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Herbie Hancock

After having a blast exploring George Clinton’s Mothership and the Blackness of funk music last Sunday, it’s time to take a listen to the impact of funk hooking up with jazz—a topic that made quite a few jazz critics uncomfortable, but which did little to diminish the enthusiasm of the listening (and dancing) public.


Far too often these days, jazz is viewed as music to sit down and listen to as a cerebral experience, which has taken it far from its earliest African roots, with dances in Congo Square, in bordellos, ragtime parades, and the saloons of New Orleans. I would argue that when jazz intersected with funk, it brought the music full circle: to a place which satisfies the spirit, by propelling the listener to move out of a chair and onto a dance floor. Just as Afro-Latin jazz continued to be danceable—with salsa, mambos, cha-chas, and rumbas, the “funkification” of jazz, including the sampling of the driving beats of soul-funk, has ensured its continued appreciation on both dance floors and popular playlists. 

No one better epitomizes the rise of these jazz-funk intersections than Herbie Hancock.

There are few artists in the music industry who have had more influence on acoustic and electronic jazz and R&B than Herbie Hancock. As the immortal Miles Davis said in his autobiography, “Herbie was the step after Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and I haven’t heard anybody yet who has come after him.” Born in Chicago in 1940, Herbie was a child piano prodigy who performed a Mozart piano 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, and double-majored in music and electrical engineering at Grinnell College. In 1960, Herbie was discovered by trumpeter Donald Byrd. After two years of session work with Byrd as well as Phil Woods and Oliver Nelson, he signed with Blue Note as a solo artist. His 1963 debut album, ‘Takin’ Off’, was an immediate success, producing the hit “Watermelon Man.”

In 1963, Miles Davis invited Herbie to join the Miles Davis Quintet. [...]

After leaving Davis, Herbie put together a new band called The Headhunters and, in 1973, recorded ‘Head Hunters.’ With its crossover hit single “Chameleon,” it became the first jazz album to go platinum.

I invite you to give a listen to what is probably the best illustration of my “full circle” premise: Herbie Hancock & the Headhunters performing “Chameleon,” live in Bremen, Germany, in 1974.  

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Hancock’s website has collected some of the rave reviews of Head Hunters; these two in particular speak to the album’s significance.

“Head Hunters was a pivotal point in Herbie Hancock’s career, bringing him into the vanguard of jazz fusion. Hancock had pushed avant-garde boundaries on his own albums and with Miles Davis, but he had never devoted himself to the groove as he did on Head Hunters. Drawing heavily from Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield, and James Brown, Hancock developed deeply funky,even gritty, rhythms over which he soloed on electric synthesizers, bringing the instrument to the forefront in jazz. It had all of the sensibilities of jazz, particularly in the way it wound off into long improvisations, but its rhythms were firmly planted in funk, soul, and R&B, giving it a mass appeal that made it the biggest-selling jazz album of all time (a record which was later broken). Jazz purists, of course, decried the experiments at the time,but Head Hunters still sounds fresh and vital decades after its initial release, and its genre-bending proved vastly influential on not only jazz, but funk, soul, and hip-hop.”   – Allmusic

The impact of the recording started on Black College radio and campuses (particularly at Howard University in Washington DC), and exploded all over the U.S., Japan, and Europe. The LP went Gold in the U.S. within months and the edited single, “Chameleon,” ultimately became a hit at commercial radio and in the dance clubs, and was adopted by jazz-funk bands everywhere as an instrumental feature. On Head Hunters, Herbie returned to his roots as a composer of melodies and phrases that could take hold of the listener’s mind and wrapped them in a groove that went to the roots of public ritual music. With Mason and Summers, Herbie re-worked his first hit, “Watermelon Man,” to fit into the new sound of this group, and this new arrangement became a highlight on his concert tours.”       – Bob Belden, 2013 Sony Box Set Liner Notes

Hancock spoke about how he wrote “Watermelon Man” in 2008, on Spectacle: Elvis Costello with Herbie Hancock, and what it meant for him, demonstrating its hard bop origin and its evolution into Head Hunters funk.

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That’s funk. That’s jazz.


Flashback 1973: Herbie Hancock Scores a Jazz-Funk Smash With ‘Head Hunters’
Keyboardist combined “the jungle, the intellectual, and the sex” on what would become the first platinum album in jazz via @RollingStone

— Funky Cold Edema🌊 (@lola_patty) April 13, 2020

Rolling Stone senior music editor Hank Shteamer recently wrote about Hancock’s moment of spiritual illumination about funk.

In 1973, Herbie Hancock found himself at a crossroads. For a couple years, the keyboardist had been leading a band called Mwandishi — named after a Swahili word meaning “writer” — that played sprawling electro-acoustic jazz with an emphasis on trippy textures and unfettered improvisation. “I think of Mwandishi as an R&D band — research and development,” Hancock wrote in his 2015 autobiography, Possibilities. “It was all about discovery, uncovery, exploration, the unknown, looking for the unseen, listening for the unheard.” He loved the band but grew frustrated with its open-ended approach. “There were times we shared so much empathy and connection onstage that it really did feel spiritual,” he wrote. “But when Mwandishi was off — when we didn’t connect — the experience wasn’t pleasant, and what we were playing just sounded like noise, even to us.”

Inspired by Mwandishi’s bassist, Buster Williams, Hancock had recently begun practicing Nichiren Buddhism. While he chanted, he focused on the question of where he should take his music next. “I spent hours at my Gohonzon” — the scroll that Nichiren Buddhists look at while chanting — “seeking an answer to this question and trying to keep my mind open for some kind of direction. And then, one day as I was chanting, I heard it. I want to thank you . . . falettinme . . . be mice elf . . . agin.” What was cycling through his head was Sly and the Family Stone’s 1969 funk landmark of the same name. “[S]uddenly I saw an image of me sitting with Sly Stone’s band, playing this funky music with him. And I loved it!” Hancock continued.” But then the image changed, and it was my band playing that funky stuff, and Sly Stone was playing with me — and that felt strange and uncomfortable. That upset me, because my discomfort felt like an expression of jazz snobbery, where funk was somehow lower on the food chain. …

Ethnomusicologist Steven F. Pond, who is currently the Chair of the Department of Music at Cornell University, is the author of Head Hunters: The Making of Jazz's First Platinum Album.

[The book] captures a transitional moment in modern music history, a time when jazz and rock intermingled to create a new, often controversial, genre. At the forefront of that style was Head Hunters, Herbie Hancock's foray into the fusion jazz market.

The album became a turning point for a radical shift in both the production and reception of jazz. It was the best-selling jazz record of all time to that point, and the music industry quickly responded to the expanded market, with production and promotion budgets rising tenfold. Such a shift helped musicians pry open the control-booth door, permanently enlarging their role in production. But critics, believing that rock and funk might be appropriating jazz to new musical ends---or more ominously, for commercial reasons---grew increasingly alarmed at what they saw as the beginning of the end of jazz.

Pond’s book offers insights, and raises issues that might make some jazz pundits and professors uncomfortable. Jazz, when defined as “America’s classical music,” by authorities like Billy Taylor, or Wynton Marsalis or Ken Burns, reeks of acceptability politics. He references the vicious attack leveled by jazz critic Stanley Crouch against Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew.“ 

Apologies for not being able to link to Crouch’s actual article; here’s a summary.

The article is in the Feb 12, 1990 issue of the New Republic, pp. 30-37. It's the cover story, on the cover entitled "Sketches of Pain: The Rise and Fall of Miles Davis." Inside the magazine it is titled "Play the Right Thing," and has the subtitle "Miles Davis, the most brilliant sellout in the history of jazz."  Here are some quotes:

 "The contemporary Miles Davis, when one hears his music or watches him perform, deserves the description that Nietzsche gave of Wagner: 'the greatest example of self-violation in the history of art.'"

 "Desperate to maintain his position at the forefront of modern music, to sustain his financial position, to be admired for the hipness of his purported innovations, Davis turned butt to the beautiful in order to genuflect before the commercial."

More on Bitches Brew later, however it is impossible to discuss jazz-funk, or funk-jazz, or jazz fusion without accepting that the use of electric instrumentation is part of the package that’s oft rejected by purists.

Pond continued his explorations of Hancock’s influence in his 2013 paper "’Chameleon’ Meets Soul Train: Herbie, James, Michael, Damita Jo, and Jazz-Funk.”


Steven F. Pond Chameleon Meets Soul Train: Herbie, James, Michael, Damita jo, and Jazz Funk" AMS 52:4 (2013):125-140

— American Studies Journal (@AmericanStJourn) May 9, 2014

Critics were not prepared for the widespread popularity of Head Hunters, and struggled to force a label upon the album.

The central dilemma for jazz critics and fans was how to reconcile the music’s funkiness with its jazz identity, an identity for which there was a decided lack of consensus. This dilemma became dramatized when Head Hunters rose to the near top of the newly christened Billboard Jazz Albums chart while “Chameleon” likewise rode the crest of the R&B Singles chart (the chart home for funk releases at the time). Record sales marketing and the charts they fostered were affected by radio airplay formats; public-radio jazz stations had little attraction to album cuts from Head Hunters at first, but “black urban” and “free-form” radio embraced “Chameleon.” Nevertheless, the album had been issued initially through jazz store outlets, and album sales were tracked on this basis. Soon enough, record bins in the R&B, soul, and funk sections of the stores sported the album, in addition to its placement in the jazz racks. Who could tell whether the purchaser was, in fact, a jazz customer as opposed to a funk customer (as if the two could not exist in a single body)? Several jazz critics resisted the album on the basis of its not being jazz, despite its overwhelming impact on the jazz chart; perhaps a new, younger, and less category-bound jazz audience was emerging.

In other words: Hancock’s music was popular! Oh my! How this must have irked jazz purists to no end. The proof in the pudding of youth acceptance was demonstrated on Soul Train, by their dancers.

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Hancock got his start in Chicago playing with trumpeter Donald Byrd and saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, and soon after, he was introduced to Miles Davis by his young drummer Tony Williams. As a result, Hancock would become part of a major shift in jazz history: the group who would record Bitches Brew with Davis. 


Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew Turns 50: Celebrate the Funk-Jazz-Psych-Rock Masterpiece

— Open Culture (@openculture) April 3, 2020

Josh Jones explored the album’s history earlier this year, as it celebrated its 50th anniversary.

I shouldn’t have to tell you that Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, released fifty years ago this month, is a groundbreaking record. The funk-jazz-psych-rock masterpiece has been handed that award in “best of” lists for half a century. “Bitches Brew is NOT LIKE OTHER records of its time, or any other time,” Rick Frystak announced emphatically on the Amoeba Records blog last year, on the 50th anniversary of the album’s 1969 “hatching” onstage and in the studio. How could it be otherwise?...

After Bitches Brew, jazz kept fusing with rock instrumentation and overdrive, “from Chick Corea with Return to Forever and Wayne Shorter with Weather Report to Herbie Hancock with The Headhunters”—and, of course, McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. As Coltrane’s experimental 60s records had done, Davis’ bedrock fusion album freed rock from its formulas, giving it space to spread out and explore. Even Radiohead cited it as an influence on their groundbreaking 1997 Ok Computer. “It was building something up and watching it fall apart,” says Thom Yorke, “that’s the beauty of it.”

The album’s initial rejection in jazz circles didn’t last, as anyone familiar with the music’s direction knows. Davis determined its course in the 70s (as cover artist Mati Karwein determined its look). “I’m not sure if jazz ever got unplugged,” says McBride, and influential contemporary jazz fusionists like Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, and The Comet is Coming prove his point. Fifty years ago, the ground was broken for experimental electric jazz, and musicians are still building on Miles’ Bitches Brew intuitions.

I do not consider myself competent to musically critique Bitches Brew; I can only tell you that I remember the impact it had (for yay or for nay) and what Miles Davis sparked in younger artists. A quick Google search will give you hours of reading material, about the making of the album, and the influence it’s had on younger musicians.  

As a sidebar, I find it curious that not enough of Davis’ biographers and critics pay attention to a brief event in his life that impacted his musical shift: his marriage to Betty Mabry, who I knew from a time when we all hung out together at The Cellar Club in Manhattan. Betty was the hostess, and had no clue who Miles was when she first saw him. She actually asked me about a musician who she had seen on a trip down to the Village who was wearing “awesome grey suede shoes.” I was able to identify him as Miles Davis, and the name meant nothing to her at the time. That would change swiftly, and they were soon married. Betty essentially challenged Miles to “get hip,” which had to be a blow to the ego of the man who considered himself to be a consummate hip cat.

Betty Mabry is portrayed on the cover of Davis’ Filles De Kilimanjaro, and is the woman at the center of his tune Mademoiselle Mabry (Miss Mabry). Mabry’s biggest impact on Davis’ life was to bring him to the funk. 

Her life was documented by filmmaker Phil Cox in 2017, in a film originally called Nasty Gal, but ultimately released as Betty—They Say I’m Different.

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I’m going to let Betty Davis play me off today.

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Thank you, Betty. Some of us have not forgotten you. I hope this brief excursion into jazz-funk, funk-jazz, fusion, or whatever label you want to slap on it, has wet your whistle for more, and I look forward to listening to your contributions in the comments section.

Don’t let the music get you so funked up that you forget—we’re gonna have to get out the vote in droves this November.

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Augusta mayor: Likely no patrons at November Masters

Netflix Acquires Indian Skateboard Movie Desert Dolphin (Exclusive) Big tech stocks could fall sharply if theres a vaccine Augusta mayor: Likely no patrons at November Masters

At least two of the three majors this year will be played without spectators, and the mayor of Augusta, Georgia, predicts there also won’t be any patrons when the Masters is played in November.  

© Provided by Golf Channel

“The PGA Championship begins at Harding Park without fans, and that’s likely what will probably happen in Augusta,” mayor Hardie Davis said in a news conference earlier this week, as reported by WRDW.

This week’s PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park is being held without fans, just as the first eight weeks of the PGA Tour restart have been contested sans spectators. The USGA has already announced the U.S. Open, rescheduled for mid-September, won't have any fans on-site at Winged Foot.

Augusta National has not offered any update on its plans, other than to say months ago that it will follow the advice of local and state health officials.

“Augusta National can do it better than anybody, and they have the wherewithal to test all patrons who show up at the course and if you have a fever, they can tell you to go get in the car,” Davis said, before adding: “My preference is to see some golf.”

According to the Augusta Chronicle, the city of Augusta has recorded 1,460 new confirmed COVID-19 cases in the past two weeks.

The Masters will be held Nov. 12-15.

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