When he was 11 he performed a Mozart piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In his 20s he was in a Miles Davis quintet widely regarded as one of the great small groups in jazz history. He’s an Oscar-winning film composer and the first jazz instrumentalist in four decades to win the Grammy Award for album of the year.
He’s also a crosser of musical boundaries who has been a target of jazz critics and jazz purists ever since he combined electronic instruments and funk grooves on the hit 1973 album “Head Hunters.”
Herbie Hancock has led a fascinating life. And the story of that life makes a fascinating book.
What is most impressive about Hancock’s autobiography, “Possibilities,” is his facility — his co-author, Lisa Dickey, surely deserves some of the credit — for writing about music in a way that is neither too technical for the musically illiterate nor too dumbed-down for the knowledgeable. This is clear from the first page, when Hancock recalls a mid-1960s concert at which, while accompanying a Miles Davis trumpet solo, he plays a wrong chord and Davis, rather than being thrown, plays “some notes that somehow, miraculously, make my chord sound right.”
In addition to neatly illustrating both the perils and the delights of improvisation, Hancock treats this story, to which he circles back at the end of the book, as a life lesson: “Jazz is about being in the moment, at every moment. It’s about trusting yourself to respond on the fly. If you can allow yourself to do that, you never stop exploring, you never stop learning, in music or in life.”
Many of Hancock’s other stories also serve a dual purpose. His account of how he came to write one of his most famous compositions, the hypnotic “Maiden Voyage,” is both an intimate look at the creative process (“Something in my head told me to stop trying so hard and just listen to what the song was telling me”) and an expression of gratitude to his girlfriend, Gigi Meixner, who as he tells it threw him out of bed to force him to finish writing the song.
She later became, and remains, his wife, and Hancock’s long-lasting marriage figures prominently in “Possibilities.” So does his faith. He has been a practitioner of Nichiren Buddhism since the early 1970s, chanting “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo” to help him achieve his life goals, and I imagine that even the most skeptical reader will be impressed by the sincerity of his belief.
It was while chanting, he writes, that he decided to break up his group Mwandishi, which specialized in a brand of high-wire collective improvisation that Hancock himself repeatedly characterizes as “far out,” and form a funk band: “I saw an image of me sitting with Sly Stone’s band,” followed by an image of Sly Stone playing with his band, and — after a brief internal struggle with “the same old musical elitism I had been fighting against” — he made his move.
It’s easy to dismiss Hancock’s turn to funk — or, as the new band’s sound evolved, to a “gray area between jazz and funk” — as motivated simply by the desire for a hit record. Many have. And “Head Hunters” did indeed go on to sell more copies than not just any Herbie Hancock album, but any album by any jazz artist, had sold before. He insists his critics have it wrong:
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“How could I possibly have known our jazz-funk experiment would be that popular? There was no guarantee I’d gain any listeners at all — and there was a real risk that I’d lose part of the audience I already had!” (Full disclosure: I had some dealings with Hancock when I was briefly a CBS Records publicist in the post-“Head Hunters” years. I can testify only that he was happy when his records sold well.)
Critical backlash was an inconvenience Hancock learned to shake off — it got worse in 1983, when he entered the realm of hip-hop with his next monster hit, “Rockit” — and he unapologetically celebrates every musical direction he has pursued. He also celebrates his longtime fascination with electronics, even while acknowledging that there are those who find it anathema to the jazz tradition. He writes about synthesizers and vocoders with the endearing geekiness of the engineering major he once was at a small Midwestern college.
Hancock treats every aspect of his life with self-awareness and candor, including his drug use. It’s not surprising to learn that he was dabbling in LSD before and during the “far-out” Mwandishi years, or even that he once dropped acid before a performance. (“I don’t remember all that much about the gig,” he writes, “but I do remember that we played one song for nearly an hour before we even found our way to the melody.”) It issurprising to learn that he was, for many years, a secret crack smoker.
If you find the idea of Herbie Hancock as a crack addict at odds with the image of Herbie Hancock as a serious, spiritually centered artist, rest assured that so does he. “My Buddhist practice had made me more empathetic and more compassionate,” he writes, but “doing crack brought out the exact opposite in me.” He eventually entered rehab, he writes, and is now drug- and alcohol-free.
I don’t know if there’s a lesson to be learned from this particular story, other than “Nobody’s perfect,” or maybe “Don’t do what I did.” But I admire Hancock for telling it.
George Benson’s “Benson: The Autobiography” is, as its generic title suggests, not quite the gripping read that “Possibilities” is. That’s largely because, while Benson’s career roughly parallels Hancock’s — he too was a critically praised jazzman who became a critically slammed pop star, and he too has some choice words for his critics — his career path has always been far more linear; if Hancock is primarily an explorer, Benson is primarily an entertainer. It’s also because Benson is far less forthcoming about the nonmusical aspects of his life.
Early on he notes that when he was 19, just before he went on the road to play guitar with the organist Brother Jack McDuff, he got in trouble with the law for having “roughed up” his wife. The wife is never named, nor is the infant son who was seriously ill at the time, and with the exception of a few passing and equally vague later references to a wife and a family, his personal life goes pretty much unmentioned. That’s his prerogative, but it makes for a somewhat one-dimensional narrative.
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Happily, Benson is as voluble about music as Hancock is, if more visceral: “I’d hit a groove, and the people went, ‘Mmm hmm.’ Then I’d throw in a bit of rhythm, and the people went, ‘Yeah, that’s right.’ Then I’d play eight or 12 bars of fast lines, and the people went, ‘Go, George, go!’ Then I’d finish it up with a blues lick, and the people went, ‘Yeeeeeaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh!’ ”
Benson and his co-author, Alan Goldsher, relate with warmth and wit the process by which a pre-teenage crooner who accompanied himself on ukulele became “an R & B guitar player who knew a little something about jazz,” then one of the great jazz guitarists, and finally a bona fide superstar better known for his singing than for his playing. Along the way there are affectionate and revealing glimpses of the likes of Benny Goodman (who also has a bit part in “Possibilities”); Wes Montgomery, Benson’s friend, fellow guitarist and acknowledged inspiration; and Miles Davis, because no jazz musician’s autobiography is complete without a Miles Davis story — and although Benson worked with him only once, briefly, in the recording studio, he managed to get a priceless story out of the experience.
The book virtually stops not long after Benson becomes world famous; he rushes from the success of his 1980 album, “Give Me the Night,” to the present in just a few pages. That’s all right with me. His stories about his scuffling early days and his subsequent rise to the top are more entertaining than a long litany of “And then I recorded” would have been. Struggle is usually more entertaining than success, and the best part about George Benson’s struggle is that it had a happy ending.
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