Herbie Hancock: Possibilities
With Lisa Dickey
Viking | 2014 | 332 pages
Reviewed by Fred Beauford
A most Interesting man
Herbie Hancock’s Possibilities was, surprisingly, a more interesting look at the evolution of an American popular artist than what we have been used to.
Not only is the noble story of the upward mobility of a bright, highly talented young black American male from the South Side of Chicago, fully told, but there is also Herbie Hancock, a very thoughtful, self-aware, cerebral fellow, indeed.
He is also one of those rare birds who fly in a flock of his own making.
Here is how he describes himself early in the book: “This was how my brain worked. As a kid, I loved mechanics and science, and I spent hours taking apart clocks and toasters because I had a driving need to know how things worked. I was drawn to the rational order of these systems, enraptured by the way that taking apart an object could lead to a complete understanding of that object.”
This acute curiosity about how things work extended to music, which led him to constant search for new ways to enhance the musical experience.
Now, Herbie Hancock wears the label “jazz legend.”
Which means that he can now display bragging rights held by few, by pointing to his fourteen Grammys and an Oscar for the score of Round Midnight.
In addition, there was his being named in 2011 as an UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, and in 2013 he was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors, and in 2014, he became the first jazz musician to deliver the prestigious Norton Lectures at Harvard.
His musical education started at an early age while growing up on the South Side of 1950s Chicago. A friend of his who live in his building had a piano. Hancock loved playing around with it so much that he prevailed upon his family to purchase him one.
“So when I was seven, they gave me a used piano they’d bought for about $5 in a church basement.”
That old piano led to private music lessons; which led to young Herbie quickly being recognized as a child prodigy, which led to his playing a movement of a Mozart piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony at the age of eleven by winning a young people’s competition.
The pull between science and music, however, did not go away, and came to a head, when, in the fall of 1956, he entered Grinnell College, a small, overwhelmingly white, liberal arts school in Iowa, at the age of sixteen.
Writes Hancock, “Even before I set foot on campus I started examining my options analytically. Should I major in music or in science? I loved them both, but I wanted to make the smart choice. So I asked myself what are the chances you can make a living from jazz? Questionable. Now, what are the chances you can make a living from science? Probably really good.
“As much as I loved jazz, I decided to take the pragmatic path and major in engineering. I even promised my mother, who wanted me to get a degree in something useful, that I wouldn’t major in music.”
And lucky for the world of music Hancock’s pragmatism didn’t last long, with his changing his major in his second year at the college, to music. His memoir then takes us on a long, fruitful musical journey, where at one point, he and I crossed paths.
In addition, much of this book also took a close look at the many technical innovations that has occurred in the production of both recorded and live music presentation, and how Hancock’s love of science caused him to embrace these new, and often strange machines, long before other musicians.
This passage fully illustrates the point better than anything I could come up with. Writes Hancock, “ The first record we made after I got the Apple 11+ was Monster. Here’s the listing in Monster’s liner notes of what instruments I played:
Herbie Hancock: piano, E-MU Polyphonic keyboard, Clavitar, Waves Minimoog, Prophet-5, Oberheim 8 Voice, Yamaha CS-80, ARP 2600, Hohner D6 Clavinet, Rhodes 88 Suitcase piano, Steiner EVI, Sennheiser Vocoder, WLM Organ, Linn-Moffett Drum, Modified Apple 11 Plus Microcomputer, Roland CR-70
What ever happened to poor Miles Davis and a few good side men, which was Hancock’s first experience with a jazz band?
Our meeting came during the time he fully left his “space music” phase, and became funky. The PR firm I worked for had Columbia Records for a client, and I worked on his groundbreaking album, Head Hunters.
Jazz purist moaned and groaned and called him a sellout, but the public loved the album and it became his best seller ever.
Here is some dialogue he shared in his book about the success of that album after a few weeks his manager called him:
“’Hi Herbie,’” he said. “’Quick question for you. How many copies of Head Hunters do you think we sold this week?’”
“’I don’t know,’” I told him. ‘A thousand? Two thousand?’ I figured sales were probably similar to what they’d been for Crossing and Sextant.”
“’Nope,’” he said. “’Seventy-eight thousand.’ I sat there for a moment, stunned. And then we both stared laughing.”
(I could take some credit for this, but as I soon found out in show business, the PR person only gets credit if the thing is a flop.)
Not all was always so bright for Hancock. His talent raised him to great heights, but his personal demons almost destroyed him. In addition, bad things also happened to someone closest to him. His sister Jean was killed in a plane crash at age forty-one, which was a hard blow for him to take.
But the real pain for him and his wife, Gigi and daughter Jessica, came in 1999, when one night he was at a party, when someone asked him if he had ever smoked cocaine?
He had noticed people going into a room and when they came out, he noticed that they were somehow different. High, maybe?
For him the answer was immediate and unambiguous: “Nooo,” I said. “I’m afraid to do anything like that.”
For Hancock, who was a long time recreational user of cocaine, there was a clear line between snorting cocaine and smoking it. “Crack cocaine.” He tells us, “was a relatively new drug, but to my mind it fell on the same side of the line as heroin, which I would never touch.”
But as the party went on and Hancock loosened up, his curious mind caught up with him, and he decided to give it a try.
“I was led down the hallway into the bedroom, where someone put a pipe in my mouth and lit it. ‘Draw it in and hold it,’ the person told me. I did. And when the high hit me, it was like nothing I’d ever felt. Crack overloads the pleasure center of your brain, hitting you with a wave of every pleasurable sensation you can imagine, physical and emotional; all at once. I closed my eyes and thought, Oh shit. I should have never done this. This stuff was obviously way too dangerous to mess with,” he writes.
But mess with it he did: “Toward the end of 1999 things were getting out of control. I was smoking a lot now, and acting in ways I’d never acted before.”
This included not looking after his wife after she had an asthma attack, missing his daughter’s birthday party when she turned 30, and disappearing for days.
Finally, Gigi had had enough. “Herbie,” she said to him, “I’m not going to watch you die. If you continue this way, you are going to have to move out. I made some calls, and here are the numbers for some rehab places. But I’m not going to force you. You have to do this for yourself.”
Hancock got the message and booked himself into Hoag Memorial Hospital rehab services that night. But unlike other celebrities that go into rehab with the cameras rolling and flashes going off everywhere—no one knew, beside a handful of people.
“I never wanted anyone else to find out. And in fact, I never told another soul for years, until I decided to reveal my addiction and rehab in this book. I used a false name in rehab, and I don’t want to say too much about the program. But I want to give credit to the doctors, nurses, and staff at Hoag, because they took care of me with grace and discretion. I’m sure that some of them realized who I was, but nobody ever revealed it,” Hancock writes.
For the readers who knows little about the how of making music, and the changing ways its presentation exploded during the amazing last half of the 20th century-- much of what Hancock writes about in Possibilities will go right over their heads.
Still, there is much to learn from this book.