As you’d expect to find on the website of a musical legend, 83-year-old jazz maestro Herbie Hancock’s page lists his extensive discography (41 studio albums starting from 1962), his numerous awards (14 Grammys, 34 nominations) and his punishing tour schedule (which finds him in India this fortnight on his third tour here).

Hancock’s website also, somewhat unusually, includes a glossary of electronic instruments, describing the capabilities of the gear that he’s used over the decades, ranging from analog synthesizers to WLM organs.

That’s in keeping with Hancock’s unrelenting quest for the next new thing.

The keyboard player and composer – who has a degree in electrical engineering – has been in the spotlight ever since his debut album spawned the hit Watermelon Man. It was inspired by Hancock’s childhood memories of a fruit vendor riding his wagon over the cobblestones of a Chicago alleyway. Even though it was an instrumental tune, recorded without lyrics, the joyous melody prompts listeners almost instinctively to sing out the lines, “Hey, Watermelon man.”


Evidence of Hancock’s instinct for innovation is evident on the version of the same song that he recorded a decade later on his twelfth album, Head Hunters. By now, Hancock had traded his acoustic piano for a Fender Rhodes electric piano, Hohner D6 Clavinet, ARP Odyssey and ARP Pro Soloist synthesizers and he radically reimagined Watermelon Man as a sweaty piece of jazz-funk.


After six decades of making creative music, Hancock is now pondering the musical possibilities of Artificial Intelligence, a technological advance that “leverages computers and machines to mimic the problem-solving and decision-making capabilities of the human mind”.

“By the end of 2024, everything is going to be very different,” he told Scroll in an email interview, ahead of a concert with the vocalist Dianne Reeves in Mumbai on Saturday. “Things are moving very fast.”

Here is the text of the interview.

Jazz is a music that is constantly reinventing itself – and you have been leading that metamorphosis for six decades. What are the elements that have allowed you to be so immensely creative?

I had some really good teachers over the years. When I was first on the jazz scene and when I first went to New York and even in my hometown of Chicago, the older musicians were always encouraging me. They were always helping me learn the tunes correctly and they didn’t just throw me off the bandstand. That was the beginning and throughout my career I’ve had a lot of encouragement.

That’s what really helps people. When they are discouraged, it makes the challenge a lot harder and some people who would possibly be discouraged would go into some other field. Jazz isn’t really like that, though. Traditionally, the older musicians help the younger musicians. And now I am one of the older musicians and I look forward to passing the baton.

How has your background in engineering influenced your approach to your music?

When synthesizers first came out, they were on the pop scene. With the group that I had – the Mwandishi band [formed in 1970] – we were always looking for ways to create a pathway so that people could hear what was happening with the music. So with the idea of synthesizers, which were new to rock and roll and because I was an engineering major in college, I gravitated towards it.

I knew a lot of the terminology having a little bit of an engineering background. So I immediately saw that I could create things that I couldn’t create on my piano. So that just got me more excited to add those elements to the things I had been doing in the past.

There’s a great video clip of you from 1984 showing Quicy Jones your Fairlight keyboard and computer setup. When did you get your first computer and what were the challenges you faced trying to make music with it?

I got my first computer in 1979 and it basically wasn’t known by the music community. And I was one of the people that was encouraging musicians to use computers. I was actually demanding that they get computers because I knew they would be important and they were asking, “How is that going to happen?” Over time I was able to talk a lot of musicians into it.

My first computer was an Apple 2 plus computer and I still have it. As a matter of fact, I saw the early technology that was used by Apple at Xerox Park when they were creating a computer that would allow you to make music and paintings. And the guy that was working on it said, “One day children will go to school with a notebook and it will have a computer screen and a keyboard.” And I said, “No way!” And that’s what it became.

But I wasn’t able to do that much with that first computer. My first hard drive was 25 megabytes and it was huge!


Jazz purists have often declared that they prefer your acoustic performances, without tech. How have you reacted to responses like this?

Thank you!

What influence do you think Artificial Intelligence will have on jazz – and music in general? What possibilities does it open for human creativity?

I can’t even imagine the extent of the possibilities but I know that we’ll be able to use that technology in ways that were impossible before. Everyone at some point will have their own digital assistant on their phone. And it will be so intelligent that it will be able to know how best to teach you something in a way that is designed for your particular personality. This would be impossible for a teacher to do with a whole group of students.

By the end of 2024, everything is going to very different. Things are moving very fast. One discovery that I made is that AI is something that humanity gave birth to. It’s like a humanoid in a way. And the best thing to do is not try to trick it. The best thing to do is to treat it like it’s a person. Treat it the way you should treat another humanity. Otherwise, that could cause the downfall of humanity.

And if greed steps in the way – that is when we have to worry about AI. Because that means we care more about the money than about developing the technology to teach it and create guidelines. But I look forward to what AI could mean. We’ll be able to interact with AI musically where the AI is playing and responding to you.

There is going to be an interim period – this is one of the fears we have – of people having their jobs replaced by these entities. But if you are one of the first responders to getting your own digital system then you won’t have to worry. It’s the people that are saying, “I don’t want to know anything about it” – they are the ones that are going to be in trouble.

Lecture by Herbie Hancock on innovation and new technologies.

Herbie Hancock and vocalist Dianne Reeves are in India to give masterclasses and performances in New Delhi and Mumbai, accompanied by the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz Performance at UCLA Ensemble. Their performances and masterclasses are dedicated to celebrating the life and legacy of the civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr.