When the pandemic took the now 82-year-old jazz legend Herbie Hancock off the road, his half-century passion for Nichiren Buddhism came to the rescue. “I could have been miserable over what I was missing out on,” he says, from his Los Angeles home, “but for the first time in 50 years, I ate dinner with my own wife every night, and slept next to her in my own bed. It was a blessing. Music is what I do, but is not what I am.” With his Glastonbury slot on the horizon – making him one of the oldest ever to grace the Pyramid stage – Hancock reflects on his work with Donald Byrd and Miles Davis, plus his own groundbreaking innovations in funk, soul, hip-hop and more.
What’s on the menu for Glastonbury?
I’ll be playing [1973 album] Head Hunters-era material, but also some newer stuff. I’m always on tour, so I don’t get much time to hang out. But it’s huge, that’s what I remember about Glastonbury. And the audience is always very excited. And that sometimes it rains, and then you have to wear wellies.
It has been a dozen years since your previous album The Imagine Project. Do you still have music left to make?
Yeah – my last album! No, let me rephrase that – the last album I was working on. This new album has taken a long time, and it’s still not ready, but Terrace Martin is producing it, and Thundercat, Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington are gonna be on it, as is Kendrick Lamar. I’m looking to these guys for ideas, because this is their century, and I’m from the last century. Some of them, their fathers or mothers were jazz musicians, and they’ve inherited that feel, while some of them learned it from studying. I have a school, the Herbie Hancock Institute – it used to be the Thelonious Monk Institute – and Terrace was one of our students, as was Kamasi.
In your Harvard lectures on tea ethics of jazz, you said that while you were making your first album, 1962’s Takin’ Off, you had “a subconscious feeling that it would be my last record”. Why?
I was 22 years old, and I felt lucky that Blue Note was even interested in making my record. I was playing in the band of Donald Byrd, who discovered me and brought me from Chicago to New York. Donald said: “Herbie, it’s time for you to make your own record.” Blue Note had a reputation for signing the so-called “young guns” of the era such as Freddie Hubbard and Wayne Shorter, these 20-year-olds leading the next wave in jazz. But they were still reluctant to record someone brand new like me. Donald said: “We’re gonna tell them you’re being drafted and you want to make a record before you go to Korea,” and Blue Note said yes, which was a surprise, and meant I needed to write some material – and quick! I wrote three tunes one night, and three more the next. One of them was Watermelon Man, which Mongo Santamaria covered and made a huge hit. Within five days of Mongo’s version getting released, Xavier Cugat cut a version, and so did Trini López, and there were five different recordings of it in Jamaica alone.
Miles Davis then enlisted you for his Second Great Quintet.
I felt like the impossible had happened. Joining Miles and having Watermelon Man become a hit at the same time, I felt as if I was on top of the world.
Did the success go to your head?
I couldn’t walk around saying: “Hey, look at me, I’m playing with Miles Davis.” No, no. I had to be serious, right? Because the level of musicianship was so high. You had to be on your game with Miles, but it was so inspiring, working with him.
What was Davis like as a bandleader?
He said [hoarse, Miles-ish whisper]: “I don’t pay you to just play to get applause.” He told us he paid us to experiment on stage. He said: “I want you to try new things, brand new stuff.” And I told him, some of it’s maybe not going to work, so what about the audience then? He said: “Don’t worry about it. I got the audience.” He loved being challenged, being stimulated, being thrown a curveball. It’s like playing baseball: he was the homerun king, ready to strike any ball and send it over the stands.
Miles encouraged you to play electronic instruments in the later stages of your time with him.
I was thrilled, because I was an electrical engineering major in college, and had some understanding of electronics. As a matter of fact, I got my first computer in 1979, which was really early in the game. I still have that computer today. It was an Apple II Plus, and it had 48k of RAM, and you had to store the programs on a cassette. But I knew computers were going to be important in music, and I encouraged every musician I met to learn how they worked.
How did your tenure with Davis come to an end?
In 1968 I got married. I told my wife, we can either have a big wedding in New York and invite all our freeloading friends to give us presents we don’t want, or we can get first-class tickets to Rio de Janeiro and spend our honeymoon at the top hotel there. She said: “Where’s my ticket?”
But I got food poisoning in Brazil, and the doctor said my liver was swollen and I had to stay a couple more weeks. I was supposed to be playing with Miles, but I stayed another week, because I didn’t want to endanger my life. When I got back, he’d already replaced me with Chick Corea. Later, I found out that Miles knew that myself, drummer Tony Williams and saxophonist Wayne Shorter all had record contracts of our own and had talked about leaving his band. He realized that if he moved Chick into the group, he wouldn’t have to start from scratch when Tony and Wayne left.
But I was in love with that band – we were having such an amazing time, and there’s nothing like accompanying Miles Davis. What he did was always genius. And Wayne Shorter, too. I couldn’t figure out how I’d ever leave. But moving on opened up a whole new side of my career I hadn’t explored before.
You went on to form your own forward-looking, challenging unit, the Mwandishi group, with fusions of jazz, funk and early synthesisers that were later recognized by writer Kodwo Eshun as masterpieces of Afrofuturism.
Dr Martin Luther King’s work for civil rights had been a defining moment for many of us in this country, and our friend James “Mtume” Heath, who was the son of Jimmy Heath and a musician himself, kept wondering when myself and the musicians I was working with were going to join “the movement”. He gave us all Swahili names – my name, Mwandishi, means “writer”. We wore dashikis and talismans and other things that were identified with the homeland – humanity’s homeland.
Musically, the Mwandishi band was always exploring new territory. We were always trying to find new ways to explore our “space music”. We were into all that – we’d joined the avant garde, though my manager David Rubinson knew I was looking for ways to get this music across to the average person, not just the avant garde enthusiast. David said: “There are these new instruments starting to be used on rock records called synthesisers,” and he put me in touch with a guy called Dr Patrick Gleeson, who had a studio nearby. I asked Patrick to record an intro for one of the tracks on our next album, Crossings. And what he recorded blew my mind, so I hired him immediately. He’d take an ARP 2600 on the road, but in the studio he had a big Moog modular synthesiser. They were huge back in those days.
Was your next group, the Headhunters, a further attempt at winning over the average listener?
For the last year and a half of Mwandishi I was listening to a lot of Sly Stone, and James Brown, and loving it. I’m from Chicago, which is a blues and R&B town, so that’s part of my own personal roots. I’d done the space stuff, now I wanted something of the Earth. So back in 1973, I started the Headhunters.
Your 1983 album Future Shock and its breakthrough single, Rockit, marked your early foray into the world of hip-hop.
My dear friend Maria Lucien’s teenage son Krishna was a percussionist, and he told me that I should look for this record, Buffalo Gals by Malcolm McLaren. He said: “You might find an interesting sound there.” My assistant, Tony Mylon, was always looking for underground stuff, and he met Bill Laswell and Michael Beinhorn, two musicians who were producing other people’s records, as well as making their own [as Material]. I said: “I want to do something with scratching!” Rockit was the first thing we worked on, and I decided: “Let’s do the whole record with these new guys.” Rockit became so big, it opened everything up. Rap was just starting to happen, and then that whole scene blew up. And here we are today.
People have been claiming that jazz is dead for decades, and have said that records you worked on, like Davis’s On the Corner killed it. Is it dead? Where do you see the music’s future?
The thing is, jazz is so open, it’s kind of hard to kill it. An individual can kill their own career – if you keep it confined to one sound or era, it’s difficult to go past the audience that you started with, and they’re getting older as you’re getting older. To me, that’s not exciting. I want to be open enough to attract an audience of any age. That’s why I’m working a lot with younger people. They are the future, and I’m always looking forward. When I was young, musicians from the generations before me really helped and encouraged me, and showed me mistakes in my thinking about the structure of a song. I’m at that point in my life where it’s time for me to pass the baton on to younger musicians. But I’m not ready to leave just yet.