He’s still full of surprises

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Special to The Times

Numerous past Grammys already cluttered Herbie Hancock’s shelves. He was kicking back in the audience at the recording academy’s presentations two weeks ago after his “River -- The Joni Letters” had copped the award for best contemporary jazz album. Yeah, the record had also been nominated for album of the year. But could a release by an old jazz guy take that too? He couldn’t imagine it.

And Hancock has done some pretty good imagining. He was an acoustic-piano jazz star in the ‘60s, a funk-fusion blockbuster in the ‘70s, a hip-hop bricklayer and electronic experimenter in the ‘80s, a multi-genre bridge builder over the last decade. No record under the name of a jazz instrumentalist, though, had been voted best album since “Getz/Gilberto” by Stan Getz (with singer Astrud Gilberto) in 1964.

The final presenters were R&B; singer Usher and -- hmmm -- jazz eminence Quincy Jones. And . . . “River” won the big one.


“It’s totally out of the blue,” Hancock exhaled from his L.A. offices, cramming a phone call into a suddenly overstuffed calendar. He ticked off his scheduled firsts: TV spots on “The View,” “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” “Entertainment Tonight,” “Access Hollywood.”

“I asked for it,” he said. “If this is my time to do this, I’m ready for it.”

Less willing to undertake the grind is longtime friend Mitchell, the songwriter from whose catalog “River” was mostly drawn. Along with Tina Turner, Leonard Cohen, Norah Jones and Corinne Bailey Rae, Mitchell lent a voice to the album’s vocal/instrumental track mix. She’d previously collected seven Grammys herself, this year adding best pop instrumental performance for a cut from her “Shine” album. (Funny -- an instrumentalist wins in an almost exclusively vocal category; a singer and esteemed lyricist wins for an instrumental.)

Hancock said he called Mitchell as soon as he could after the immediate swamp of interviews he had to slog through along with the album’s producer, Larry Klein (Mitchell’s ex-husband). She said she was happy for Herbie. But Grammys can’t buy her love.

“She is not enamored with the Grammys, I’ll tell you that,” said Hancock, whose main plan for the immediate future is to tour this summer playing music from “River.” “She’s all for the things that have the greatest real value, such as the quality of music, honesty, compassion. And she could care less about the media and television,” whose motivations she holds suspect.

Although Grammy history has handed plenty of ammunition to those who say the awards are all about money and star-making machinery, recent years’ acknowledgments of the devil-horned metal gang Slayer and the avant-garde jazz iconoclast Ornette Coleman are making complainers think.

In his award, Hancock finds hope for jazz and the Grammys’ other poor stepchildren: “I think ‘Give the people a choice’ is the statement that they’re making.”


Hancock doesn’t see academy members as jazz haters. He said he’s known Ken Ehrlich, executive producer of the Grammy Awards TV show, for ages. “I do know that he tries and has always tried” to carve out some visibility for jazz.

Does Hancock have a clue why he got album of the year after the category’s long jazz-less drought?

Maybe, he said, it had something to do with being called a legend the last few years. It makes him laugh. “I think of Miles Davis as a legend, Coltrane as a legend. Herbie Hancock, a legend? Then I look in the mirror and say, ‘Oh, I see, that means you’re an old guy.’ I mean, I’m 67.”

Hancock also linked his ascendancy to the continued rule of hip-hop, which owes a debt to his turntable-scratching, drum-machine-heavy instrumental hit “Rockit,” a 1984 Grammy winner. “It was the first record that really penetrated beyond the underground and opened the door toward popular culture. Many of the hip-hop artists know that.”

It also seems Hancock has been in our faces a lot. If a TV or DVD documentary needs jazz comment, there he is.

Sounds like high-powered strategy at work. Who’s Hancock’s manager, anyway?

“Me,” said Hancock. “I became my manager just before I did ‘Possibilities,’ my previous record,” where he was paired with Aguilera, John Mayer, Annie Lennox, Sting and a raft of other pop-world names.


Hancock has done some job of managing. He’s always seen possibilities where others see pitfalls, and some of that comes from his upbringing.

“There was hope in our house,” Hancock recalled of his youth growing up in Chicago. “We had dreams. I never questioned that I would get a chance to go to college. I had no idea that my folks absolutely did not have the money. But they never let us know.”

Hancock got some scholarships (in electrical engineering!) to Grinnell College in Iowa, but they weren’t enough. When it looked as if he’d have to drop out, his mother and uncle sold some property and paid the tuition. All along he’d been studying piano, and the combination of keyboards and electronics turned out to be his ticket with Miles Davis, the Headhunters and the rest.

Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism, which Hancock discovered many years ago, has also broadened his outlook.

“There’s a tendency for people to look at things one way,” he suggested. “And I’ve discovered through my practice of Buddhism that that’s a real limitation. I try to see other ways of looking at things, and it just opens up new vistas for me.”

Sometimes Hancock sticks with a vista he enjoys. After making his mark in New York with “Maiden Voyage,” a series of other Blue Note recordings and a ton of work with Miles Davis, he moved to Los Angeles in 1972 and stayed. He likes the weather. He likes having a house with a pool and a garage. He still owns the rare AC Cobra sports car he bought in 1963 with the money he made from his first big instrumental hit, “Watermelon Man.”


“New York is full of stuff that can feed you,” said Hancock. “Well, at a certain point, I was full and bursting at the seams. And I wanted to summarize and analyze and kind of put things together. In New York, I felt like I was surviving. And when I came out to L.A., I finally felt like I was living.”