Javascript is not enabled.

Javascript must be enabled to use this site. Please enable Javascript in your browser and try again.

Herbie Hancock -- AARP The Magazine Skip to content

Refresh your driving skills with the AARP Smart Driver online course! Use promo code THANKS to save 25 percent.


Herbie Hancock

The trailblazing musician takes another innovative turn

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.”

Visit Hancock’s website for music and videos

Join the Discussion

0 | Add Yours

Please leave your comment below.

You must be logged in to leave a comment.