The Kennedy Center

Herbie Hancock


(Pianist, keyboardist, bandleader and composer; born April 12, 1940 in Chicago, Illinois)

As far back as ragtime's early days and the birth of jazz, American music's love of the keyboard has never been a casual fling. It's the real thing, and above all it is free. Freedom is at the very heart of that constantly changing, most American of all art forms, and few, if any, jazz masters have made as much of that freedom as Herbie Hancock.

Beginning as a classical piano prodigy who played with the Chicago Symphony at the age of 11, learning jazz on his own in high school simply by listening, Hancock quickly developed into a major force of change and a dazzling example of sheer musical beauty by expanding the possibilities of the keyboard from the grand piano to synthesizers, iPads and beyond. As the great Miles Davis put it in his autobiography, "Herbie was the step after Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and I haven't heard anybody yet who has come after him."

He's been hailed by the New Yorker as "one of the most accomplished and inventive modern jazz pianists."  Today, at 73, "Hancock is still further ahead of the technological curve than counterparts a third his age," said the Vancouver Sun after a 2013 concert. "Herbie Hancock isn't so much a chameleon as he is a true master of mutation."

Hancock has found a way to fuse Miles Davis and Maurice Ravel, zigzagging between classical music and pop, funk, gospel, soul and the blues—not so much ignoring as redefining the frontiers of jazz. With an Oscar and 14 Grammys and counting to his name, as well as with prestigious positions as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and a professor at UCLA, Hancock is a true living treasure of American culture.

Herbert Jeffrey Hancock was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1940. The piano came first, and his talent was noticed: young Herbie played a Mozart concerto with the Chicago Symphony at the age of 11. He never had a jazz teacher, but by his own account he developed an ear for jazz and a profound understanding of harmony by listening to records by the Hi-Los and others as well as by deep listening of Ravel and Debussy. "I started picking that stuff out," Hancock recalled, "my ear was happening… Bill Evans and Ravel, and Gil Evans finally, you know, that's where it really came from."

He graduated from Grinnell College with a degree in music and electrical engineering, following this by studies in composition with the opera composer Vittorio Giannini at the Manhattan School of Music. New Yorkers heard him play, and in 1962 Blue Note released Hancock's first solo album, Takin' Off, including his first hit "Watermelon Man." That was a prelude to the history Hancock was about to make.

In 1963 he joined the Miles Davis Quintet, possibly the pinnacle of Davis' own jazz artistry and certainly one of the great ensembles in the history of jazz. It was here that Hancock had a chance to explore rhythms, harmonics, colors and every other possibility available at his fingertips. Tellingly, Hancock always played well with others—as any true jazz master should. While still in the Miles Davis Quintet, he also played and recorded as a sideman with other great musicians including Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, Bobby Hutcherson, Donald Byrd and Freddie Hubbard.

Hancock's own albums, beginning with Empyrean Isles in 1964 and Maiden Voyage in 1965, set the tone for both the jazz standards and the surprises that followed. In 1966, Hancock composed the original soundtrack score for Michelangelo Antonioni's era-defining existentialist masterpiece Blow-Up, the first of several film scores that culminated in Hancock's Academy Award–winning jazz score for Bertrand Tavernier's 'Round Midnight, in which Hancock also acted to wide acclaim.

He then ventured full-speed ahead into electronic music, inspired by his mentor Miles Davis' Bitches Brew. Fat Albert Rotunda and Mwandishi revealed an adventurous new sextet where Hancock became one of the first jazz pianists to fully embrace electronic keyboards, alongside bassist Buster Williams, drummer Billy Hart and a trio of horn players comprised of Eddie Henderson, Julian Piester, and Bennie Maupin. The ensemble became a septet with the addition of Patrick Gleeson, who helped Hancock program the synthesizers.

Changing lineups again, Hancock's albums Head Hunters, Manchild and Secrets drew a not-so-straight line to a new funk and jazz fusion. The aptly titled Future Shock, the improbably disco-inflected Sunlight and the mainstream jazz hit "Rockit" kept Hancock before the public in all its diversity. He appeared at the Grammys jamming with Stevie Wonder, Howard Jones and Thomas Dolby; was a guest on Arcadia's album So Red the Rose; and recorded a moving 1994 Tribute to Miles with his friends Ron Carter, Tony Williams, Wayne Shorter and Wallace Roney. That album won a Grammy.

Seeking out ever-newer collaborations, Hancock released a duet album called Possibilities in 2005, with an impressive lineup of a new generation of stars including Annie Lennox, John Mayer, Christina Aguilera, Sting and others. A tribute to his old friend Joni Mitchell followed in Hancock's River: The Joni Letters, supported vocally by Tina Turner, Leonard Cohen and Norah Jones. River won the 2008 Album of the Year Grammy, one of only a handful of jazz musicians ever to receive that honor. On January 18, 2009, Hancock performed at the We Are One concert that opened the inaugural celebrations for President Barack Obama.

The music world continues to be surprised. Take it from the man himself. "I think people have learned that Herbie Hancock can be defined as someone that you won't be able to figure out what he's going to do next," said Hancock after his introduction to the Grammy Hall of Fame. "The sky is the limit as far as I'm concerned."
Herbie Hancock