WASHINGTON — He received the Grammys’ Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016.
This Tuesday, jazz legend Herbie Hancock performs live at the Kennedy Center at 8 p.m.
“I hope you expect a surprise,” Hancock told WTOP. “I never like to bring things that I’ve done before. I always like to create something new. Some of the pieces that we’re doing are pieces that I’m performing for the first time; some have references to pieces I’ve done before.”
Hancock is no stranger to the Kennedy Center, often appearing as a guest performer at the annual Kennedy Center Honors. He’ll never forget the night he was inducted in 2013.
“It was an amazing event,” Hancock said. “The honorees all kind of bonded together. It was great having Carlos Santana receive a Kennedy Center Honor the same day I did, because we’ve been friends for many years, and to meet Shirley MacLaine was a joy and Billy Joel.”
Still, the night’s biggest compliment came from Snoop Dogg, who said, “Thank you for creating hip-hop.” Just ask US3, who sampled Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island” for “Cantaloop.”
“I saw [Snoop] later and said, ‘Hey man, you’re giving me way more credit than I’m due,’ and he said, ‘No I’m not. If it wasn’t for ‘Rockit,’ I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.’ That’s how he heard hip-hop really for the first time,” Hancock said. “I really appreciated it anyway, because it never occurred to me that ‘Rockit’ would be the thing to really launch Snoop on his journey.”
If Hancock inspired Snoop, which artists inspired Hancock growing up in 1940s Chicago?
“Harmonically, it was The Four Freshmen and The Hi-Lo’s,” Hancock said. “Also rhythm and blues and doo-wop groups. I used to listen to those groups and stand on the corner and go, ‘Ooh, ooh, ooh!’ The Midnighters, The Five Thrills, that was the music from my neighborhood and my peers. But my parents listened to Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald.”
Then, in his teenage years, he encountered the genre that would change his life.
“It wasn’t until high school that I became interested in jazz,” Hancock said. “I saw a kid in my class improvising on the piano with a bass player and a drummer. He was doing something on my instrument that I couldn’t do! And it sounded cool and it seemed like they were having a lot of fun. So I said, ‘I wanna know how to do that.’ That was a turning point in my life.”
In 1963 he joined the Miles Davis Quintet, learning from the master Miles Davis.
“We were playing ideas behind him and he would respond to those ideas, react to them and use them to shape his improvised solos,” Hancock said. “Everything was integrated. … In Buddhism, we call that itai doshin, that’s ‘many bodies with one mind.’ That’s real unity.”
Davis also taught him the importance of constant experimentation.
“Miles always encouraged his musicians to not just play what you know,” Hancock said. “He said, ‘I pay you to explore new stuff, to try things.’ It can’t get better than that! When you get paid to make mistakes. You’re going to do unexpected things, but some of them aren’t going to sound so good. It was incredible. I’ve tried to keep that in the work that I’ve done.”
That experimental spirit has served Hancock well, from “Watermelon Man” (1962) to “Cantaloupe Island” (1964), “Maiden Voyage” (1965) to “Chameleon” (1974). Perhaps his most groundbreaking work remains the Grammy-winning “Rockit” (1984), which distinguished Hancock as one of the first jazz musicians to embrace both synthesizers and turntables.
“I was one of the first people,” Hancock said. “That was part of the various explorations I’ve done over the years. What I really think it comes from is the fact that jazz is a music that expresses the moment. Every moment is different. … Have the courage to not just repeat something you know worked in the past; try to see what new things you can come up with.”
That includes the TV soundtrack for “Fat Albert” (1969), Oscar-winning score for “Round Midnight” (1986) and a 2008 Joni Mitchell tribute that won Album of the Year. Hancock routinely reinvents himself, even teasing a new album this week at the Kennedy Center.
“It’s a concept that I’m going to be using on my next record, which will be coming out maybe next year,” Hancock said. “But I’m [also] going to be doing some of my pieces from the past. I do ‘Cantaloupe Island,’ ‘Chameleon’ as an encore, ‘Actual Proof.’ … I would do ‘Rockit,’ except I don’t have anyone playing turntables! It’s hard to do ‘Rockit’ without turntables.”
Anyone wanna volunteer to spin for Herbie?
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