Trumpeter Miles Davis was a jazz giant with a bad reputation, acquiring nicknames such as “evil genius” and “the prince of darkness.” But Herbie Hancock thinks his old boss, a scowling curmudgeon who died in 1991, would be happy to know there’s an academic music program named for him.
“He would have loved it,” Hancock said from his offices in Los Angeles. “He might have said something otherwise — actually, he would be flattered. But he probably would say (imitating Davis’s whispery rasp), ‘So What?’”
Hancock, a keyboard player and jazz legend in his own right, will perform Feb. 12 at UNCG, home to the Miles Davis Jazz Studies Program. He will bring a full band to Greensboro and play music from throughout his long career.
“We take for granted his significance,” said Steve Haines, a jazz bassist and UNCG professor. “Mr. Hancock has influenced the way music sounds for all of us. It’s that far reaching.”
He made that impact by constantly evolving. Hancock started out playing classical piano, performing a Mozart concerto with his hometown Chicago Symphony Orchestra when he was 11 years old. He turned to jazz in high school in the 1950s, drawing inspiration from Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans, who played on Davis’s landmark “Kind of Blue” album in 1959.
Hancock released his debut album in 1962, the first in a series of records for the legendary Blue Note label. He joined Davis’s second great quintet the following year. That gig would continue for the next five years and introduce Hancock to electric keyboards — including the Fender Rhodes piano, which he would later play on Stevie Wonder’s classic 1976 album “Songs in the Key of Life.”
Davis and Hancock parted ways in 1968, after which Hancock began to explore R&B and other styles, including free-form electronic jazz beginning with the “Mwandishi” album in 1971. After a couple of years in that vein, he started getting into the funk of James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone.
“The band I had before was a very avant garde band,” he said. “But guess who I was listening to? I said, ‘Well, why not make a record that comes from that?’ I was kind of tired of what I call ‘untethered’ music.”
Hancock formed a new band and released an album called “Head Hunters” in 1973.
“I wanted to play something that was more earthy, because I hadn’t done it before,” he said. “And I am from Chicago — Chicago’s a blues town.”
His newly funky approach paid off handsomely: “Head Hunters” became the best-selling jazz album up to that time, and Hancock went from playing auditoriums to coliseums. The album includes “Chameleon,” which clocks in at almost 16 minutes. An array of artists have covered the song, from jazz veterans Buddy Rich and Stanley Jordan to jam bands such as Gov’t Mule and Umphrey’s McGee.
Did Hancock have any idea how popular his new direction would be?
“Not a clue,” he said, chuckling.
He continued in a commercial vein over the next few records while also creating movie soundtracks, including “Death Wish” in 1974. V.S.O.P, a quintet that included several fellow members of Davis’s ’60s quintet (Wayne Shorter on sax, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums), recorded a series of albums in the late ’70s.
Hancock scored hit singles in England in the late ’70s, toured with Wynton and Branford Marsalis at the beginning of their careers, and played on recording sessions by everyone from Liza Minnelli to the Scottish rock band Simple Minds.
His most visible moment in the public eye came in 1983 with his hit single “Rockit,” which earned him the first of 14 Grammys to date. The song combined jazz with hip-hop, a genre then just beginning to break into the spotlight. The “Rockit” video, which juxtaposed Hancock with a home full of robots, became an MTV staple.
In the decades since, Hancock has continued to record and perform in a variety of styles, including electronic music, standards, acid jazz and rock. His 2007 tribute to Joni Mitchell, “River: The Joni Letters,” won Grammys for both Album of the Year and Best Contemporary Jazz Album.
He performed and acted in the movie “’Round Midnight,” recorded more film soundtracks and teamed up with several other veterans of Davis’s bands to record the Grammy-winning “A Tribute to Miles” in 1994. He received a Kennedy Center Honor in 2013 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016.
The academic world has honored Hancock, as well. He has taught at Harvard and UCLA and received honorary degrees from several institutions, including the Berklee College of Music. In November the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, with operations in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, became the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz. (Relatives of the Rocky Mount-born Monk had requested a name change.)
Hancock has served as chairman of the institute’s board for 15 years and seen how jazz education can bolster young people’s sense of self-worth.
“You’re sharing creativity with other people, so you’re learning how to work in teams,” Hancock said. “These are things that can be applied to any pursuit in life — and to life itself.”
Hancock is recording a new album with contributions from jazz and hip-hop artists, including Wayne Shorter, Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg. Terrace Martin, who has worked with Lamar, Snoop Dogg and others, is producing the album and will also perform with Hancock at UNCG, playing alto sax, keyboards and vocoder.
The concert will pull together music from Hancock’s earliest records to works in progress.
“We have a way of putting together modules, and some of these modules are based on some things I’ve done before, and some are based on some newer things that I haven’t recorded yet,” he said.
Before the concert Hancock will conduct a question-and-answer session with students from 3 to 4 p.m. in the UNCG Recital Hall.
“His visit to campus is personally significant because Miles Davis held Mr. Hancock in such high esteem,” Haines said. “They made seminal music together, and for students to ask him questions, particularly in the Miles Davis Jazz Studies Program, is very special.”