Jazz Appreciation Month: Herbie Hancock

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Herbie Hancock is a popular and influential American jazz musician, bandleader, and composer. Credit: © Fulya Atalay, Shutterstock

World Book’s Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM) continues with happy birthday wishes for jazz legend Herbie Hancock, who turns 77 years old today, April 12. Hancock is an influential and versatile musician, bandleader, and composer. He has had some of the best-selling albums in jazz history, and his music has earned him 14 Grammy Awards.

Herbert Jeffrey Hancock was born in Chicago, Illinois, on April 12, 1940. Herbie was a gifted piano player in his youth, performing a Mozart piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at age 11. He began playing jazz in high school, initially influenced by piano greats Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson. Hancock graduated with degrees in music and electrical engineering from Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, in 1960.

JAM – Jazz Appreciation Month Credit: Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Hancock won praise for his first album, Takin’ Off, recorded in 1963. The album contained Hancock’s hit composition “Watermelon Man.” From 1963 to 1968, Hancock played piano in a famous quintet led by American trumpeter Miles Davis. During that time, Hancock wrote several major jazz compositions, including “Cantaloupe Island” (1964); “Dolphin Dance” and “Maiden Voyage” (both 1965); and “Riot,” “The Sorcerer,” and “Speak Like a Child” (all 1968).

After leaving Miles Davis, Hancock formed a sextet that introduced the electronic jazz that would make him famous. Hancock eventually formed a band called The Headhunters. That band’s 1973 recording Head Hunters became one of the best-selling albums in jazz history. The highly rhythmic album blends jazz and rock performed on electronic piano and bass, synthesizers, keyboards, and percussion instruments. The album’s hit single “Chameleon” won audiences in rhythm and blues (r & b), pop music, rock, and jazz.

Since then, Hancock has alternated performing pure jazz, electronic jazz-rock, and pop-oriented music. His jazz-rock album Future Shock (1983) became a best seller. Its instrumental single “Rockit” became a mainstream hit. It was the first jazz hip-hop recording and the first mainstream single to feature scratching. Scratching involves moving a record back and forth on a turntable to produce a rhythmic scratching sound. The song won Hancock his first Grammy Award, for best r & b instrumental performance. Hancock has also composed music for motion pictures and television. In 1986, he won an Academy Award for his score for the film ‘Round Midnight.

In 1993, Hancock’s music attracted a younger generation when his “Cantaloupe Island” was sampled in the international hip-hop hit “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)” by the British jazz-rap group Us3. Sampling involves incorporating sounds or music from other recordings.

Hancock became a Kennedy Center Honoree in 2013. (Such honorees are recognized for their lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts.) His autobiography, Possibilities, was published in 2014.

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