Mixdown Monthly Beat Magazine


Herbie Hancock: The New Standard

Watermelon Man

Andrián Pertout speaks with Herbie Hancock from New York about Mongo Santamaria, the Headhunters and his film scoring career.

In 1963 Herbie Hancock's tune 'Watermelon Man', which incidentally had been previously released on his first 'Blue Note' album 'Takin' Off', was a pop Latin jazz hit for Mongo Santamaria. Mongo began his association with Herbie in the sixties, and is an Afro-Cuban master drummer who pioneered many Latin jazz styles. Herbie Hancock's next commercially memorable period came via the 'Headhunters' album released in 1973, which yielded the hit 'Chameleon', and truly established him as an innovator of jazz and funk fusion. He continued to have a celebrated career, winning an Oscar in 1986 for his 'Round Midnight' soundtrack. In the nineties, he returns to the limelight with 'The New Standard', a selection of contemporary interpretations of pop and jazz pieces.

Your association with Latin master Mongo Santamaria led to the commercial success of 'Watermelon Man'. How did this rhythmic style influence your work?

HH: "How did his rhythmic style?"

Ummm, or this kind of Latin feel that you got into in that period.

HH: "Oh, see, I wrote the song. I recorded the song before I even... I recorded it first, and I had not even met Mongo Santamaria at that time."

Right! Did you write it in that Latin feel?

HH: "No! No, it was just a funky jazz tune. It's on my very first album, which was called 'Takin' Off', and it doesn't have anything Latin on it. I mean, there's no percussion on it. There's just jazz songs, there's upright bass, trumpet, and tenor saxophone, and piano of course, that's it. I never even heard it as a Latin piece at all, and what happened was that after my record was out, and actually it was already on the charts in America, and Mongo Santamaria actually called, or he had these people call, to see if I could work with him for a weekend, because his previous piano player was quitting. I guess quitting on a Thursday, and his new piano player wasn't coming in till Monday, and he had three nights of work with no piano player. And I told him, I said, 'Well, I've never played with a Latin group before, I don't know how to play Latin piano', and he said, 'OK, for three days, we can live with it, we'll show you some basic things, and you'll be fine.' Which they did, so I couldn't do anything really fancy, but it was kind of a Latin jazz group, so I could improvise of course. But the Montunos I didn't know much about, but they showed me some basic things to do.

"Anyway, the third day, that Sunday, we were actually playing in the Bronx, and I was living in the Bronx at the time. Donald Byrd, trumpet player, was my room mate, and he came. He was sort of like my older surrogate brother, more or less, you know. He came to this supper club to see me, working with Mongo, he wanted to see how I was doing. Anyway, during one of the intermissions, Donald had a conversation with Mongo something about, 'What are the examples of the common thread between Afro-Cuban or Afro-Latin music and African-American jazz?' And Mongo said he hadn't really heard a thing that really links it together, he was still searching for it. And I wasn't paying that much attention to that conversation, it was a little to heavy for me at the time (chuckles). But then all of a sudden Donald Byrd says, 'Herbie, why don't play Watermelon Man for Mongo?', and I'm thinking, 'What does that have to do with the conversation that they're talking about?' I thought it was a little funky jazz tune. So I started playing it, and then Mongo, he got up and he said, 'Keep playing it!' And he went on the stage, and started playing his congas, and it fit like a glove fits on a hand, it just fit perfectly. And then one by one the other musicians got up and started playing the tune. The bass player looked at my left hand for the bass line, and he learned that, and he started playing it, and then the saxophone player, the trumpet player, pretty soon the whole band playing it. And also, little by little the audience was getting up from their tables, and they all got on the dance floor. Pretty soon the dance floor was filled with people, laughing and shrieking, and having a great time, and they were saying, 'This is a hit! This is fantastic!' It was like a movie! So after that, Mongo said, 'Can I record this?', I said, 'By all means.' And he recorded it, and it became a big hit. That's how it happened."

The period in the seventies with Headhunters established you an innovator of jazz and funk fusion. How did you formulate this idea?

HH: "The band I had before the Headhunters band, that's the band you're talking about. Now we call it the NYDC band, that previous band. I did about three or four records with that band, well... three and half records sort of. Anyway (chuckles), I'm not gonna go into details about that (laughs). The first record was 'Fat Albert Rotunda', so it didn't really fit with the other ones, you know, that's why I say that, and the personnel wasn't exactly the same. But I did 'Mwandishi', I did 'Crossing', and I did one called 'Sextant'. That band was sort of my avant-garde period in jazz, and it reached a peak somewhere in like '72 I would say. Actually, it had different peaks, it had a big peak in the seventies, it had peaks and valleys, but in general everything was moving forward. And at a certain point, my feeling was we had gone as far as we could. I just didn't feel there was any more development that I was capable of producing. Not that there wasn't more territory, it's just, I didn't have the tools to go any further with that, and things started going really downhill. I wasn't having fun anymore, and I thought there was something missing, and so by then, it's now '73, I broke up that band.

"I had been practising Buddhism since 1972, so one day I was chanting, because I didn't know what I wanted to do. I knew that I didn't want to play the same kind of music that I had been playing, but I didn't know what I wanted to do. So anyway, one day I was sitting there chanting, and all of a sudden the idea came to me, about what was missing. I felt like I had been so busy soaring above the earth and the clouds that I had sort of forgotten about planting myself in the roots, and I felt like I needed to re-establish these kind of roots, and not leave anything behind. It's as if though I'd cut the roots off. Since I liked people like Sly Stone and James Brown anyway, even when I'd been playing avant-garde stuff, I was listening to James Brown and Sly Stone, among other people. So I decided to put some people together that was comfortable in both the kind of rhythm and blues camp and jazz. Those were the guys in the 'Headhunters'. I kept one guy from a previous band, Bennie Maupin, and it was mainly because I knew that I was getting into an area where the element of entertainment played a bigger role than it does in jazz. By that I mean, the element of staging a show is more prevalent, it's less prevalent in jazz. Jazz is purely about just the music, whereas any of the areas of rock n' roll, because it's a popular area, has in many cases show involved. And I knew that the saxophonist played not only a lot of different instruments that have a lot of different colours, he played flute, and he played bass clarinet, and so forth, and the saxophones. But also, he was very animated on stage, and I needed that, 'cause I was gonna try this new area. Anyway, so we got together, and what I was trying to do was make a kind of a funk album. I wasn't trying to make a jazz record, but during our rehearsals, and putting the things together, it started to take on it's own form. And I liked the form it was taking, so I said, 'Well, let's just go with the flow, and let's see where it takes us.' Where it took us is the record Headhunters."

At this time you also embarked on some major film scores, such as Thrust, Manchild and Death Wish, leading ultimately to an Oscar for the Round Midnight soundtrack. Did your writing ability come naturally for you or did you go through some formal training?

HH: "Oh, for doing movie scores? Well, I went to college, and I got a Bachelor of Arts degree and music composition. But I went to a liberal arts college, I didn't go to a music school, but they had music courses, but they weren't really extensive courses. Some colleges, if you take, there's this course called 'Instrumental Techniques', and it's where you learn the ranges of the instruments and how they're played, and so forth. Well, in many schools, that's a two year course. In Louis Arts College, the one I went to, it's only a one semester course. So I didn't have any extensive training in those areas, but by the time I did movie scores I had already been doing a lot of studio work, and had played on a lot of television commercials, and radio spots, just as a side man. And I was used to listening to orchestras, because I had done that as a kid, and also arranged for a big band when I was at college, and I had touched on those elements in my records on 'Blue Note', things like 'The Prisoner' and 'Speak like a child'. But there were no examples of my string writing, until... the second film score I did was in 1973. Not that many people knew about this film, it was called 'The Spook who Sat by the Door', but I did get a chance to write for strings, and so forth. But the first film I did was called 'Blow Up', Antonioni directed it, anyway, that was a whole different ball game in many ways than to writing 'Death Wish'. With 'Death Wish' I actually had to write cues and catch action, make certain hits, and use formulas and other to make things synchronize with the action, and also, I really arranged for a fuller orchestra.

"I didn't have any real formal training, the way you think of as formal training for that. I had written music for television commercials, not that long after I had done 'Blow-Up', as a matter of fact. And so I did learn to use the system that you have to use, certain mathematics to figure out on what beat this bomb goes off, or on what beat there's a surprised look on this character's face. So I had to learn timings, and how to do that technique. I had that kind of preparation, but I hadn't really had a lot of orchestration. Hold it one second please!" (A phone rings in the background, and I begin to get a sense of my interview coming to a close.) "... I hadn't had a lot of orchestration, but I felt like I had had so much ear training, being in that environment, I just had the balls to feel like I could do it, and I did it. Actually, after I did 'Death Wish' I wanted to study orchestration and film score writing with a guy here in LA, and when I went to him he said, 'Ha, are you kidding?', he said, 'I saw Death Wish!' He said, 'You already know how to do this stuff, what are you talking about!' You know, (chuckles). A guy named Bill Hagen, who is like the guy that you go to for film scoring, you know, learning how to do that. But I said, 'No, I wanna get it down so I know exactly what I'm doing, and I don't have to look it up in a book!' I was looking at text books, I had these books, 'cause I had forgotten a lot of things that I'd learnt at school. Anyway, I did it, and I think it worked out OK."


The first part of this interview was published in Mixdown Monthly issue #31, November 1996. In this article he discussed his beginnings, his collaboration with Miles Davis in the 60s, his conversion to Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism, as well as his mainstream success with Future Shock's 'Rockit' in the 80s.

'Mixdown' Monthly ~ Issue #36, April 9, 1997


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Unauthorized reproduction and copying of this page is prohibited by law. Copyright © 1998 by Andrián Pertout.

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