Herbie Hancock wears almost as many hats as he owns keyboards.
His home in West Hollywood contains about 21 electric pianos, synthesizers, clavinets and other members of the keyboard family. "In addition," he says, "I have three lockers away from home stocked with keyboards, because I ran out of space.
"This is an accumulation of 14 years' collecting. I keep acquiring new things because electronic technology moves so fast; there seem to be radical changes every few months."
As swiftly as he moves from one keyboard to another, Hancock crosses the borders between jazz, R&B;, funk, fusion and pop; between composing and playing; between acoustics and electronics; between concert halls, movie and recording studios. At 47, he may well be the busiest and most acclaimed musician who remains at least partly active in straight-ahead jazz.
This summer he is dividing his time between two groups. He will spend July touring Europe with a jazz trio (Buster Williams, bass, and Al Foster, drums). In August and September he will play dates in the United States (including the Hollywood Bowl on Aug. 19) and Japan with saxophonist Michael Brecker, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams.
"I've been doing jazz almost exclusively for the past two years," he says, "although my next album, which I just finished for CBS, will be a pop LP. But the call for me to do jazz work has been continuous as a result of ' 'Round Midnight.' "
Hancock's score for that film, in which he also had an acting and playing role, won him an unexpected Oscar for original score. "I was completely shocked when they called my name. I thought Ennio Morricone was going to win, for his music to 'The Mission.' Since the award I've had three major film offers--and not for jazz scores. I think by now people know that I've done other kinds of work."
He has, in fact, six movie credits, starting in 1966 with "Blow-Up." In 1972 he scored "The Spook Who Sat by the Door" (of which he says: "It didn't get around--they kinda squashed it"), followed by "Death Wish" in 1975, "A Soldier's Story" in 1984 and, since " 'Round Midnight," the Richard Pryor feature "Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling." All these assignments except " 'Round Midnight" called for orthodox motion-picture scoring rather than small group jazz.
"When Bertrand Tavernier, the director, asked me to do the ' 'Round Midnight' score, I had just done a couple of pop albums: 'Future Shock,' which had 'Rockit' on it, and another one called 'Sound System.' I have never minded moving back and forth. I suppose I could make a kind of jazz-based pop music, the way some musicians do, but I choose to keep the two separate. I pursue one objective, and when it reaches a logical conclusion, I pursue another. It's no big hassle for me to make the change; I don't even think about it."
Hancock's success in the pop music area is due in large measure to his quick grasp of the technical essentials involved in electronic music, which he attributes to a childhood concern for things scientific.
"I've always been interested in science. When I went to college, even though I had been playing piano from the age of 7, my first major was engineering. In the back of my mind, I felt I wanted to be a musician--not necessarily a jazz musician. But I thought I'd better be responsible and study something a little more stable. Little did I know that the two could be brought together! But at the end of my second year I had to do what was really in my heart, and I changed my major to music."
Hancock's first flirtation with electronic music began when he was making an album for Warner Bros. called "Crossings." As he recalls it: "My manager and producer, David Rubinson, suggested I use a synthesizer, because it was then a new instrument associated with rock 'n' roll, and maybe that could help with the sales. I said fine, and we got Patrick Gleeson to overdub something for an intro. It came off so fantastically well that I said to him: 'Look, why don't you do something for the whole record?' Right after that, Patrick became a member of my traveling group."
After breaking up that band in 1973, Hancock recorded the breakthrough album "Headhunters," establishing himself solidly in the new electronic age.
A piquant aspect of the jazz-fusion schism is that most straight-ahead jazz is still performed almost exclusively on acoustic instruments, while jazz/rock, fusion and the other crossover idioms make extensive use of electronics. A major question is suggested: Will synthesizers and other electronic inventions become increasingly a part of the jazz scene?
"I guess that depends on one's definition of jazz," Hancock said. "It gets vaguer all the time. It's entirely possible that I could make a genuine jazz album that was all electronic; by the same token, I could make an R&B; or pop album that was all acoustic. Come to think of it, at some point I might like to do both those things. I guess I've taken the easy way out; using just the acoustic instruments in jazz is kind of a minimalist approach.
"Of course, we must take into account the impact of jazz fusion, which already is very heavily electronic. That's one of those gray areas, with varying elements from pop music and from jazz, depending on which artist you are talking about. For instance, Chick Corea's electric stuff still sounds more jazz than pop to me; but there are others in that field who are more pop than jazz."
Proud of his ability to return to jazz as an award-winning composer, Hancock nevertheless finds a certain irony in his victory. "It's funny," he says, "after many years of waiting I got two Grammys, and both of them were for R&B; performances--for 'Rockit' in 1983 and 'Sound System' in '84. When I finally got a jazz award, it was (an Oscar) from the Motion Picture Academy!"
He is happy, though, that the award was a dividend paid by what he feels was the first honest effort to portray the jazz life in a motion picture. He has no time for the complainers who object that " 'Round Midnight," starring Dexter Gordon as a sax man worn out by drink who goes to Paris, reinforced the image of the alcoholic or drug-drained jazzman.
"It was a realistic picture of a certain aspect of life. It was set around 1960, and reality is reality; you cannot hide from the fact that in those days, things like that were happening. Thank goodness we don't live in those times anymore; look at Wynton and Branford Marsalis and all the other musicians who were not brought up in a drug culture, who have become role models."