Herbie Hancock on Possibilities

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<!-- missing image http://blogs.kcrw.com/music/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Herbie-Hancock-Possibilities1-199x300.jpg -->Herbie Hancock’s memoir, Possibilities, has just been published, painting a revealing picture of one of the most influential jazz pianists ever. I recently read the book while on vacation and just could not put it down.

Along with fellow jazz pianist, McCoy Tyner, Herbie rewrote the book on modern jazz piano stylings. He eschewed the 2-5-1 harmonic changes characteristic of bebop (think Charlie Parker & Bud Powell), introducing a more angular, modern sound to jazz piano playing.

Following advice from his early mentor and trumpeter Donald Byrd’s advice, Herbie persuaded Blue Note Record’s Alfred Lion to let him keep publishing rights, resulting in some nice BMI paychecks after his song, “Watermelon Man,” from his debut album, Takin’ Off, became a big hit for both him and Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaría.

<!-- missing image http://blogs.kcrw.com/music/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Young-Herbie-160x160.jpg -->Everybody was happy. Herbie’s first publishing royalty check for “Watermelon Man” was in the amount of $3000, which was a lot of money for a 22-year-old musician back in 1962. Hancock first considered buying a station wagon for utilitarian purposes, but Donald Byrd, who drove a Jaguar, persuaded Herbie to buy one of the first Shelby Cobra’s for the princely sum of $5,800.00. It’s since been retired, but he still has it, and it must be worth millions now. I read about this on a car enthusiast blog called “Just a Car Guy.”

The story goes that Miles Davis, who loved Italian supercars the likes of Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Maserati, challenged Herbie to a drag race. The Cobra smoked Miles’ Maserati, so Miles told him afterwards that the Cobra was dangerous and that he should buy a safer car. Hmm…Herbie now owns a 355 Ferrari. I told him when I interviewed him a couple of years ago that “nerds don’t drive Ferraris,” to which he responded, “Yes, they do…if they have enough money.”

A child prodigy, Herbie was classically trained and made his debut alongside the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the age of eleven. He studied engineering in college, but by his early twenties, he arrived on the jazz scene as a heavyweight. Engineering fascinated him as an intellectual pursuit, but music was his true passion. A devoted husband and father, he adopted Nichiren Soshu Buddhism in 1972 and has been a practitioner ever since.

In his memoir, Herbie reveals for the first time that he found himself derailed by crack cocaine as early as the 1990s, which stemmed partly from his insatiable curiosity about everything both good and evil. Herbie is very upfront and transparent about such personal issues in the book, which, I think is commendable.

I interviewed Herbie a couple of years ago after The Imagine Project CD was released. I’ve been following his music since I was in high school. His genius lies in his theoretical approach to improvising, a fascinating way of exploring new structure—a perfect display of both his left-brain love for engineering and his right-brain artistic tendencies. Possibilities is a fascinating glimpse into the mind and life of one of jazz music’s greatest pianists. There is even the audiobook edition with Hancock narrating. Just in time for Christmas!

“Watermelon Man”

[youtube width=”575″ height=”360″]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbHJHPTikQA[/youtube]

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