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Herbie Hancock's secret of great musicianship: Do your math and science homework!

July 17, 2010 | 10:55 am

Herbie If you've taken even the slightest interest in popular music over, oh, the last half-century or so, you've doubtless encountered the artistry of Herbie Hancock. Whether it's his suave jazz standards like "Watermelon Man" or his inspired guest stints as a pianist and keyboardist on scores of pop collaborations -- his funky, elegant solo midway through Stevie Wonder's "As" makes his keyboard sound like it's talkin' in tongues -- Hancock has placed his mark on modern music like few other performers.

Now he's got a new gig as creative jazz chair of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In that capacity, he'll be responsible for programming jazz concerts at the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Hollywood Bowl, bringing in guest artists and possibly commissioning new pieces.

So what are some keys to the professional success and longevity of Hancock, who turned 70 in April and seems as occupied as ever?

Well, one of them is: Study your math and science. As a self-described "techie," Hancock says his lifelong embrace of electronic experimentation has helped him stay on top as well as take advantage of evolving musical developments.

Here's part of what he had to say on the subject during a recent interview at his Westside home:

"I've always been interested in science. I used to take watches apart and clocks apart, and there's little screws, and a little this and that, and I found out if I dropped one of them, that thing ain't gonna work. When I was a kid, I put things back together and they never worked anyway! But just, like, going into those details, it's kind of a scientist's thing. And I have that kind of [mind], it's part of my personality."

"I'm one of the people who helped push it in the beginning. It was easier for me because I was an engineering major in college for two years. So when synthesizers came in, they used terminology I knew. I knew what an amplifier was and I knew what it did. I had to learn some new words, like 'fader.' I'd never heard the word 'fader.' That's kind of a new word, anyway. But I knew about wave forms. I knew what a 'sawtooth' was. I mean, if you studied physics, you'd learn those things. I was really good in math and I was good in science. History I wasn't so good at, and literature wasn't a big interest of mine, unless it's a technical book."

"My father was really good with math. It's a funny thing, I don't remember my father or my mother being so mechanical-minded. My father always wanted to be a doctor, but he came from a really poor family in Georgia, and there was no way he was going to be a doctor. And he had to quit high school to work because my grandmother had more kids and my father was the oldest child. He had to quit high school after his second year to help support his younger siblings. And they all went to college because of my father. So they all looked up to my father as, like, 'He's the guy. He made the sacrifice.' And they did, they all went to college. He's their hero."

Read my full interview with Hancock here.

-- Reed Johnson

Photo: Herbie Hancock. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (5)

Yea I'm one of those too. I like to take apart computers and study algebra,and astronomy......and then I play conga's bongo's timbales guitar recorder flutes on and on. I started using digital audio workstations and that really increased my ability to write, record. My whole music world expanded. Yea Music is science you gotta stick with it and dare to be new and fresh a lot.........

I'll never forget Herbie's "Rockit." I kept playing it over and over and over.

This is exactly why we need art education at the lower levels, middle school needs music and art classes, not HS and college adolescent teenagers who are all about themselves and "self" expression. And why art schools can be done away with. We need people who can think and more importantly,"feel' in complex and layered ways, things not taught in our art and music academies. Art is about relationships, on multiple levels simplified into the visual and auditory langauges, not set pieces of master thesis illustrations of psychobabble and irrelevant academic idiocies. We needs our kids to think and feel in complex ways of the world, no matter what field they find is best for them.

True artists don't need such places, they learn the world first, Mr. Hancock was close to having his physics degree when quitting and going on the road where the true masters and artists are, soon with Miles himself. And how is his music strictly in the "popular" vein? Rockit the worst thing he ever did, try his Thrust album with the funk groove of Palm Grease and the incredibly lovely and sensual Butterfly, my girl Tricia Tahara did a great version with Wallace Rooney.

His best work was from the 60s, Maiden Voyage and of course some of the best music ever made with Miles in the greatest concert ever of My Funny valentine/Four and More to the extraordinarey In a Silent Way where he shared keyboards with Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul. But Mr Hancock still kicks butt over the so called "Music" headlined nonsense on this site of "New" and classical. Why does jazz get no pub? How come there are articles about KUSC and adolescent KCRW and nothing about KJAZ(KBCA/KLON)? That is OUR music, and creative force. True, most of the great ones are dead, but ALL the Euro music greats are dad, so? Where's the beef? Toss the tofu.

Save the Watts Towers, tear down the Ivories.

Science, math and music are all very much connected.

So is painting, the acadmies just dont know it, or much else besides seperating fools from their money. All the best painting IS musical and or poetical, the illustrative kind, as in todays illustrations of limp ideas and psychobabble rather than the old academy's literature, has melody-line, color-harmony, and rhythm-structure,combined in forms that use the entire canvas in layered interrelated meanings and emotions. One feels with the eyes. As in music the ears.

But that is too difficult and demands discipline and study, as great music does.(NOT American Idol, Disney and producer based rap, JayZ et al) That is just soooo passe in todays artscene, which is about absurdist entertainment and prosaic self glorification and worship. Individuals dont matter, humanity, nature and God do. All great artists will and have said the same, the small minded and weak just cant hang and so create their own systems, the Academys of today, and yesterday, and god help us, the future.

mr Hancock and mr Shorter are among the last of their kind, though isolated cases of creativity do arise. And squelched as the threat they are to the status quo, Anselm Kiefer among the few allowed to thrive, because he arrived as a conceptualist, but really wasn't, and grew as a painter and true artist.

I hope mr Hancock adds another date or two, have been hearing him play since the late 70s on the VSOP tour and with Mr Corea and others. Along with McCoy Tyner, the greatest pianist influences of all musics in the 60s, and more.

art collegia delenda est
Artists are made and grow in the real world, not sterilized environments of academia.


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