When pianist and composer Herbie Hancock won his 12th Grammy this year—for River: The Joni Letters, his interpretation of Joni Mitchell’s songs—it marked just the second time in the Grammy Awards’ 50-year history that a recording by a jazz instrumentalist was named Album of the Year. It was yet another tip of the hat to a man whose breathtaking contributions to music span five decades—from his work with legendary giants of swing, bebop, postbop, and the avant-garde, to his pioneering electronic fusion of jazz and funk, to his much acclaimed foray into hip-hop. We talked to the 68-year-old artist about his music, his mentors, and his knack for reinvention.
“When I was asked about doing Joni’s music, I said, ‘Wow.’ Joni is a wonderful poet, songwriter, musical conceptualist—she’s amazing. But I hadn’t paid much attention to lyrics before, so here was an opportunity to jump over a hurdle that had been in front of me for years. I took it on as a challenge for cultural growth.”
“You have to be open. Miles Davis, my musical mentor, taught me that. I used to be close-minded about anything other than jazz and classical music. But in the ’60s Miles was checking out Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, and all the music young people were into. And I thought Miles was the coolest person I knew, so I said, ‘If he’s open, it must be cool to be open!’ ”
“My parents were rich in spirit, not financially. My mother recognized I was interested in the piano when I was six years old, so on my seventh birthday my parents bought me a piano and I started lessons. I ended up winning a contest and got a chance to play with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I wanted to be a classical concert pianist.”
“I didn’t open my ears to jazz until high school, but when I did, it just overtook me. Also, my folks were into jazz—they liked Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Fats Waller, Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines.”
“Buddhism has really helped me have a deeper realization about the eternity of life—there’s something reassuring about the idea that [after death] there’ll be a time you actually reemerge, even into this world.”
“My sister died in a plane crash, while I was working on ’Round Midnight [the 1986 film whose score won Hancock an Oscar], and I immediately accepted it. My first thought was not about the loss but about my mother. I didn’t cry for six months, but when we threw her ashes to sea, the tears came, finally.”
“Human beings are not just one-dimensional. I’m a musician, but I’m also a father, a husband, a son, a citizen, a friend, an African American, an American—and at the root of all that, I’m a human being. My vision comes from my humanity, not from my being a musician. That opens it up, completely removes any walls.”