Herbie Hancock is among the top headliners at this year's Monterey Jazz Festival. He performs at 10:30 p.m. in the Arena. Here's our 2013 interview with Hancock, in which he discusses his fascination with technology, dating back to boyhood.
The first time I heard Herbie Hancock interviewed on the radio -- this was more than 40 years ago -- he waxed about James Brown's funk and Karlheinz Stockhausen's electronic music. One of the most influential pianists in the history of jazz, Hancock has a deep-seated fascination with technology. As a teenager, he studied electrical engineering at Grinnell College. While a member of Miles Davis' 1960s quintet, he began to experiment with electronic instruments -- and didn't hesitate to dive in when synthesizers came on the scene.
Now 73, Hancock will unveil new music and new software -- a system for triggering surround-sound effects with five iPads -- when he performs a sold-out solo concert Saturday at Bing Concert Hall to open the Stanford Jazz Festival.
We talked by phone about his life with music and gadgets.
Q Herbie, where does your fascination with technology come from? Can you trace it back to childhood? Were you a tinkerer as a kid?
A Funny you should ask. When I was a kid, I used to take apart clocks and watches, because I've always been curious and I always wondered how things work. So that's always been there; science has always been an interest of mine.
When I was 7, I started playing piano -- classical music -- and when I was 14, I started being interested in jazz. Well, I was 16 when I went to college, and my original major was electrical engineering. I changed my major at the end of my second year to music composition, and that's what I got my degree in. But my interest in science never went away, and it was only when synthesizers came on the scene that I was able to see a pathway for combining my two interests, which were music and science.
Q You took a lot of heat from a lot of people, including other musicians, for going so heavily into electronics.
A A lot of acoustic musicians were afraid. For me, it was great. I loved it. I understood the language. I knew what Ohm's resistance was. I got my first computer in 1979; it was an Apple II Plus. Let's see; how old was I? I was 39 then, and that was long before they had any software for any instruments. But I was one of the pioneering musicians who encouraged musicians to get into computers and technology, because I just had a feeling it was going to go that way.
Q I guess you were right.
A In more ways than I could ever dream. I never could have imagined that software companies would be the music industry -- iTunes, right?
Q Were your parents or siblings interested in technology?
AThis is all very much connected with my family. My brother Wayman used to work at IBM, years ago when they had punch cards, back in the early '60s. And my sister Jean, who's not with us anymore, she used to work at IBM as a programmer, and she had her own business as a systems analyst. Also my daughter Jessica is just like me. She's a techie. She's got that same DNA.
QLet's talk about your concert at Stanford. Explain the technology you're using?
A We're doing the concert in surround sound. I've got some software that I've been developing with a programmer; we're designing it to take advantage of more of a quadraphonic surround environment.
Q Will everyone at Bing Concert Hall hear the music in surround sound, no matter where they're seated? Like being in a very large home theater?
A That would be the ideal. Physically, that's a little more difficult. Because, how do you get every person to hear everything equally? I've been using five different iPads to do some of these things. See, I'm using acoustic piano, synthesizer and vocoder, and I've been using two computers, an iMac and a Mac mini. But I think we've boiled it down to one computer now. I also have what people call a keytar -- a portable keyboard -- so, I keep one of these iPads at the front of the stage. That way I can control things, when I come out from the piano keyboard (to play the keytar).
Here's the issue I have: Surround sound is something that we experience when we see movies. Many people in their home theaters now have surround. And the film industry has been evolving on the visual side. We're now up to 3D, and we've gone from the DVD to Blu-ray, and Blu-ray now also has 3D, and now there's also 4K for higher-resolution video.
But for sound, we've been listening to stereo since before CDs -- you know, with vinyl. When I first started recording, stereo was brand new. That's 50 years ago! So why are we confined to stereo? Why can't sound be designed to be heard in surround?
Stanford Jazz Festival
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Bing Concert Hall, Stanford University
Tickets: $15-$150; sold out. (Call 650-725-2787 to inquire about returned tickets.)
Also: More than 30 other shows through Aug. 10 at campus venues, with headliners including bassist Stanley Clarke; tap dancer Savion Glover; pianist Chucho Valdes; www.stanfordjazz.org. (Tickets generally range $15-$45.)