A look at the life of legendary piano man, Herbie Hancock

First Published Mar 11, 2015 in Burning Spear
Norman Otis Richmond, aka Jalali


I am looking forward to reading pianist Herbie Hancock’s memoir, “Possibilities.” Hancock has always intrigued me–not just his music but his political/cultural views.

Of course, I loved Hancock who joined saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams to be a part of the Miles Davis band in the 1960s.

Hancock was only 23 years of age at that time. I loved “Maiden Voyage” which he recorded with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, saxophonist George Coleman, bassist Ron Carter and his young buddy drummer Tony Williams in 1965.

One of the first interviews I ever conducted was with Hancock in Toronto, Canada. I will admit I was intimidated by the thought of interviewing him.

I was not intimidated by him as a man but his image as an icon in the music world called jazz. This interview had me on my toes.At that time Hancock was only playing straight ahead jazz.

This was pre-fusion, or as some call it con-fusion. I found him, however, to be very humble, down to earth and easy to talk to. He put me at ease immediately.

Addicted to crack cocaine

I was shocked when Hancock revealed that he had overcome an addiction to crack cocaine. I found this hard to believe. It didn’t match my image of “Hancock.” He confessed to CBC radio Q’s guest hostTom Power that he had a bout with crack.

Power asked Hancock, how come he revealed that he overcame an addiction to crack cocaine – why reveal it now? “It was my innate curiosity which has served well in practically every other case but this time — curiosity killed the cat.”

He said he tried it once and said, “Never again.” He, however, eventually got hooked. He said his family and friends helped him go into rehab to kick the habit and encouraged him to write about it in his memoirs.

He continued by stating he was in denial. “But being in denial never works—for good. And I started to realize, what was I thinking? I am a Buddhist. A great part of Buddhism is about taking whatever the circumstances are and finding a way to create value with these circumstances.

So I said here is an opportunity to share my story, to share my victory with other people who also may be struggling with some kind of addiction or some kind of challenge in their lives and encourage them with my victory—I won and you can too.”

African name

Like many African musicians born in the United States, Hancock changed his name during the early 70s. He took the name Mwandishi, which means writer in Swahili.

He points out that Mtume is also from one of Miles Davis’ aggregations. Mtume hit it big with a group named after him. The group’s smash hit called “Juicy Fruit” was later sampled by Biggie Smalls.

Mtume is the son of saxophonist Jimmy Heath. Mtume approached them and criticized them for still having slave-names

. Hancock became Mwandishi, bassist Buster Williams became Mchezaji, drummer Billy Hart became Jabali, trumpeter Eddie Henderson became Mganga, Bernie Maupin who played saxophone, flute and bass clarinet became Mwile, and trombonist Julian Priester became Pepo Mtoto. Mtume’s uncle, Albert “Tootie” Heath, was part of Mwandishi band at that time.

South Africa

He supported the anti-apartheid forces in South Africa from the very beginning and joined Artists United against Apartheid. Hancock joined Miles Davis, Ron Carter, Darlene Love, George Clinton, Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin and others on the project, “Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City” which was organized by Steven Van Zandt and Arthur Bakerin 1985.


During a press conference at the world famous Massey Hall, I spoke with Hancock about Cuba. Cuban trumpet player Arturo Sandoval said he was forced to join the Cuban Communist Party and he wasn’t allowed on Cuban television.

Hancock stated he saw Sandoval on Cuban televisionwhen he visited Cuba. Sandoval is still on a crusade against Cuba. Max Roach told me that Sandoval had approached him pushing this line.

Funny Moment from Herbie

One of the funniest moments I remember about Hancock came while I was listening to him being interviewed by a “hip” Euro-Canadian radio personality. This hip cat asked Hancock what his next project was.

Hancock said he was working on a soundtrack for the film “The Spook Who Set By The Door.” The hip cat shot back, “starring Vincent Price?”

Hancock laughed and said, “No, a different kind of spook,” and left it there. “The Spook Who Set by the Door” is Sam Greenlee’s classic novel about an African who is trained to be a CIA agent, but recruits young Africans to fight their oppressors.

It became a film directed by Ivan Dixon. The film was sabotaged by the powers-that-be in Hollywood. I encourage today’s youth to see this film, listen to Hancock’s music and read his book.


Norman (Otis) Richmond, aka Jalali, was born in Arcadia, Louisiana, and grew up in Los Angeles. He left Los Angles after refusing to fight in Vietnam because he felt that, like the Vietnamese, Africans in the United States were colonial subjects.

Richmond is currently working as a producer/host of Saturday Morning Live on Radio Regent (radioregent.com.) He can also be heard on Diasporic Music on Uhuru Radio (uhururadio.com)

His column Diasporic Music appears monthly in The Burning Spear newspaper.

NB: this text is copyrighted, and only limited excerpting with full attribution is permitted. For licensing and reproduction permissions, please contact Norman Otis Richmond at normanotisrichmond@gmail.com.


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