Entry for January 09, 2008

January 9, 2008 by

One of the reasons why I’m glad I have this blog is because I find out things I wouldn’t if I didn’t have this blog.

Just looked at my messages and I got one from, of all people, Nelson Slater–whose album Wild Angel I once discussed in a long-ago Lou Reed interview here. Don’t think Nelson liked its cover, but I’m happy to show it whenever I can. Nelson is making music today and you can find out more by checking out his MySpace page here. Please do.

Secondly, I got this message:

Dear Dave DiMartino

Your fond reference to Fête Foraine by the Apartments came to me through Google. And so did this, which seems to be destiny.

Sophie
http://youtube.com/watch?v=4VMF_a6maPA

Anyway, here it is, shot Dec. 20th in Sydney:

I think she read this.

Anyway, thank you Sophie, wherever you are. You made my week.

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Entry for January 03, 2008

January 3, 2008 by

PAZZ & JOP BALLOT 2007

1) The Pearlfishers: Up With The Larks (Marina German import)

2) The Clientele: God Save The Clientele (Merge)

3) The Rosebuds: Night Of The Furies (Merge)

4) At Swim Two Birds: Returning To The Scene Of The Crime (Green Ufos UK import)

5) Robert Wyatt: Comicopera (Domino)

6) White Shoes & The Couples Company: White Shoes & The Couples Company (Minty Fresh)

7) The Bird & The Bee: The Bird & The Bee (Blue Note)

8) Edwyn Collins: Home Again (Heavenly UK import)

9) Kevin Ayers: The Unfairground (Lo-Max UK import)

10) Gnac: The Arrival Of The Fog (LTM UK import)

Entry for January 03, 2008

January 3, 2008 by

PAZZ & JOP BALLOT 2007

1) The Pearlfishers: Up With The Larks (Marina German import)

2) The Clientele: God Save The Clientele (Merge)

3) The Rosebuds: Night Of The Furies (Merge)

4) At Swim Two Birds: Returning To The Scene Of The Crime (Green Ufos UK import)

5) Robert Wyatt: Comicopera (Domino)

6) White Shoes & The Couples Company: White Shoes & The Couples Company (Minty Fresh)

7) The Bird & The Bee: The Bird & The Bee (Blue Note)

8) Edwyn Collins: Home Again (Heavenly UK import)

9) Kevin Ayers: The Unfairground (Lo-Max UK import)

10) Gnac: The Arrival Of The Fog (LTM UK import)

Entry for October 15, 2007

October 15, 2007 by

Haven’t had much chance to post lately, mostly because I’ve been enjoying the great comments I’ve been receiving on my New This Week blog–which remind me ever so much of the days in the early ’80s I spent opening reader mail at CREEM. The single most common opening line of most letters, no lie: “This magazine fuckin’ sucks!!” It was rewarding in so many ways!

Anyway, just heard from my good friend Steve Bergman, the founder of Schoolkids Records in Ann Arbor, one of the finest record stores in the world during its prime. He’s just begun a new online site, which I recommend you visit. You can find it if you click around the general vicinity of this.

Entry for October 15, 2007

October 15, 2007 by

Haven’t had much chance to post lately, mostly because I’ve been enjoying the great comments I’ve been receiving on my New This Week blog–which remind me ever so much of the days in the early ’80s I spent opening reader mail at CREEM. The single most common opening line of most letters, no lie: “This magazine fuckin’ sucks!!” It was rewarding in so many ways!

Anyway, just heard from my good friend Steve Bergman, the founder of Schoolkids Records in Ann Arbor, one of the finest record stores in the world during its prime. He’s just begun a new online site, which I recommend you visit. You can find it if you click around the general vicinity of this.

Entry for July 17, 2007

July 17, 2007 by

The past 24 hours have unveiled a brand new design for Yahoo! Music, which we’re all very proud of. It’s nifty. As part of the gala event, I have begun spewing a new, weekly blog cleverly titled New This Week .

Sadly, due to overzealous cropping of my picture in the blog header, displayed above, readers can see neither the tin cup in my hand, nor the sign offering pencils–at the reasonable price of 10 cents apiece–that I am wearing around my neck.

-dd

Entry for July 17, 2007

July 17, 2007 by

The past 24 hours have unveiled a brand new design for Yahoo! Music, which we’re all very proud of. It’s nifty. As part of the gala event, I have begun spewing a new, weekly blog cleverly titled New This Week .

Sadly, due to overzealous cropping of my picture in the blog header, displayed above, readers can see neither the tin cup in my hand, nor the sign offering pencils–at the reasonable price of 10 cents apiece–that I am wearing around my neck.

-dd

Entry for July 10, 2007

July 10, 2007 by

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.

Right.

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

Right.

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
record.

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)

Entry for July 10, 2007

July 10, 2007 by

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.

Right.

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

Right.

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
record.

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)

Entry for July 10, 2007

July 10, 2007 by

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?

No.

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.