Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – The Music Column with William Price King – American jazz pianist, keyboardist, composer, band leader and actor, Herbie Hancock.

This week William Price King shares just some of the music by jazz pianist, keyboardist, composer, band leader and actor, Herbie Hancock.

Herbie Hancock was born in Chicago to Wayman and Winnie Hancock. He studied classical music at the Hyde Park Academy and was considered a child prodigy at the age of seven. At age 11 he performed the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 26 in D. Major (Coronation) at a young people’s concert with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Despite not receiving any formal jazz training during his teen years he developed his ear and sense of harmony and was influenced by the vocal group The Hi-Lo’s.. He said:

…by the time I actually heard the Hi-Lo’s, I started picking that stuff out; my ear was happening. I could hear stuff and that’s when I really learned some much farther-out voicings – like the harmonies I used on Speak Like a Child – just being able to do that. I really got that from Clare Fischer’s arrangements for the Hi-Lo’s. Clare Fischer was a major influence on my harmonic concept…he and Bill Evans, and Ravel and Gil Evans, finally. You know, that’s where it came from.”

In 1960 he heart blind jazz pianist Chris Anderson play just the one time and begged him to take him as a student and refers to him as his harmonic guru. Herbie began working with Donald Byrd, jazz and rhythm & blues trumpeter and vocalist, taking courses at Roosevelt University at the same time. Byrd suggested that Herbir study composition with Vittorio Giannini,a neoromantic American composer of operas, songs, symphonies, and band works, which he did in 1960.

Having recorded his first album Takin’ Off for Blue Note Records in 1962, he caught the attention of the legendary Miles Davis who was assembling a new band. And in 1963 he joined Miles Davis and the Second Great Quintet and played with them until 1968. The start to a legendary career.

“Watermelon Man” was composed by Herbie Hancock for his debut album, “Takin’ Off” in 1962, and featured Freddie Hubbard on trumpet and Dexter Gordon on tenor saxophone. The idea of this song came from Hancock’s childhood as he heard the cry of the “watermelon man” * peddling fruit on the street. The song has a strong blues-based melody and structure with just enough dissonance to highlight the racism and poverty of the period. Mongo Santamaria did a Latin cover version of the song which peaked at #10 on the Pop charts and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998.

* Soon after winning emancipation from slavery, many African Americans sold watermelons in order to make a living outside the plantation system. Southern whites, threatened by blacks’ newfound freedom, responded by making the fruit a symbol of black people’s perceived uncleanliness, laziness, childishness, and unwanted public presence. This racist trope then exploded in American popular culture, becoming so pervasive that its historical origin became obscure.

“Maiden Voyage”, recorded in 1965 on the Blue Note label, is a concept album with an oceanic atmosphere featuring Freddie Hubbard on trumpet and George Coleman on tenor sax, with help from Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums. Most of the tracks on this album refer either to marine biology or the sea. Critics claim that Hancock reached the perfect balance between lyrical jazz and hard bop with this recording, making it one of his most creative and finest albums. The Penguin Guide to Jazz designated the album as part of its Core Collection and gave it a four star rating, calling it ‘a colossal achievement from a man still just 24 years old.’ In 1999 “Maiden Voyage” received the Grammy Hall of Fame Award.

“Ostinato (Suite for Angela)”, from the 1971 album “Mwandishi” recorded in a single session on New Year’s Eve, was written as a tribute to political activist Angela Davis, and expresses Herbie Hancock’s desire to return to his cultural roots and the politics of the black nationalism movement. This piece is less melodic than most of Hancock’s work, but is rich with energetic exchange coming from the musicians during the recording.

“Ostinato” simply means that a short musical phrase is being repeated. In this case it is more like a trance, a groove, or a message that is not only repeated but intensified, portraying Angela Davis as strong, eloquent, fearless, and infinite. “Mwandishi” is a Swahili name that Hancock adopted in the late ‘60s. Each of the members of the sextet who recorded this album adopted a Swahili name: Buster Williams chose Mchezaji, Billy Hart chose Jabari, Eddie Henderson chose Mganga, Bennie Maupin chose Mwile, Julian Priester chose Pepo Mtoto, and Leone Chancler chose Ndugu.

Chameleon” was composed in 1974 in collaboration with Bennie Maupin, Paul Jackson, and Harvey Mason for the album “Head Hunters” using a stereo wonky* bass line set to a funk beat. The song is built on a two-chord vamp,* and Hancock’s usage of the guitar as melody-percussion became one of jazz’s defining moments, bringing him into the vanguard of jazz fusion. Hancock used funky, and gritty rhythms firmly planted in soul, and R&B, over which he soloed on electric synthesizers with all of the sensibilities of jazz improvisation.

“Chameleon” was Hancock’s first mainstream hit, attracting a huge number of rock, pop, and R&B fans. Jazz purists, however, rejected Hancock’s crossing over as a compromise of his artistic integrity for commercial success. The song peaked at #35 on the RPM Canadian Singles Chart and the album “Head Hunters” peaked at #13 on Billboard’s Top 200 and became the first jazz album to reach platinum status.

*Wonky – Wonky is a subgenre of electronic music known primarily for its off-kilter or “unstable” beats, as well as its eclectic blend of genres including hip-hop, electro-funk, and jazz fusion.

* Vamp – A vamp is a repeating musical figure, like a guitar riff. In jazz, Latin jazz, and musical theater it’s often given for the accompaniment so that they can repeat as necessary during intros or solos.

“Rockit” was composed by Herbie Hancock and Bill Laswell for the 1983 album “Future Shock”. This was a huge hit for Hancock, driven by its deejay scratch* style coming from hip-hop (which was underground at the time) and its outstanding music video which was created by Godley & Creme. Rockit undeniably helped pave the way for the mainstream acceptance of hip-hop. This song, which features scratching and other turntablist* techniques, won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Instrumental Performance in 1993 and five MTV Awards in 1984. Hip-hop and jazz have merged into the electronical jazz of today.

*Scratch – Scratching is a technique of moving a vinyl record back and forth on a turntable to produce percussive or rhythmic sounds.

*Turntabalist – Turntablism is the art of manipulating sounds and creating new music, sound effects, mixes and other creative sounds and beats, typically by using two or more turntables and a cross fader-equipped DJ mixer

Some of the honors and achievements Herbie Hancock has accumulated over his long career.

  • On June 5, 2010 he received an Alumni Award from his alma mater, Grinnell College.
  • On July 22, 2011, at a ceremony in Paris, he was named UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for the promotion of Intercultural Dialogue.
  • In 2013 Hancock joined the University of California, Los Angeles faculty as a professor in the UCLA music department where he will teach jazz music..
  • On December 8, 2013 he was given the Kennedy Center Honors Award for achievement in the performing arts with artists like Snoop Dogg and Mixmaster Mike from the Beastie Boys performing his music.
  • Hancock was the 2014 Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University. Holders of the chair deliver a series of six lectures on poetry, “The Norton Lectures”, poetry being “interpreted in the broadest sense, including all poetic expression in language, music, or fine arts.” Previous Norton lecturers include musicians Leonard Bernstein, Igor Stravinsky and John Cage. Hancock’s theme was “The Ethics of Jazz.”
  • On May 19, 2018, Hancock received an honorary degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Buy the music of Herbie Hancock:

To read more about Herbie Hancock and his career:

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William Price King is an American jazz singer, crooner, and composer.

His interest in music began at an early age when he studied piano and clarinet in high school. At Morehouse College in Atlanta where he grew up, he sang in the Glee Club and studied classical music. After graduation he went off to the Yale School of Music where he earned a Masters degree. From there he journeyed to New York where he created a jazz trio ‘Au Naturel’ which performed in some of the hottest venues in Manhattan including gigs on Broadway and the famous ‘Rainbow Room.’ These gigs opened doors for performances in Montreal and a European tour.

While touring Europe he met a lovely French lady, Jeanne Maïstre, who, a year later became his wife. King left the group ‘Au Naturel’ and settled in the south of France where he started a new life on the French Riviera, opening his own music school – the “Price King Ecole Internationale de Chant.” He has had the pleasure over the years of seeing many of his students excel as singers on a professional level, and some going on to become national celebrities. He continues to coach young singers today, in his spare time.

His debut jazz album was entitled “Home,” and was a collection of contemporary compositions he composed, with lyrics written by his wife Jeanne King. His second album was a Duo (Voice and Guitar) with Eric Sempé on the guitar. This album included original songs as well as well known standards from contemporary jazz and pop artists. The “King-Sempé” duo toured France and thrilled audiences for more than three years before going their separate ways. King has formed a new duo with French/Greek guitarist Manolis, and is now exploring new ideas, in a smooth jazz/soul/folk direction.

In addition to singing and composing, King has been collaborating with author Sally Cronin over the past few years on her blog “Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life,” with the series “A Man And His Music – Jazz, Contemporary, Classical, and Legends” and now, the “William Price King Music Column.” Working with author Sally Cronin has been an exhilarating experience in many ways and has brought a new dimension to King’s creative life. King has also created a micro blog, “Improvisation,” which features and introduces mostly jazz artists from across the jazz spectrum who have made considerable contributions in the world of jazz; and also artwork from painters who have made their mark in the world of art. This micro blog can be found on Tumblr.

His vocal mentors are two of the greatest giants in jazz, Nat King Cole and Mel Tormé. King has a distinctive wide-ranging voice which displays a remarkable technical facility and emotional depth.

William Price King on Tumblr – IMPROVISATION

Connect with William

Regular Venue 

You can find all of the Music Column series in this directory:

As always we would love to receive your feedback.. thanks Sally and William

13 thoughts on “Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – The Music Column with William Price King – American jazz pianist, keyboardist, composer, band leader and actor, Herbie Hancock.

  1. Thanks for this fascinating post on Herbie Hancock, William. I thought this was a reblog because I remember reading one of your articles on Herbie. Perhaps it was just a mention in collaboration with someone else? Regardless, I enjoyed listening to the Watermelon Man and the story behind the derogatory name. Also, whenever I hear Herbie’s name, the first thing that comes to mind is the theme for Beverley Hills Cop, LOL 🙂 ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am very happy that you enjoyed our post on Herbie Hancock. When I was a child we could not eat watermelon in the front yard and I never understood why at the time. Doing this post brought up the kind of memories one would rather forget. Beverly Hills Cop is much more fun, going down memory lane. Take good care of you and many thanks for checking us out. All the best to you. Hugs


    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – Weekly Round Up -Herbie Hancock, Gems from Your Archives and Talkative Parrots. | Smorgasbord Blog Magazine

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