Herbie Hancock Legendary Pianist and Composer

September 13, 2022

We are so pleased to present legendary pianist and composer Herbie Hancock in concert on Friday, September 23.  The multi-genre virtuoso has been performing for audiences since 1951, and has been an integral part of every popular music movement since the 1960s. The Gilmore’s recently named Director of Jazz Awards Seth Abramson, a career musician, producer, and presenter, shared a few thoughts.

Herbie Hancock is arguably – although I don’t know who would argue – the foremost iconic living music artist we have, no hyperbole intended. He has been at the forefront of so many musical genres and shifts in music over the years. 

Hancock is known for being invited by Miles Davis to join his quintet at age 23, to play alongside Davis, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. Many consider it to be one of the best jazz groups that ever was in terms of their approach to the music, their freedom within the music, how they created their own sound. And how it was different every night, every show. As a leader, Miles was always picking amazing musicians, Herbie Hancock included.

Herbie Hancock’s influence on music – his way of playing and how he approached music in the Miles Davis group in particular – along with each of the other players – is studied to this day, is still a benchmark and a way for players coming up to develop and  to assimilate this music, which has never become outdated; it remains contemporary.

Later of course, he got into funk, fusion and more with hits like Watermelon Man and Chameleon, and then Rockit was huge — that video was amazing for its time. Whatever Herbie focuses his energies on, he is transformative, whatever it is, like the music video for Rockit, which won numerous  awards.

I have had the great fortune of seeing Herbie  perform many times over the years; at the Blue Note, at Carnegie Hall, in duet with Wayne Shorter. Just a handful of years ago I got to watch from backstage at the North Sea Jazz Fest in Rotterdam, and it was a great experience. Seeing him perform from that vantage point was something else. 

When he’s on stage performing, he’s a kid again. His energy is boundless, age-defying. Part of the magic is there’s something that draws the audience in when they pick up on musicians who love what they’re doing and what they’re sharing. They’re still working on their craft, still reaching ever higher in performance, not resting on their laurels. Herbie continues to just move forward, is always looking to keep his music fresh, to keep current – all in a very authentic way. It’s never for the sake of trying to be popular or to simply sell records. 

My view on what he’s done and where the music has taken him, where he’s chosen to go on this path, on his quest, basically, is that he still sees more possibilities — he is truly a fan of all music.  If you have the opportunity to see this legendary and iconic artist perform, don’t miss it!

–Seth Abramson


More About Herbie Hancock

A PRODIGY AT 11 Born in Chicago in 1940, Hancock was a piano prodigy who soloed in the first movement of a Mozart concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at age 11. He began playing jazz in high school, initially influenced by Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans. He also developed a passion for electronics and science (as can be evidenced in his future fascination with new equipment and making electronic music) and double-majored in music and electrical engineering at Grinnell College.

THE FOREFRONT OF JAZZ Discovered in 1960 by trumpeter Donald Byrd, Hancock soon signed with Blue Note Records as a solo artist. His 1963 debut album, “Takin’ Off,” was an immediate success, producing the hit “Watermelon Man” composed by Byrd – a title you may not recognize, but a tune you likely would. In 1963, Miles Davis invited Herbie to join Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Tony Williams and Davis in the Miles Davis Quintet. After five years with Davis, Hancock put together The Headhunters and in 1973 recorded “Head Hunters,” which became the first jazz album to go platinum. 

SOARING SUCCESS In the 1970s, Hancock was playing for stadium-sized crowds around the world, and put 11 albums on the pop charts – one year there were four at the same time. His output inspired and provided samples for generations of hip-hop and dance music artists. Staying close to his love of acoustic jazz, he reunited with Miles Davis colleagues to form V.S.O.P. In 1980, Hancock introduced the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis to the world, producing his debut album and touring with him. 

ALL THE AWARDS In 1983, Hancock collaborated with bass guitarist, record producer, and record label owner Bill Laswell on “Future Shock,” which went platinum and produced the megahit single “Rockit” – another tune to look up and recognize – which ascended the dance and R&B charts, winning a Grammy for Best R&B Instrumental. The song’s groundbreaking video won five MTV awards. Hancock received an Academy Award for his “Round Midnight” film score in 1987, which launched another new career path. 

The Grammy-winning “Herbie Hancock’s The Imagine Project,” released in 2011, was recorded around the world to use music and express central themes of peace and global responsibility. Featured musicians include Jeff Beck, Seal, Pink, Dave Matthews, The Chieftains, Lionel Loueke, Oumou Sangare, Konono #l, Anoushka Shankar, Chaka Khan, Marcus Miller, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Tinariwen, and Ceu.  

BEYOND PERFORMING Hancock’s career reaches beyond the stage and recording studio as Creative Chair For Jazz with the Los Angeles Philharmonic; chairman of the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz (Founded in 1986 as the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz); and founder of the International Committee of Artists for Peace. In 2011, Hancock was designated a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. In 2013, he was a Kennedy Center Honors recipient and was inducted into The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2014, he was named the Norton Professor Of Poetry at Harvard University and published his memoir, “Herbie Hancock: Possibilities.”  

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