During a career that spans seven astonishing decades, the Chicago-born, Los Angeles-based, Grammy- and Oscar-winning pianist and composer Herbie Hancock has gone where no jazz musician had gone before. He was a member of Miles Davis’s groundbreaking quintet in the 1960s; he recorded a long list of seminal albums for the legendary Blue Note jazz label; and his compositions—from “Maiden Voyage” and “Watermelon Man” to “Cantaloupe Island”—are recognized as jazz standards. “Chameleon,” his synthesizer-driven smash hit, ushered in the jazz-fusion era of the 1970s. A decade later, he scored another hit with “Rockit,” a track inspired by hip-hop, and won an Oscar for the soundtrack to the film Round Midnight. And in recent years he’s recorded and collaborated with a star-studded lineup of musicians, including Joni Mitchell, Sting, Stevie Wonder, and classical pianist Lang Lang.
In Herbie Hancock: Possibilities, his first book, which will be released October 28 by Viking, the 74-year-old jazz master chronicles the pioneering arc of his musical career, describing many aspects of his life—his musicianship, his family, his commitment to Buddhism, and his work with Unesco—in eloquent and honest detail.
Though Hancock had thought about writing a book for years, Possibilities, which is named after his 2008 album, was slow to make the leap from his mind to the printed page. “Quincy Jones was an instigator,” Hancock says, laughing, during a phone call from his Los Angeles home-office, “because he had written a book about his life [Q: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones]. He kept prodding me, ‘Herbie, you better get started on that book, because the older you get, the more you’re going to forget. So you better start writing now.’ ”
Hancock tours constantly, so he could not simply stop, sit down, and write the book. His agent, Robert Barnett, enlisted ghostwriter Lisa Dickey, who has worked on a number of bestselling books on the arts, business, and science (The Time of My Life, with Patrick Swayze; Remembering Whitney, with Cissy Houston), to coauthor Herbie Hancock: Possibilities. “We got together a lot,” Hancock recalls fondly. “She would write. I would read and edit, and sometimes shift the wording, or change phrases or delete things. We would continually refine what was written. It wasn’t like I just talked to her, and she wrote the book. It wasn’t that simple. We were both involved in writing the book.”
With Dickey’s assistance, Hancock writes about growing up on Chicago’s South Side with his brother, Waymon Jr., and sister, Jean. His parents came to the Windy City from Georgia. Introduced to the piano by a childhood friend, Hancock soon developed impressive skill with the instrument and performed Mozart’s Concerto No. 26 in D Major with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra when he was 11 years old.
In the book, he writes lovingly about how he came under the spell of jazz pianists George Shearing, Errol Garner, and Oscar Peterson. Hancock paid his dues playing numerous R&B gigs around Chicago before attending Grinnell College in Iowa, originally as an engineering major before switching to music. (Hancock has had a lifelong fascination with technology; he eventually received degrees from Grinnell in both music and electrical engineering.) The late jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd discovered Hancock, brought him to New York, and introduced him to Davis, who would become his next musical mentor. Working with Davis—alongside tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams—Hancock went on to expand the compositional and improvisational possibilities of the jazz idiom.
Hancock praises Davis for his musical leadership and musical mentoring. Once, during a performance, when young Hancock played an obviously “wrong” chord, Davis instantly played a note that “miraculously made my note sound right,” and never chided or reprimanded the pianist for the gaffe. Davis encouraged his musicians to experiment and take chances even if they made mistakes. This incident, Hancock says, reinforced the value of “trusting yourself to respond on the fly.” If you can allow yourself to do that, Hancock writes, “you never stop exploring, you never stop learning, in music or in life.” It was an important lesson for a jazz musician.
While the book outlines Hancock’s admiration of Davis’s musical influence and mentoring, it also acknowledges Davis’s personal failings. “I know Miles did some really rotten things, like beating up women, almost killing a woman who was a friend of mine,” Hancock admits. “And he had huge problems with coke. This is not praise for Miles’s everyday life; it’s more about his relationship to the musicians, and how he felt about his responsibilities as a musician, and his wisdom and trust in himself and in others.”
Hancock’s younger sister, Jean, a computer analyst who died in a plane crash in 1985, also figured prominently throughout his artistic life. She named one of Hancock’s most famous compositions, “Maiden Voyage,” and wrote lyrics for it, as well as for several other Hancock songs, including “Harvest Time,” and “Butterfly.”
Hancock’s success has not come without costs. He married Gigi Meixner in 1968, and he writes about the challenges that touring can place on a marriage and on Jessica, their only child. But the biggest revelation to emerge from the book is that Hancock was addicted to cocaine. It began with gradual use in the 1960s and escalated in the 1980s and ’90s, until his wife confronted him about his addiction. He entered rehab in 1999 and eventually managed to kick the habit.
“I knew at some point, I was going to be talking about this,” Hancock says. “One of the main things in Buddhism is that you look at a challenge in your life and turn it into an opportunity. That’s what occurred to me when I was writing this book: now I know why [the addiction] happened to me. That happened at that point, so I could write about it in the book, and possibly help other people. That turns it into something positive.”
Hancock was introduced to Nichiren Buddhism by bassist Buster Williams, who gave an inspired performance at a gig with Hancock in 1972 in Seattle, rousing the rest of the band, whose members were hungover after too much partying the night before. Williams credited his stellar performance that night to Buddhist chanting; Hancock was so impressed he went to a Buddhist meeting with him the next night.
Hancock writes passionately about his commitment to Buddhism. “Ever since I was seven years old, music has been the number one thing in my life,” he notes in the book. “But as I got into deeper into the practice of Buddhism, a new realization began to form inside me. I began thinking of myself as a human being first, removing any sense of separation between myself and anyone else.”
This realization has had a strong impact on Hancock’s life. Since the 1990s, he has worked to extend himself beyond the confines of the jazz world. In 1998 Hancock released Gershwin’s World, a tribute to George Gershwin, with Stevie Wonder; The New Standard (1995) featured Hancock’s reimagining of the music of Prince, the Beatles, Sade, and Paul Simon; and River: The Joni Letters, Hancock’s jazzy shout-out to his friend Joni Mitchell, earned him Grammy awards for Album of the Year and Best Contemporary Jazz Album in 2008. He cofounded the Rhythm of Life Foundation, dedicated to using technology to aid humanity. In 2011, he was named Unesco Goodwill Ambassador, and was instrumental in the creation of the organization’s first International Jazz Day. In 2013, he was the recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors, and this year he was named Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University—the first African-American (not to mention the first jazz musician) to hold that position in its 88-year history.
As Hancock approaches his 75th birthday on April 12, 2015, he continues to explore the infinite possibilities of his life. “I like it when people tell me I can’t do something,” he says with a hearty laugh. “That automatically makes me want to do it. It’s my nature. I’m naturally curious. I like to combine two or three different things. My interest in science and technology comes into play throughout my life: seeing two things that look like oil and water, and me trying to figure out how to get them to interact and play nicely together.”
Eugene Holley Jr. is a freelance writer on music who contributes to Down Beat, Wax Poetics, NPR’s A Blog Supreme, and Philadelphia Weekly.