Herbie Hancock Is a Jazz Legend — and He Once Beat Miles Davis in a Street Race
To some people, Herbie Hancock is the synth-savvy funk god behind the 1983 hit “Rockit.” To others he is the abstract, ethereal, Debussy-influenced pianist behind 1960s jazz LPs such as Maiden Voyage, or the bespectacled young sideman in Miles Davis’ celebrated quintet of the same period. To still others, he’s the establishment guy recently embraced by the MOR Grammy crowd for records like River, which reworked the music of Joni Mitchell.
All of these Herbies will arrive at the Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday, Aug. 23, on a bill that includes saxophone phenom Kamasi Washington. And Hancock promises to reimagine and restructure the music from across his career. The pianist, who lives most of the year in Los Angeles and serves as jazz chair for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, spoke to L.A. Weekly from the road.
You’ve played the Bowl a bunch of times over the years. Are there kinds of music that work there, and kinds that don’t? Are acoustic songs like “Speak Like a Child” or “Maiden Voyage” too intimate for a 17,000-seat outdoor venue?
Depends on the time of day. You know why? In the daytime, the sun is up, everything is lit. People are there with their families, with food, with babies — it's like a picnic. At night, it’s dark, the light on the stage is on the artist, and it’s a little easier to get those things to get across than in the daytime.
And it depends on how you present it. Anything can work. If you’re already got the audience in the palm of your hands, they’ll take whatever you give them.
You started recording in the early ’60s. Tell us about some of your important early influences — whether classical composers, the black church or jazz players.
Well, I was’t much of a churchgoer. I did go to church sometime. But being black, brought up in a black neighborhood, in Chicago, it was a blues town, R&B was happening when I was a kid — that’s what I listened to. And that grew out of the black church.
And you’re studying classical music at the time: playing Chopin by day, hearing Howlin’ Wolf on the radio at night, something like that.
You can hear Howlin’ Wolf on the radio in the daytime, too.
Back then they had cartoons, at movie theaters, for the kids. They also had music groups that played on the stage. [One day] I went to the theater, to see the cartoons, with my mother. But we got there early, so a music group was playing — I don’t want to hear this blues group. I couldn’t wait ’til the cartoons came on.
But I recognized one of the tunes because I’d been hearing it on the radio all the time. I find out later, you know who it was? It was Muddy Waters. He was playing “I’m a Man” [“Mannish Boy”], his big hit.
When did you hear jazz musicians and say, “This is new, something different, it’s something I want to devote my life to”?
My parents played jazz records at home — they played Duke Ellington, Count Basie and others. I heard it at home but didn’t pay much attention to it. It was only in the second year of high school, in a variety show my school had every semester. There was a jazz trio, and the pianist was in my class, my age. And the guys looked like they are having fun, and he was — if you think about it — doing something I couldn’t do. I’d been playing piano like seven years, I could read classical music. But I knew nothing about improvising, and he did. And they looked like they were having fun, the kids were liking it. So I said, “I want to know how to do that!”
After the performance I went backstage and asked him, “I want to learn how to improvise; how do I start?" And he said, “If you want to do what I do, listen to George Shearing.”
Huh. Not an obvious call.
Depended on your race — at that time, right? His name was Don Goldberg.
I though he’d say Bud Powell or something.
If he was a black kid he might have.
I ran home and said, “Mom, Mom, we have to get some George Shearing records.” She said, “We have George Shearing records. Remember those records I bought for you a few years ago, and you were upset that they weren't the ones you asked for?”
And they were in the cabinet, along with two of the tunes the band played. “I’ll Remember April,” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” that was the other one.
A lot of jazz musicians — Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown — died young. Others, even titans like Thelonious Monk, worked in a pretty similar groove across several decades. What made you so restless, and allowed you to have not just a long but a wide-ranging career?
I guess the first thing is I got a lot of encouragement from my parents. Secondly, I had the opportunity to work for Donald Byrd, who took me under his wing.
And then I played with Miles. And he told us not to just play for applause, and not just to play the stuff we know. He paid us to try new stuff. To explore. So with that kind of encouragement — and I was a curious kid from since I was little. I always liked to explore, that was my basic instinct; my DNA is inspiration.
Having that reinforcement over the years and then, when I started practicing Buddhism, 44 years ago, with Nichiren Buddhism, through [Soka Gakkai International], that same kind of ethic, of moving forward, was built into the Buddhism I practice. So it’s part of my life — to not let anything stop you from moving forward.
You were in your early 20s when you started playing with Miles Davis' group, probably the hottest jazz group in the world at that point. What was that like?
[Laughs] You can only imagine. There was nothing like it. The level of musicianship was so extremely high. … You really had to be on your toes at all times, at every moment. Because everybody was firing away at new ideas, quickly grasping things and creating things. It was like a whirlwind.
What was Miles like to work with? Was he competitive with you guys?
When “Watermelon Man” was a hit, under my publishing company, and I was the writer, and it was on my record [Takin' Off, Hancock's 1962 debut], I started getting some checks for it, it was on the radio, I thought, “Whoa, I might have to go on the road, get a band together, and start playing this thing.”
And so Donald Byrd, who took me in as his roommate, said, when I said I might get a station wagon, he said, “Have you ever thought about getting a sports car?” Donald had a Jaguar. He said there’s a car that’s been beating Ferraris in races and it’s a Ford — an AC Cobra.
I bought the car, for $6,000. Then I got hired by Miles, maybe a month later, and I’m gonna go on the road. But I had one more gig, at the Village Gate in New York, as a sideman for Clark Terry. ... When we were playing the last set, I looked out the corner of my eye, and who do I see? Miles! Miles had come down.
We finish the set, we come down and Miles says, [gravelly voice] “I’ll give you a lift home.” He knew I was living nearby. I said, “Aww, man, that would be fantastic, but I just bought a new car.” He said, “It’s not a Maserati.” I said, "No, no it’s not."
We get downstairs and my car is near the exit. He says, “Cute.”
We both get to the stoplight at Sixth Avenue. It’s like 2, 3 o’clock in the morning. I knew what was going to happen: As soon as the light turns green, we’d floored it, right! So we drove several blocks before the next red light. I got to the light shortly before Miles, and I smoked Marlboros in those days. I grabbed one, lit it, rolled down the window as Miles drives up.
He looked over at me and he says, “What the fuck is that?” I said, “It’s an AC Cobra.” He said, “Get rid of it.” I said, “Why?” And he said, “It’s dangerous.” And then he started driving [off]. And I’m thinking, “I beat Miles!”
Say another word if you could about Buddhism. Wayne Shorter is a Buddhist, Sonny Rollins is a Buddhist and devoted to yoga. You’ve all had long and productive careers. What has it done for you and your generation of musicians?
Buddhism helps me see things more clearly. It kind of wipes away the cobwebs. Helps you understand the external world in relation to you as a human being, and you understand how the world, as you see it, is a reflection of your own life conditions. And as you change, it appears that the world changes — but what actually changes is how you perceive it.
This affects how you act, how you see other people, how you treat people.
Nichiren Buddhism is about respect for every single human being. We believe that everybody has the potential for enlightenment, or that Buddha condition, that they’re born with it. But it’s covered up by a lot of crap. And the practice of Buddhism is to remove all the crap.
Herbie Hancock headlines the Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday, Aug. 23, with Lionel Loueke (guitar), James Genus (bass), Vinnie Colaiuta (drums) and Terrace Martin (saxophone/keyboards). Kamasi Washington opens.
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