If you were to ask people to list the five greatest living jazz musicians, Herbie Hancock would make it onto most people’s list. If you asked for the top ten jazz musicians, those with the greatest influence, of all time, he would make more than a few lists. If you are of a certain age you might remember his pop/jazz/hip-hop crossover hit, Rockit, its great video and the MTV Award presentation. If you are a keyboardist of a certain age you may consider his solo on the song Chameleon as one of the greatest analog synthesizer solos ever recorded. And many know him from his days as the pianist from Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet. I would say that in many ways Herbie Hancock was the great inheritor of the Miles Davis legacy. Miles never stood still, and claimed to have “reinvented jazz five or six times”. Herbie followed in his footsteps by never following in anybody’s footsteps, including his own. His music constantly shifted and changed. Sure, he did occasionally do a little nostalgia, like the whole VSOP thing, but for the most part he tried to do something different ever few years. Remember, this is a man who has won fourteen Grammys and an Oscar, and has received many other honors.
Being a music lover who is into jazz I had to read his autobiography, Possibilities.
I’m just going to touch on a few things here. You’ll have to read the book if you want to know more ;)
One thing that surprised me and yet didn’t surprise me is that Herbie has the mind of an engineer. He loves to tinker and actually started his University days as an engineering student. But then, when you think about all he did with technology, particularly in the 1970s, it isn’t surprising.
On that front, I often found the patting himself on the back part about the technology a little funny. He was the first to do X and Y and Z and made sure you knew it. OK, I’ll admit that as someone who loved Prog Rock as a child I was a little shocked as an adult to discover that funk and jazz players understood music technology more than most prog keyboardists. Reading Possibilities, Herbie doesn’t let you forget it. He is obviously proud of the role he played in the changing music technology, even if some younger jazz musicians (read Wynton Marssalis ;) ) completely and totally dismiss electronics in jazz.
What I thought was interesting was juxtaposing the bragging about his role in electronic music with what he says about his piano playing (and keyboard playing) skills. Reading between the lines, you can tell he is a great pianist. Listening to his music you know he is a great pianist. But he never brags about it. He never tells us he is a good or great pianist. He talks about lessons he learned from Miles and other people he played with. He talks about winning a contest as a child and his perceived racism (this was the 1950s after all) when the orchestra tried to back out of having a black child as a guest pianist at one of their concerts. But he doesn’t use that to say, “I was a great pianist, better than even the white kids.” He never brags about his playing. Never. In fact, he is often very humble about it, admitting problems he had.
Thinking of his childhood, I think there were a couple of small discontinuities in the book. The one that stood out is his first taste of success after moving to NYC. He had been talking about how much his family worried about him and his relationship with them. And then they were suddenly missing. What did they think about his new found success? Were they proud? His family did come into play later in the book, but the transition from Herbie part of the Hancock family and Herbie part of the NY jazz scene was very abrupt.
I also found interesting his casual approach to casual drug use in the 60s and 70s. This was contrasted with his revelations closer to the end of the book. I’ll leave you to find out what I’m talking about here.
Overall I very much enjoyed the book. Yes, I am a music lover and a jazz lover. I’m also a big fan of Herbie’s music. That being said, I think anyone who has even the slightest interest in his music would enjoy the book. There are other things, like his perspective of race, particularly during the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s. Being a “white boy”, I found this part of the narrative very enlightening. And, of course, the glimpses of jazz history from an insiders view, and his remarks about Miles Davis from someone who knew him well, were worth the price of admission. Over all, Possibilities is highly recommended.
Find Possibilities by Herbie Hancock with Lisa Dickey – on Amazon
(Image from Amazon)