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Herbie Hancock Biography

Home > Music > H > Hancock, Herbie > Biography

Birth Name: Herbert Jeffrey Hancock
Born: 1940/04/12
Birth Place: Chicago, Illinois
Years Active: 1961–present
Genres: Jazz, Post Bop, Jazz Fusion, Hard Bop, Jazz-funk, Funk, R&B, Electrofunk

Herbie Hancock (born Herbert Jeffrey Hancock, April 12, 1940) is an American pianist, keyboardist, bandleader and composer. Hancock's music is often melodic and accessible with many of his songs crossing over to achieve success among pop audiences. His music embraces elements of funk and soul while adopting freer stylistic elements from jazz. In his jazz improvisation, he possesses a unique creative blend of jazz, blues, and modern classical music, with harmonic stylings much like the styles of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.

He recorded his first solo album “Takin' Off” for Blue Note Records in 1962. “Takin' Off” caught the attention of Miles Davis, who was at that time assembling a new band. Hancock was introduced to Davis by the young drummer Tony Williams, a member of the new band. As part of Miles Davis's “second great quintet,” Hancock helped to redefine the role of a jazz rhythm section and was one of the primary architects of the post-bop sound. He was one of the first jazz musicians to embrace music synthesizers and funk music (characterized by syncopated drum beats).

While in Davis's band, Hancock also found time to record dozens of sessions for the Blue Note label, both under his own name and as a sideman with other musicians such as Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, Grant Green, Bobby Hutcherson, Sam Rivers, Donald Byrd, Kenny Dorham, Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard.

His albums “Empyrean Isles” in 1964 and “Maiden Voyage” in 1965 were to be two of the most famous and influential jazz LPs of the 1960s, winning praise for both their innovation and accessibility. “Empyrean Isles” featured the Davis rhythm section of Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and17-year-old drummer Tony Williams with the addition of Freddie Hubbard on cornet, while “Maiden Voyage” also added former Davis saxophonist George Coleman. Both albums are regarded as among the principal foundations of the post-bop style.

Hancock also recorded several less-well-known but still critically acclaimed albums with larger ensembles including 1963’s “My Point of View,” 1968’s “Speak Like a Child” and 1969’s

The Prisoner” featured flugelhorn, alto flute and bass trombone. 1963's “Inventions and Dimensions” was an album of almost entirely improvised music, teaming Hancock with bassist Paul Chambers and two Latin percussionists, Willie Bobo and Osvaldo “Chihuahua” Martinez.

Davis had begun incorporating elements of rock and popular music into his recordings by the end of Hancock's tenure with the band. Despite some initial reluctance, Hancock began doubling on electric keyboards including the Fender Rhodes electric piano at Davis's insistence. Hancock adapted quickly to the new instruments, which proved to be instrumental in his future artistic endeavors.

Under the pretext that he had returned late from a honeymoon in Brazil, Hancock was dismissed from Davis's band. In the summer of 1968 Hancock formed his own sextet. However, although Davis soon disbanded his quintet to search for a new sound, Hancock, despite his departure from the working band, continued to appear on Miles Davis records for the next few years. Noteworthy appearances include “In a Silent Way,” “A Tribute to Jack Johnson” and “On the Corner.”

Hancock left Blue Note in 1969, signing with Warner Bros. Records. In 1969, Hancock composed the soundtrack for the Bill Cosby animated children's television show “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.” Titled “Fat Albert Rotunda,” the album was mainly an R&B-influenced album with strong jazz overtones.

Hancock's first ventures into electronic music started with a sextet comprising Hancock, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Billy Hart, and a trio of horn players, Eddie Henderson (trumpet), Julian Priester (trombone), and multireedist Bennie Maupin. Dr. Patrick Gleeson was eventually added to the mix to play and program the synthesizers.

The sextet, later a septet with the addition of Gleeson, made three experimental albums under Hancock's name, 1971’s “Mwandishi,” 1972’s “Crossings” (both on Warner Bros. Records), and 1973’s “Sextant” (released on Columbia Records). The music often had very free improvisations and showed influence from the electronic music of some contemporary classical composers. On the albums following “Crossings,” Hancock started to play synth himself and unlike Gleeson, he plays it as a melodic and rhythm instrument just like electric pianos.

Hancock then gathered a new band, which he called The Headhunters, keeping only Maupin from the sextet and adding bassist Paul Jackson, percussionist Bill Summers, and drummer Harvey Mason. The album “Head Hunters,” released in 1973, was a major hit and crossed over to pop audiences, though it prompted criticism from some jazz fans.

Mason was replaced by Mike Clark, and the band released a second album, “Thrust,” the following year. This was almost as well received as its predecessor, if not attaining the same level of commercial success.

Hancock's next jazz-funk albums of the 1970s were 1975’s “Man-Child” and 1976’s “Secrets,” which pointed toward the more commercial direction Hancock would take over the next decade. These albums featured the members of the Headhunters band, but also a variety of other musicians in important roles.

During late 1970s and early 1980s, Hancock toured with his “V.S.O.P.” quintet, which featured all the members of the 1960s Miles Davis quintet except Davis, who was replaced by trumpet giant Freddie Hubbard. VSOP recorded several live albums in the late 1970s, including “VSOP” in 1976 and “VSOP: The Quintet” in 1977.

In 1978, he released a solo acoustic piano album titled “The Piano” which, like so many Hancock albums at the time, was initially released only in Japan. From 1978 to 1982, Hancock recorded many albums consisting of jazz-inflected disco and pop music, beginning with 1978’s “Sunlight.” Singing through a vocoder, he earned a British hit, “I Thought It Was You.” This led to more vocoder on the 1979 follow-up, “Feets, Don't Fail Me Now,” which gave him another U.K. hit in “You Bet Your Love.” Albums such as 1980’s “Monster,” 1981 “Magic Windows” and 1982’s “Lite Me Up” were some of Hancock's most criticized and unwelcomed albums.

Hancock also found time to record more traditional jazz while creating more commercially oriented music. He toured with Tony Williams and Ron Carter in 1981, recording “Herbie Hancock Trio,” a 5-track live album released only in Japan. A month later, he recorded “Quartet” with Wynton Marsalis, released in the US the following year.

In 1983, Hancock had a mainstream hit with the Grammy-award winning instrumental single “Rockit” from the album “Future Shock.” It was perhaps the first mainstream single to feature scratching.

This single ushered in a collaboration with noted bassist and producer Bill Laswell. Hancock experimented with electronic music on a string of three LPs produced by Laswell, “Future Shock “in 1983 “Sound-System” in 1984 and “Perfect Machine” in 1988. Despite the success of "Rockit", Hancock's Laswell-produced albums are among the most critically derided of his entire career.

After leaving Columbia, Hancock took a break. Then, with friends Ron Carter, Tony Williams, Wayne Shorter, and Davis admirer Wallace Roney, they recorded “A Tribute to Miles,” which was released in 1994. The album contained two live recordings and studio recording classics, with Roney playing Davis's part as trumpet player. The album won a Grammy for best group album.

Hancock's next album, “Dis Is Da Drum',” released in 1994, saw him return to Acid Jazz. 1995's “The New Standard” found Hancock and an all-star band including John Scofield, Jack DeJohnette and Michael Brecker interpreting pop songs by Nirvana, Stevie Wonder, The Beatles, Prince, Peter Gabriel and others.

Hancock achieved great success in 1998 with his album “Gershwin's World,” which featured inventive readings of George & Ira Gershwin standards by Hancock and a plethora of guest stars including Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell and Shorter.

In 2001, Hancock recorded “Future2Future,” which reunited Hancock with Bill Laswell and featured doses of electronica as well as turntablist Rob Swift of The X-Ecutioners. Also in 2001, Hancock partnered with Michael Brecker and Roy Hargrove to record a live concert album saluting Davis and John Coltrane entitled “Directions in Music: Live at Massey Hall,” recorded live in Toronto.

The year 2005 saw the release of a duet album called “Possibilities.” It features duets with Carlos Santana, Trey Anastasio, Paul Simon, Annie Lennox, John Mayer, Christina Aguilera, Sting and others. In 2006, “Possibilities” was nominated for Grammy awards in two categories: “A Song For You” featuring Christina Aguilera, was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance, and “Gelo No Montanha,” featuring Trey Anastasio on guitar, was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Performance.

On 2006, Sony BMG Music Entertainment released the two-disc retrospective “The Essential Herbie Hancock.” This two-disc set is the first compilation of Herbie's work at Warner Bros. Records, Blue Note Records, Columbia and at Verve/Polygram. This became Hancock's second major compilation of work since the 2002 Columbia-only “The Herbie Hancock Box,” which was released at first in a plastic 4x4 cube then re-released in 2004 in a long box set.

Hancock, a longtime associate and friend of Joni Mitchell released a 2007 album, “River: The Joni Letters,” that paid tribute to her work. Norah Jones and Tina Turner recorded vocals, as did Corinne Bailey Rae, and Leonard Cohen contributed a spoken piece set to Hancock's piano. Mitchell herself also made an appearance. “River” was nominated for and won the 2008 Album of the Year Grammy Award, only the second jazz album ever to receive either honor. The album also won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz Album, and the song “Both Sides Now” was nominated for Best Instrumental Jazz Solo.

In June 2010, Hancock released his album, “The Imagine Project” which was recorded in many locations throughout the world and features collaborations from various artists, was complemented by a documentary about the recording process. The album garnered Grammy Awards in the categories of Best Pop Collaboration With Vocals and Best Improvised Jazz Solo.