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American Routes Shortcuts: Herbie Hancock

Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock

Our guest is jazz pianist, Herbie Hancock. Hancock began in the early ‘60s with acoustic piano jazz like Takin' Off, featuring the now famous "Watermelon Man," followed by concept albums animated by water spirits like Empyrean Isles and Maiden Voyage in 1964 and ‘65. His band included emerging jazz heroes like Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. Herbie Hancock was a classically trained child prodigy from Chicago who later majored in music and electrical engineering. He went on to play keyboards for Miles Davis on definitive recordings: Sorcerer, In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Herbie Hancock integrated electronic funk into the music and had pop success with Headhunters and the MTV hit, "Rockit." I asked the enduring composer, arranger, producer, and player how his jazz education began.

Herbie Hancock: If you want to learn jazz you got to learn it out in the street. There weren't any jazz lessons of the day. But I wasn't into jazz then. I was only into rhythm and blues and classical music because my folks made sure that we got “culture.” That's the way they saw it. Culture wasn't the blues, wasn't jazz.

Nick Spitzer: When you later recorded the song “Watermelon Man,” was that a conscious attempt to take any sounds you’d ever heard or any image you’d ever seen and bring it forward kind of as a statement?HH: Absolutely. But not as a political statement, it was more a commercial statement. That was going to be my first record. So I started thinking, “Okay, let me find something from my own history as a Black American that I can depict. That character, the Watermelon Man, was the strongest one.

NS: How did the Latin tie-in happen with Mongo Santamaría?

HH: Well I got a gig playing with Mongo Santamaría. Donald came down to see his little brother playing with a Latin band, because I’d never played with a Latin band before–Donald Byrd who was the guy that discovered me, a great trumpeter. During a break, Donald had a conversation with Mongo, and they were talking about a relationship between African American music and Afro-Cuban music. Mongo said that he had never found a song that would be like the true link between the two, and Donald says, “Hey Herbie, why don’t you play ‘Watermelon Man’ for Mongo?” So then Mongo got on his conga drums, and it fit perfectly. The people who were sitting in the supper club, little by little they started getting up on the dance floor, and it grew to where everybody was dancing and screaming. And they said, “This is a hit! This is a hit!” And so Mongo said, “Can I record this?” I said, “Absolutely.”

NS: Let me ask you about how you really did make that move from being a kid going to the piano who then ends up in the world of, you know, Donald Byrd and then of course finally Miles Davis?

HH: Around the time I was about fourteen, I went to one of the variety shows that my high school used to give. One of the acts was a jazz trio, and the piano player was in my class. I had been playing piano then seven years, and I was pretty good. And I’m listening to them play, and I didn’t know what they were playing, but it sounded organized. It sounded like they knew what they were doing. He was doing something I didn’t know how to do: improvise. Then when I would see him in class, I would ask him, “How’d you learn to play this? Who did you listen to?” So he told me to get George Shearing records because that was the style that he was playing. I remember going home, telling my mother, “I’ve got to get some George Shearing records!” My mother said, “You have George Shearing records.” She said, “Remember two years ago when I bought you some records, and you got mad at me, they weren’t the records that you wanted? They were George Shearing records.” So I went to the cabinet, and there they were.

NS: Mother knows best.

HH: So that was the beginning of my transition into jazz.

To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.