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date: 02 April 2020

Hancock, Herbie [Herbert Jeffrey]free

  • Bill Dobbins
  •  and Barry Long

(b Chicago, IL, 12 April 1940). Jazz pianist, keyboard player, and composer. He was born into a musical family and began studying piano at the age of seven. Four years later he performed the first movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto no.5 with the Chicago SO in a young people's concert. He formed his own jazz band while attending Hyde Park High School; his early influences were from Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, and the harmonies of Clare Fischer, Gil Evans, and Ravel. Hancock began studies at Grinnell College with a double major in music and engineering, the latter an early interest that later was manifested in his groundbreaking synthesizer work. He switched to composition in his junior year, and by the time he left Grinnell in 1960 he was already working in jazz clubs in Chicago with Coleman Hawkins. The trumpeter Donald Byrd invited him to join his quintet and move to New York, where during Hancock's first recording session with the group, Blue Note was sufficiently impressed to offer him his first date as a leader, in May 1962. The resulting album, Takin’ Off, drew considerable public attention through an original tune, “Watermelon Man,” which had a strong gospel influence and charted on jazz and R&B radio. Hancock also worked briefly in Eric Dolphy's group and recorded with Hank Mobley, Jimmy Heath, Oliver Nelson, and Kenny Dorham.

In May 1963 Hancock joined Miles Davis's group, which became known as the trumpeter's second great quintet. Hancock's piano style had by this time evolved into a highly personal blend of blues and bop with sophisticated harmony and exquisite tone. With Davis's sidemen Ron Carter and Tony Williams, Hancock helped revolutionize traditional jazz concepts of the rhythm section and its relation to the soloists, and established a musical rapport with an extraordinary degree of freedom and interaction. During his five years with the quintet Hancock also led his own groups, recording several albums for Blue Note including Maiden Voyage (1965), Speak Like a Child (1968), and The Prisoner (1969). These featured compositions that have since become jazz standards: “Maiden Voyage,” “Dolphin Dance,” “Cantaloupe Island,” and “Speak Like a Child.” Hancock also composed the score for Michelangelo Antonioni's film Blow-Up (1966) and worked as a sideman with Blue Mitchell, Lee Morgan, Bob Brookmeyer, Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean, Sam Rivers, and Woody Shaw, as well as with his fellow sidemen in Davis's band Williams and Wayne Shorter. Although he officially left Davis's group in 1968, Hancock continued to record with him until 1970 and played electric piano and organ on many of Davis's important jazz-rock albums including In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew (both 1969, Col.), and A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1970, Col.).

From 1970 to 1973 Hancock led a sextet that combined elements of jazz, rock, and African and Indian music with electronic devices and instruments. He also used the name Mwandishi during this period. Influenced by Davis's fusion recordings the sextet, which included Joe Henderson, Johnny Coles, and Billy Hart, was notable for its colorful doubling of instruments, tasteful blend of acoustic and electronic sounds, and mastery of compound meters (Mwandishi, 1970, WB, and Sextant, 1972, Col.). Thereafter Hancock began to use electric and electronic instruments more extensively, including the Fender-Rhodes piano which he played through a variety of signal processors such as wah-wah and fuzz pedals. Later he turned to the Mellotron and the Hohner Clavinet and finally to various synthesizers, sequencers, and electronic percussion units. Hancock's album Head Hunters (1973, Col.) with his ensemble of the same name, was the first by a jazz artist to go platinum and marked the beginning of a commitment to more commercial types of music, particularly rock, funk, and disco, and contained the Sly Stone–influenced hit single “Chameleon.” Although Hancock returned occasionally to jazz projects in the late 1970s, particularly with his Davis-alumni band V.S.O.P and his piano duos with Chick Corea, his focus during this period was on crossover music that achieved considerable commercial success. In 1983 the single “Rockit” reached the top of the pop charts, and its promotional video received widespread critical acclaim; it demonstrated Hancock's ability to use the most complex innovations in electronic technology to produce fascinating music.

After this success Hancock turned his attention almost exclusively to jazz for the next two years. He acted and played in the film Round Midnight (1986) and won an Oscar for his score. From 1987 he recorded and toured internationally with all-star groups that included Carter, Williams, Gil Scott-Heron, Michael Brecker, Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland, Pat Metheny, Vernon Reid (of Living Colour), and Shorter. Hancock's album Dis is da Drum (1994, Verve) included material in a hip hop style, and on The New Standard (1996, Verve) he recorded versions of pop songs by the Beatles, Prince, Simon and Garfunkel, and Steely Dan, among others. During the late 1990s Hancock worked with a reunited Headhunters band and recorded an album of works by Gershwin (Gershwin's World, 1998, Verve) which won multiple Grammy awards. Hancock's music also began to reappear on the charts through the sampling of his earlier material, notably the use of “Cantaloupe Island” by the British hip hop group Us3 on “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)” (BN, 1993). Since then his projects have continued to explore crossover influences and collaborators. His recording River: the Joni Letters (2007, Verve) featured compositions by Joni Mitchell and became only the second jazz album to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year, and his tribute to John Lennon, The Imagine Project (2010, Hancock), included such varied artists as John Legend, Dave Matthews, and The Chieftains.


(selective list)


Driftin’, Watermelon Man (from Takin’ Off; 1962, BN)

Cantaloupe Island, One Finger Snap (from Empyrean Isles; 1964, BN)

Dolphin Dance, Little One, Maiden Voyage (from Maiden Voyage; 1965, BN)

Riot, Speak Like a Child, The Sorcerer (from Speak Like a Child; 1968, BN)

Chameleon, Watermelon Man (from Head Hunters; 1973, Col.)

I Thought it was You (from Sunlight; 1978, Col.)

Rockit (from Future Shock; 1983, Col.)

Film scores

Blow-Up (dir. M. Antonioni, 1966)

Death Wish (dir. M. Winner, 1974)

A Soldier's Story (dir. N. Jewison, 1984)

Round Midnight (dir. B. Tavernier, 1985)

Colors (dir. D. Hopper, 1988)

Harlem Nights (dir. E. Murphy, 1989)

Livin’ Large! (dir. Michael Schultz, 1991)

On the Shoulders of Giants (dir. Deborah Morales, 2011)

Occupy Los Angeles (dir. Joseph G. Quinn, 2012)


  • B. Johnson: “Herbie Hancock: into his own Thing,” DB, xxxviii/2 (1971), 14 only
  • R. Townley: “Hancock Plugs In,” DB, xli/17 (1974), 13
  • D. Milano and others: “Herbie Hancock,” Contemporary Keyboard, iii/11 (1977), 26
  • C. Silvert: “Herbie Hancock: Revamping the Past, Creating the Future,” DB, xliv/15 (1977), 16
  • D.N. Baker, L.M. Belt, and H.C. Hudson, eds.: “Herbie Hancock,” The Black Composer Speaks (Metuchen, NJ, 1978), 108–38 [incl. list of compositions]
  • B. Primack: “Herbie Hancock: Chameleon in his Disco Phase,” DB, xlvi/10 (1979), 12
  • J. Balleras: “Herbie Hancock's Current Choice,” DB, xlix/9 (1982), 15–17
  • L. Lyons: “Herbie Hancock,” The Great Jazz Pianists: Speaking of their Lives and Music (New York, 1983/R), 269–84
  • H. Mandel: “Herbie Hancock: of Films, Fairlights, Funk … and all that other Jazz,” DB, liii/7 (1986), 16–19 [incl. discography]
  • N. Suzuki: Herbie Hancock: 1961–1969 (Shizuoka, Japan, 1988) [discography]
  • J. Tamarkin: “Herbie Hancock: Energy in the Environment,” JT (Sept 2010), also available at <>

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