Q&A: Legendary jazz pianist Herbie Hancock will electrify Montreal audiences, again

Hancock, who will play The Montreal Jazz Festival at Place des Arts on July 2 with Thundercat (another funky rule-breaker) spoke with CBC’s Duke Eatmon from his home in Los Angeles.

Hancock spoke with CBC's Duke Eatmon about his storied career and upcoming show

Herbie Hancock will play the Montreal International Jazz Festival July 2 with Thundercat at Place des Arts. (Gus Ruelas/Reuters)

Legendary jazz pianist Herbie Hancock has been breaking music's sacred rules for decades, in several different genres.

Ironically, on his musical journey, Hancock has created new rules to replace the very ones that he's broken.

He was the last man tied to Miles Davis during his classic era and the bridge in hip hop from Grandmixer D.ST. to Snoop Dogg.

But Hancock felt that wasn't enough, going on to claim Canada's own Joni Mitchell musically in a way few ever thought possible.

​Hancock won the 2008 Grammy Award for album of the year for River – The Joni Letters, a collection of Joni Mitchell classics reworked with jazz arrangements.

Joni Mitchell and Herbie Hancock perform in Los Angeles in March 2008. (Mark Mainz/AP)

He's played The Montreal Jazz Festival several times throughout his long career, in several incarnations — performing solo and in a quintet and everything in between.

Hancock, who will play the festival at Place des Arts on July 2 with Thundercat (another funky rule-breaker) spoke with CBC's Duke Eatmon from his home in Los Angeles.

​This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


On performing in Montreal

I always remember the excitement that's in Montreal surrounding the Jazz Festival, and you can feel it on the streets. You can feel it inside the venues. At least they were in the past. It almost feels like the whole city is into jazz for those few days.

On learning from Miles Davis

One of the main things is that Miles encouraged his musicians to explore and to try things that we haven't tried before. So that gave us so much freedom to invent and create new stuff ... in order to learn something new. We didn't know how it was going to work, and that's such a great encouragement. It leaves this wide open vista for being able to expand and grow and create without boundaries.

Legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, pictured here in 1959, played in a quintet with Herbie Hancock for years. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images )

On finding his love for jazz

I didn't really like jazz until I was 14. I listened to classical music, and rhythm and blues before that. When I got a lot of criticism from critics about doing The HeadHunters record (1973) — like I was selling out. Nope. I was expressing where I came from.

On his contributions to hip hop

For the most part I found that the hip-hop musicians and artists themselves — they know 'cause they tell me — they would not even be doing what they're doing if it had not been for Rockit (1983). Snoop Dog told me that. Snoop Dog actually credited me with being a founder of hip hop.


On Joni Mitchell

What I found out after knowing Joni from working on her records and becoming a friend of hers is that she was listening to jazz when she was a pre-teen. That's what she liked, is jazz singers first, before she got into folk music and rock.

If you look at many of the bands that she had later on, she had people like Michael Brecker on tenor saxophone and Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny. I mean, she had jazz musicians backing her up. She's very comfortable in a jazz atmosphere. That's her roots. That's where she comes from.

The only reason she got into folk music was because she wrote poetry, she thought it would be a good way, an easy way for her to present her poetry which is through folk music.


Herbie Hancock will play the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier with Thundercat July 2 as part of the Montreal International Jazz Festival.

About the Author

Duke Eatmon

Duke Eatmon is the regular music columnist on CBC Montreal's afternoon radio show, Homerun.

With files from CBC's Homerun