Born on April 12, 1940, in Chicago, Illinois, piano great Herbie Hancock worked with Donald Byrd and Miles Davis while developing his own jazz recording career, beginning with his debut album, Takin' Off. Hancock explored a number of genres, as seen on albums like Mwandishi and Head Hunters, and had a 1980s hit with the mix-fest "Rockit." A film composer as well, he has won an Academy Award and many Grammy Awards.
Background and Education
Born on April 12, 1940, in Chicago, Illinois, Herbert Jeffrey Hancock began studying piano when he was 7 years old. A few years later, as a tween, he was playing Mozart with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He began to enjoy jazz compositions during his high school years and, upon entering Grinnell College in 1956, decided to focus on electrical engineering. The major initially seemed more practical and allowed him to invest in his passion for technology. Yet Hancock decided to switch over to music composition and formed his own group, later moving to New York to play with trumpeter Donald Byrd.
Album Debut: 'Takin' Off'
Herbie Hancock landed a record deal with Blue Note and released his debut album as the head of a band, Takin' Off, which garnered fame as the first album on the Blue Note roster to feature all newly composed tunes, like the seminal "Watermelon Man." While continuing to record and pen future classics like "Cantaloupe Island" and "Maiden Voyage," Hancock played with Miles Davis. Starting in 1963, he would be part of the bandleader's group for several years, with the two influencing each other's sound and Davis introducing Hancock to the electric piano.
Over the ensuing years, via the release of dozens of albums, Hancock established a reputation as an outstanding composer who feels free to explore genres outside of traditional jazz, ranging from fusion to R&B to hip-hop. The sonically radical, mystical and revered Mwandishi (1970) was followed a bit later by the funk-based, platinum-certified Head Hunters (1973); the album featured "Chameleon" and another version of "Watermelon Man," whose sexy grooves would later be sampled in hip-hop/reggae circles. 1977's "Sunlight" featured rejuvenating soul with Hancock himself on vocoder vocals.
He continued playing in different forms, including stints with the V.S.O.P. quintet that reunited members of Davis' band. 1983's Future Shock featured the award-winning, blipped-out single "Rockit," known for its MTV coolness.
The following decades saw more releases on different labels, including Dis Is Da Drum (1994), Gershwin's World (1998), honoring George Gershwin's 100th birthday, and the electronica-oriented Future 2 Future (2001). 2010's The Imagine Project saw the composer working with an international cast that included Céu, Pink, Seal and Juanes.
Film/TV Scores and Awards
Hancock has also provided scores to a number of TV and film projects. He penned music for Bill Cosby's Fat Albert cartoon and an accompanying album as well as for films like Death Wish (1974), A Soldier's Story (1984) and Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling (1986). He won an Academy Award for the score to 'Round Midnight (1986), co-starring in the project as well.
By 2013, Herbie Hancock had won 14 Grammy Awards, including for album of the year in 2008, for his tribute to friend Joni Mitchell, River: The Joni Letters—marking the first time in more than four decades that the award went to a jazz musician. The album featured artists like Tina Turner, Norah Jones and Leonard Cohen.
Hancock is a practitioner of Nichiren Buddhism, whose spiritual practices inform his art and philosophies. With a 34-CD Columbia Records box set released in the fall of 2013, Hancock later gave lectures at Harvard University in 2014 as part of its Charles Eliot Norton Professorship in Poetry series. And in October of that year he released the memoir Possibilities, co-written with Lisa Dickey.
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