davis, just to have Miles hear me. He’s the one that suggested I go to Blue Note Records. (laughs) This is something I usually forget about, but it just occurred to me–he told me to go the guys at Blue Note Records, tell them that I was drafted into the army and I wanted to make a record before I left (laughs). Because he said, “It’s time for you to make a record.” And I said, “No, I’m not ready.” He also told me to tell them that my tunes were already published by my publishing company, although I hadn’t really established the publishing company yet. He said, “Don’t give it to the record company. They will insist, but tell them sorry, they can’t have it.” Then I said, “But they might turn me down, say `forget about it then.'” He said, “No they won’t. Trust me.” So I went down there. I did just like he said. They said OK, they would record me–and then they said, “Of course you’ll put your tunes in our publishing company.” And I said, “I’m sorry, my tunes are already in my company.” And first they said, “Well then–sorry, we can’t record you.” And I turned to go walk back out the door, and before I got to the door they said, “Oh, wait a minute, wait a minute, hold on. OK, we’ll do it, you can keep them in your company.” Fortunately I followed Donald Byrd’s advice, because one of the songs I played for them when I was trying to sketch out the songs I wanted to do was “Watermelon Man.”
That must be your most-covered song, right?
I think so. Especially back in those days–anything that was a hit record got tons of cover records. Everybody did it. That sort of thing doesn’t work that way so much anymore, because now everybody’s a writer, everything’s kind of designer music–in the sense that it’s designed for the specific group that’s going to record it, or it appears that way. Everybody wants their own kind of thing.
You’re very lucky; if you’d gone with their publishing company, it would’ve been that much more difficult to extricate yourself from it after “Watermelon Man” hit.
Exactly. So Donald was really an extremely important figure in my career and my growth.
Blue Note has a legendary history, of course. Did that sense of history exist for you even then, or when you were recording at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio?
Blue Note at that time was the hottest jazz label, especially for young talent. At that time, Freddie Hubbard was relatively new and young, and Wayne Shorter and then Joe Henderson came in later on–and it had that history of recording people like Thelonious Monk, Miles. I don’t know if Miles had a contract with Blue Note, but he was on several recordings for the label. And of course Art Blakey & his Jazz Messengers were on there, Horace Silver’s group. So for me to be on Blue Note was like being the label that had the creme de la crème. So I was excited about that, and being called to record with people like Kenny Dorham and Jackie McLean–so many other noted jazz musicians–and being a part of the beginning of the careers of people like Bobby Hutcherson…
Did it seem like history in the making to you at the time?
No. No. How can you tell that? Nobody
can tell whether something is going to be history in the making or not. I was just very fortunate in coming up at that time and having the really positive influences on me that I did. But also, I was the kind of musician that was always very eager and curious–and I was very much a learner, you know? So much was going on in New York–the introduction of avant-garde, there was whole new spirit of avant-gardism happening around the early and mid-’60s in New York. Ornette and Don Cherry had recorded a couple of albums by the time I got to New York, and then within the next two years there was a whole school of people that had this kind of underground avant-garde scene happening, around ’62 or ’63 up until the end of the ’60s. It was kind of fertile ground. And then Coltrane, by around the end of ’62 or ’63, Trane came out with his group, and his group kind of evolved out of what he had done with Miles. I remember this record “Chasing The Trane,” which was the first record I ever heard of Trane playing this new kind of more avant-garde sounding music. I think it was Live At The Village Vanguard, that album? It was a very hot and fertile scene in New York at that time, and Miles was of course extremely popular then.
Tell me about when he asked you to join his band.
Actually I had to perform for two weeks with two different groups in Toronto. The first week was with J.J. Johnson’s group, and the second week was with Donald Byrd’s group. And when I got to Toronto, somehow word got out that Miles was looking for me. I heard that at the time I was with J.J. And then Donald Byrd came the next week and said that he’d heard the same thing, Jackie McLean told him that Miles was looking for me. Jackie and Donald were friends from Detroit and had played together on a number of occasions. I don’t think I had recorded with Jackie, but I’d played some gigs with Jackie–as a matter of fact, the first time I played with Tony Williams was with Jackie McLean. We’re talking about 1963, maybe February or March of ’63. Tony of course was 17 years old then–he was like a phenomenon. My song “Watermelon Man” became a big hit in 1963. I recorded it first–as a matter of fact, I should tell you this, on my recording, there was one unusual thing–the fact that I was a new artist and I was allowed to have all originals on my first record. That never happened. I think what happened was–the way Donald Byrd explained it to me, when he said, “Here’s how the record business works–you do half the record for yourself and half for the record company.” He explained that that means that you can have half the record be originals and the other half have to be standards or blues or a rhythm tune–something that people can already identify with, there’s already a connection there. But I think when I played for Alfred Lion, who was president and founder of Blue Note, he and Frank Wolff, one of my originals was “Watermelon Man”–because I wanted to see if I could write one of the songs that would sell the record. When Donald said that about making half the record for yourself and half for the record company, he meant that the half for the record company was what was going to sell the record. So I thought, “Suppose I want to write the piece that sells the record–what would it be?” So I tried to pick some kind of funky groove–the black soul sound was pretty hot as far as jazz records were concerned–with Horace Silver’s more popular kind of funky things, he was one of the main people who wrote pieces that bordered on…not pop pieces, but sellable pieces…I wanted to pick something from–I being very serious about it, not just trying to make something that just sells, I wanted to make something that derived from my ethnic background to write about. So what could be more ethnic than “Watermelon Man,” you know? So I picked that character from my childhood. What happened was, my record came out, it was doing well on the charts–they only had one chart at that time. So I was like No. 80 on the charts, which was not bad for a jazz record first time out. And then a few months later I worked with Mongo Santamaria. Now I’m backtracking a little–this is 1962, talking about “Watermelon Man.” Anyway, I worked with Mongo for a weekend, and during that weekend, one of the gigs we played was in the Bronx where Donald Byrd and I lived. This place where we played was a supper club not that far from our apartment. So Donald came to the gig to kind of hear how his little brother was doing. And during the break, Donald and Mongo had this conversation about a link between Afro-Cuban music and Afro-American music, and Mongo said he hadn’t quite found the one hinge-pin, so to speak. I heard only a part of the conversation, I wasn’t actually in the conversation, I was sort of half-listening. But then Donald says to me, in the middle of this conversation, “Herbie, play `Watermelon Man’ for Mongo.” I figured, “What does this got to do with what they’re talking about? They’re having a serious conversation, and this is just a little funky jazz tune.” So I started playing it. Mongo said “Keep playing it.” So then Mongo got up on his congas, and he started playing a beat that fit perfectly, like a glove in a hand, and then the bass player looked at my left hand and saw what notes I was playing, he joined in–one by one the musicians came up on the stage to play “Watermelon Man”–and one by one the people in audience got up on the dance floor and started dancing. Pretty soon everybody was dancing, everybody was screaming, and the musicians were laughing and having a good time, they were blowing–because it had that little break in there–in was like a movie. It was unbelievable, it just kind of blew me away. So then we ended the tune, everybody was applauding and saying “This is a hit,” and Mongo said he wanted to record it–and I said, “By all means.” He recorded it and it was a hit. And right after Mongo recorded it, then all the cover records came out. Xavier Cugat recorded it, Trini Lopez, Julie London, the Andrew Sisters, to name some obscure ones–it was amazing. Manfred Mann recorded it–Manfred Mann recorded “Watermelon Man Ska,” because he was doing the, well, pre-reggae stuff.
What happened was, one of the reasons I brought up “Watermelon Man” was because it was already a hit tune by then, it had been played everywhere. And I was still playing gigs as a sideman with these people. So when I got back to New York, people were calling me up telling me Miles was looking for me. So Donald Byrd told me, he said, “If Miles calls, tell him you’re not working with anybody.” I said, “Donald, no–I couldn’t do that to you.” He said, “Man–shut up.” (laughs) He said, “The last thing I’d ever want to do would be to stand in the way of opportunity and growth for you and your career.” And he said frankly, it’d be like a feather in his cap, since he discovered me. So sure enough Miles calls, and the first question he asked was, “Are you working with anybody?”–and I said no. (laughs) The next day I went to Miles’s place, I was met by Tony Williams, who Miles had also called. Here’s another little side remark. When Miles called me that first time, he asked me to show up the next day at his place at 1:30 and then just hung up, you know? He hung up. He didn’t leave a phone number or address, or nothing. So about a half-hour later Tony Williams calls me and Tony has all the information. So I showed up and George Coleman and Ron Carter w
ere already at Miles’s place–they had been working with Miles already. Because Miles had an interim group that I guess he wasn’t quite happy with. Harold Mabern played the piano. The last formal group that he had, lasting group, had Wynton Kelly on the piano, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb–but anyway this interim group was Ron Carter, Frank Strozier, George Coleman–and so there were two saxophonists, tenor and an alto. And Frank Butler–who had just gotten out of jail, but he only lasted a few weeks and then he was back in jail again. And so then Jimmy Cobb worked again with Miles. Then I guess they went out on one tour for a few months and then they came back to New York and he was changing his group again, that’s when he got me and Tony to, I guess, audition–but he kept Ron and he kept George Coleman.
How did you audition–did you run through his music, standards?
Well, what happened in fact was there were pieces of music on Miles’s piano, and Miles brought us down to his rec room and he asked me to play these pieces. He tried to play a little bit, but all of the notes were cracking from his horn. He just ran upstairs. So that left Ron, George Coleman, Tony and myself playing these new pieces. I didn’t know what they were. And we just kind of ran over them a little bit and tried to makes some sense of them. This went on for like three days. Finally, on the third day, Miles came down and we went over some of Miles’s older things–“If I Were A Bell,” “Autumn Leaves” —just to see if we knew the repertoire. And then Miles played a little bit, just a few notes, and that was it. What I found out later on–as a matter of fact, years later, not long before Miles died, I found out that Miles was upstairs in the house listening to us on the intercom. Which is fantastic–because he was sensitive enough to know that we would have been intimidated if he had been there. So he stayed out of the room, got to hear us when we felt the most comfortable, and I guess that’s when he knew that he had the band that he wanted. And then on the third day he came downstairs and said, “OK, tomorrow were gonna meet at Columbia Recording studios.” We said, “What?!” So I said, “Miles, does that mean I’m in the band?” He said, “You making the record, motherfucker!” (laughs uproariously) So anyway, when we got to the recording studio, we were warming up a little bit, and Teo Macero, Miles’s producer came into the booth. So Miles said, “Teo, listen to this” and then we started playing “Seven Steps To Heaven.” Which was one of the pieces that we had kind of worked on at Miles’s house. Teo almost fell of his chair–he couldn’t believe it, because Tony Williams was doing his thing–it was hot, it was hot. A whole new thing, Miles with a young band. So we were all bright eyed and bushy-tailed and eager…One other experience I’ll tell you–when we finally started playing gigs with Miles., Tony and I would pretty much play what we felt Miles would be comfortable with when Miles would play–but behind George Coleman, because George demonstrated a kind of Coltrane influence, we would stretch out a lot more–break up the time and those sort of things–but we didn’t do it that much behind Miles. About a year after we first joined him, Miles said, “Hey, why don’t you play behind me the way you play behind George?” And so we started doing that, breaking up the time. And Miles struggled with it the first day, the second day he wasn’t struggling as much, and by the third day I was struggling. Miles had found a path in there, and it meant I had to reorient myself completely. Right after that, Miles said, “I don’t want to play any chords anymore.” And the next record we did after that was ESP.
What did you feel like as a pianist when your bandleader called for no chords?
As I said before, the avant-garde was something that was very prevalent on the New York scene–and I was listening to Ornette and to Trane and curious about Milford Graves and all those guys on that scene–it was new stuff, you know? And Tony Williams was definitely into that, because he had been playing with Sam Rivers in Boston before he even came to New York. And Tony–first of all, he was my best friend, and I was learning from Tony about this whole new rhythmic concept, and still trying to figure out how to translate that into the piano. Eventually I got kind of a bead on it, and I remember the day that that happened. I played one of these kind of rhythms in my solo line, sort of by accident, and I looked up at Tony and Tony just nodded his head–because he knew that I got it. It was a very fertile time for us.
Your own solos albums, like Speak Like A Child, which came later, had some interesting arrangements; did your constant live work with Miles allow you to be more adventurous as far as your record-making was concerned? How did you divide your attention when recording alone and with Miles?
Miles’s band had its own direction, its own path. When I made my records, of course I was very much influenced by Miles’s band, but many of the pieces that I wrote for my own records didn’t quite fit the mold of Miles’s band. Wayne wrote a lot of pieces for Miles–his pieces really fit that, and mine were kind of an offshoot of that. That’s why Miles didn’t record “Maiden Voyage.” He didn’t do “Speak Like A Child,” but the song “I Have A Dream,” on this reissue that they did [The Complete Blue Note Sixties Sessions]? There’s an unfinished version–there were two versions, I don’t know if they did both, of “I Have A Dream”–but it never ended up on records because we never quite finished it. We couldn’t quite get it to work for that band. I know exactly the question you’re asking, but I don’t really have a definitive answer. I guess because that was really my personal direction–and Miles’s band was more like, in a sense his personal direction, but also the direction that was defined by the quintet as a team.
You were very fortunate to have both avenues of expression open to you.
Oh, absolutely, absolutely. And at the same time, especially the mid-’60s, I had this tune that I wrote playing all over the place. Everywhere I walked it was playing out of people’s windows. Which put a big fat smile on my face and put money in my pocket.
Without a hit record or a working band, it seems like it must’ve been something of a financial struggle for players back then. You were lucky to have the hit and the gig.
Right, exactly. I mean I struggled more when I was with Donald Byrd–which was a two-year period that I was with Donald. But I did go to New York with a working band, Donald Byrd’s band. A lot of people went–generally speaking, most people go to New York alone and try somehow to get heard by someone. But I did go to New York with a band of some renown. Certainly on the jazz scene. So that was really the best way to go.