Fourteen-time Grammy Award winner Herbie Hancock is one of the most influential pianists in the history of jazz, especially through his talents in improvisation and his approach to harmony. His compositions have also left their mark on musical history: some are among the greatest jazz standards. Constantly in search of the new and unfamiliar, as evidenced by his growing predilection for analog keyboards and synthesizers, he fused his jazz with non-traditional music forms such as funk, soul and hip-hop.
Herbie Hancock learnt classical music before jazz and, at just 11 years of age, performed on stage with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He subsequently discovered jazz through the music of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Lee Morgan. Hancock was doing a course in electrical engineering at Grinmell College when the trumpet player Donald Byrd suggested that he join his band instead and make recordings with them. The first of these recordings, Free Form in 1962 for Blue Note, opened doors for Hancock to meet a large number of professionals, such as Wayne Shorter. Hancock gradually built a reputation as much for his talent as a "sideman" as a bandleader, and he recorded Takin' Off during a session under his own name alongside Dexter Gordon and Freddie Hubbard. It was the first album in the repertoire at Blue Notes made up entirely of new tracks, and it became a real "hit". Hancock continued to work with Eric Dolphy before joining Miles Davis and his quintet in May 1963. This major collaboration in both musicians' careers gave Hancock the opportunity to explore the sound and potential of the analog keyboard and the synthesizer, the instrument that later became his preferred "sound".
Throughout his career, Hancock constantly pushed back the boundaries of jazz and endeavoured to fuse the genre with all of the musical styles around him, such as rock, R&B and even hip-hop. The albums Mwandishi (1970) and Head Hunters (1973) reflect a period of musical eclecticism and diversity on Hancock's part. The latter in particular would be the highest-selling jazz album for the time (due largely to the success of the famous "Chameleon" track). In 1983, he produced the pop track "Rockit", included on the Future Shock album.The track was played extensively on the MTV channel and became a huge hit for Hancock. Hancock was reluctant to give up more traditional jazz altogether, so between 1990 and 2010 he continued to explore jazz with the Verve label and funk/electronic music with Mercury. An inveterate explorer, he also became involved in numerous film projects, notably the music for Bill Cosby's Fat Albert series. He also composed the scores for Death Wish (1974), A Soldier's Story (1984), JoJo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling (1986) and 'Round Midnight (1986), a project that earned him an Academy Award. Today he works as a producer, educator, sponsor and even businessman in the era of new musical technologies, though he continues to perform on stage and remains one of the greatest names in contemporary jazz.
Six landmark dates in the life of Herbie Hancock
1951: Performed a Mozart piano concert with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
1962: Recorded his first album, Takin' Off
1963: Joined the Miles Davis Quintet, through which he discovered the electronic keyboard
1973: Produced Head Hunters, a key album in Hancock's repertoire
1986: Composed the original soundtrack for the film 'Round Midnight
2008: Received a Grammy Award for his album River: The Joni Letters*, the first jazz album in over 40 years to receive the prize
Six key works by Herbie Hancock
1981: Herbie Hancock Trio
1973: Head Hunters
1977: The Quintet (V.S.O.P. Quintet)
1983: Future Shock
2001: Future 2 Future
Biography compiled from Radio France Musical Documentation (August 2015)