Herbie Hancock Mwandishi 1970-1973:
How abandoning his greatest band paved the way for music immortality
Pianist Herbie Hancock was at a crossroads by the fall of 1973. At that time he was a veteran band leader, and experienced the ups and downs of what that title meant for a jazz group in the 1970’s. It was an unique era in the music. Acoustic swing was combined with the back beats of rock and funk, while at the same time working jazz groups were adding other musical styles to the music. To play traditional bebop and still maintain a career was a constant struggle. Record companies and venues were consistently worried about profits and the endless money pit that was considered jazz at that time. Hancock found himself in the middle of burdening pressure to turn out hits from his record company while at the same time tried to pursue his musical aspirations, and keep his band on the road. His music wasn’t traditional jazz nor the new jazz fusion that was springing with new and exciting bands. His music was a combination of everything. His Mwandishi group, also known as his sextet, was blending nearly every style of music under the jazz lens. The band combined funk, rock, r&b, and free improvisation into the jazz sound, but he still struggled and had to make a choice. That choice was to abandon this great band all together and seek the commercial success he wanted, and especially what the record company wanted.
Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi ensemble was the pivotal band of his career. The six piece group only lasted 3 years, yet was at the apex of jazz in the 1970’s, both musically and culturally, and left one of the most significant footprints that still resonates to this day. Had it not been for a lack of record company support, finances, and a mainstream audience, Hancock would have continued on this path, furthering his experiments in the revolutionary music of the band. Instead he broke up the group, reassembled, and pursued a much more commercial sound that would advertently create the direction his music and image would go to this day.
Not much is written about Mwandishi, the Swahili word for author, and the name adopted by Hancock at the end of the 60’s. In fact to date there has only been one publication of the band and its music outside of a jazz magazine editorial or blurb. Most musicians don’t even know of the band’s existence due to the over shadowing of Hancock’s succeeding projects of the decade, but the few who do think of the band reverently and hold it as one of the greatest bands in the history of the music. “My dream was always to have a band, not one that sounded like Mwandishi, but one that, like Mwandishi, could somehow capture the elements of all different kinds of music, filtered though a jazz lens.” Christian McBride, bassist (Gluck)
There is a video of the Mwandishi sextet performing on a French TV broadcast from 1972. The band is divided between the rhythm section of Billy Hart (drums), Buster Williams (bass), and Hancock (piano/fender rhodes electric piano), facing the horn section of Eddie Henderson (trumpet/flugelhorn), Bennie Maupin (reeds), and Julian Priester (trombone), broadcasted in black & white, and clearly filmed to showcase their music. Only three songs were performed, Sleeping Giant, Toys and Water Torture, the first two by Hancock himself and the latter by Maupin, nevertheless were regularly performed compositions by the band at that time. From the footage that is accessible to the public (via the internet), the band is given no introduction, opening with a fade in as the band begins to play. Sleeping Giant is labeled at the first of the three songs and opens with a drum solo accompanied by all other members playing various percussion, including one of the only professional non-novel performances of a flexitone. As the solo builds, the rhythm section joins Hart on what looks like a cue from a sixth sense. Without warning Hancock and Williams join Hart on a down beat and begin the groove of the tune which is driving, funky and attention grabbing. The horn players continue to accompany for another few minutes while Williams lays down quarter notes, locking in the tempo. Hancock solos with a percussive edge, looking as though he is giving the fender rhodes a thrashing it hasn’t ever experienced. Then without warning Hancock slides up the keyboard with the back of his hand and the whole rhythm section plays a riff. This riff will actually connect each section of the 12 minute song as a musical motive to realign the band and give the listener something familiar to acknowledge.
From there a rubato section follows. Henderson’s muted trumpet sounds a cutting note grabbing the listener’s attention and reels them into the next point in this song’s journey. After a composed, unison line the band changes beat and provides the underlining for Priester’s trombone solo. The beginning sounds haunting with Priester giving a sense of plea with his lines. The rhythm section sounds chaotic when almost instantly they realign, accompany Priester with a syncopated and extremely driving funk beat. The kind of beat that would easily get an audience dancing in their seats. The section is over with the return of the original riff. Another rubato section enters with the return of the composed line from before the trombone solo. The unison line is played by the horns ending on a downbeat that literally destroys the time to a halt. The soprano saxophone enters nearly alone, plays a few notes and is joined by the band on the riff. A new, and even funkier beat provides the real estate for the saxophone solo. The rhythm section is remorseless with the rhythm and the other two horns are slamming away on their percussion. The band sounds as if they’re proclaiming the end of the world. The riff returns. The composed line follows again. As the band dwindles down to the end of the song, the credits air across the musicians faces with the title Jazz Harmonie. With a set up by drummer Billy Hart, the riff is played for the final time and the band ends their song.
In the twelve minutes the composition Sleeping Giant was performed, the entirety of jazz music up to that point in time had been delivered. The song encompasses all the styles, aesthetics and realizations that every jazz group over the last few decades had played. Funk, free form, improvisation, call & response, and written composition are all included in that segment. How can that music not be considered absolutely thrilling and worth bringing to the masses? What fell by the way side? Unfortunately the forces at be would not help.
Herbie Hancock was a child prodigy who grew up in Chicago. By his 12th birthday he had already performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, playing a Mozart piano concerto. As a teen he played piano regularly, and earned experienced playing in his home town’s jazz clubs. He eventually headed out to Grinnell College to study electrical engineering. The pull of jazz was too much and the young Hancock left college 1 semester shy of graduation to pursue music at the advice of trumpeter and boss Donald Byrd.
Once in New York Hancock was the regular pianist in the Donald Byrd/Pepper Adams Quintet and in the early sixties by way of Byrd, recorded on several of the trumpeter’s and other leaders’ albums, and eventually signed a record deal with Blue Note. It is important to note that in the Byrd/Adams band, he received tutelage in handling his musical finances, including copywriting his own music and compositions. Herbie was placed in the geographic center of Hard Bop under Byrd’s wing and made connections with some of the most notable jazz musicians on the scene. (Gluck 33)
By 1963, just around the time he became Miles Davis’s pianist, Hancock had the first taste of commercial success. His composition Watermelon Man was a jazz hit and received attention on the pop charts. Even more so when the band leader and congo player, Mongo Santamaria, released a version of the song that became a smash juke box hit. The money earned in royalties along with his 1965 master piece Maiden Voyage (featured in a car commercial) would directly fund the payroll and traveling expenses of the Mwandishi band down the line.
Herbie Hancock spent 1963-1968 in the piano chair of the Miles Davis band, becoming one of the integral members in the [Davis] Second Great Quintet. This unit pushed the boundaries of conventional jazz, due to the experimentations in form and soloing of Hancock and his bandmates. It was in the Davis band where Herbie would develop two essential traits to his playing that he applied to the Mwandishi sound.
Davis wanted to strip his songs of their harmonic structure and nurtured his young band to apply various substitutes in lieu of traditional chords. Here, Hancock applied chord clusters, groupings of harmonically unrelated. The tonality of the compositions became ambiguous and reflect what soloist was improvising. Hancock’s use of tone clusters would turn up in almost all of the Mwandishi songbook. Herbie’s interest in using tone clusters appears to be sonic and intuitive…they allowed the piano to be utilized as a percussion instrument. (Gluck 42-43)
Another abstract tools Hancock developed with the Davis band and used in Mwandishi was the use of rubato, becoming an often used music device with Hancock’s playing. Shifting concepts, sections themes, and solos could be connected by breaking down the time of a song to virtually nothing; time could be suspended as seen in the Sleeping Giant video. This device was used often when Herbie would branch off and record with other musicians on their recordings in the 1960’s and into the 70’s.
Finally, the use of sonic coloring. With the use of clusters and melodic lines in solo and accompaniment, coloring, along with untraditional methods of playing the keyboard, gave compositions extra texture. This technique became present in the avant garde jazz and other music of the 60’s. Hancock, being active in the avant garde movement, would develop his own skills and language. He furthered his skills when he eventually added the new Fender Rhodes electric piano to his arsenal along with Echoplex (an analog effect that used tape recording to create a delay effect) and later the use of early analog synthesizers.
The abstract concepts stated earlier but what completed the Mwandishi sound was the adaptation of playing in a funk style. There isn’t an official definition of funk, especially when it qa first being used, yet the music that adopt the name developed certain characteristics that have become associated with the style since. Hancock’s first major example of funk style could be found on the song Watermelon Man from 1963. A soulful, driving song that has a dance element to it. Hancock credits growing up in Chicago, and watching the watermelon merchants selling their fruit, and the vocal exchanges between producer and consumer as the inspiration of the composition. He wanted to reflect on his African American experiences growing up in the city. Its sister-song, Cantaloupe Island continued in the same style. Although now standards, both songs were not performed by Hancock until the disbanding of the Mwandishi group.
The characteristics of funk are:
Syncopated and driving rhythms
Use of riffs and focus on motives
A strong connection to R&B and Rock
A strong sense of Afro-American identity
All the concepts stated above are essential to know when categorizing the sound and identity of the music of the Mwandishi band. Each was executed through out the band’s tenure and became crucial tools in producing the music. The Mwandishi sextet was a gradual and natural development in the playing of Herbie Hancock, and their use was not interpreted in a way the record companies that recorded Hancock in the 1970’s could understand, resulting in the pressure to strive for a more commercial sound later on.
“When I told Miles Davis’s manager that I wanted to form my own group, he asked me ‘Who do you plan to have in your trio?’ When I told him that I planned to lead a sextet, he told me it was impossible for a group of that size to survive. Well, I kept a sextet together for 3 years until last week when we added a seventh member!” Herbie Hancock, Boston Jazz Workshop 1972 (Warner Bros.)
The origins of the sextet start in 1968. Newly married and departed from the Miles Davis band, Hancock set out to form his own group. That year he recorded Speak Like A Child for Blue Note Records, an album of original songs set in the Bop sound of the sixties with a focus on Hancock’s use of 3 horns. “[I]…have been thinking about more and more, Herbie answered, was the concept that there is a type of music in between jazz and rock.” (Hentoff, original liner notes, BST 84279)
The tunes are authentic and have an impressionistic color to them. Rooted in bop, but with an exploratory aspect. The LP featured original compositions with the addition of a lush, dark-timbred horn section consisting of flugelhorn, alto flute, and bass trombone. Immediately the ensemble’s sound was unconventional in its arrangements. Two compositions from the album would be Mwandishi standard material: Toys and Speak Like A Child. The original sextet Hancock would assemble premiered these compositions on the road including the Village Vanguard and Carnegie Hall in New York City. The New York Times reviewed the Carnegie performance: “The group had a tremendously spirited attack in which solo lines and ensembles slid into place, coalesced and erupted in a constant and colorful flow of development.” (Gluck 54)
Herbie Hancock kept pursuing his project and garnered the attention of Bill Cosby, by whose recommendation earned a record deal with Warner Bros. Records in 1969. Hancock under the hiring of Cosby, composed the score to the cartoon Hey! Hey! Hey! Here Come’s Fat Albert. The resulting album Fat Albert Rotunda was exactly what Warner Bros. wanted. A commercially accessible album, fused with the R&B sounds of the time sold moderately well, and earned Hancock the opportunity to record more for the label. Hancock begins to perfect his ‘funkier side‘ to playing and successfully sets the ground work for the sound he wants. The album’s music is riff and vamp based with call & response backgrounds set to syncopated beats from the rhythm section. Hancock explained to Bob Blumenthal in 1971: “I chose to record Fat albert Rotunda as my first album for the label…which gave me the freedom to do Mwandishi next.” (Gluck 60)
The Mwandishi sextet formed rather gradually. Only bassist Buster Williams was present in the early editions of the sextet dating to 1969 with the succeeding release of The Prisoner. The other members joined as most band members do through musician networking and recommendations. Trumpeter Eddie Henderson remembers: “My music had only one 8th note on the whole page! Herbie said the guy he needed knew where to put that note exactly.” (2006)
Each band member adopted Swahili names along with Hancock, who had found a new strong presence of African pride in his own identity. The band members followed and this shared identity became synonymous with the band’s presence.
Characteristically, the Mwandishi band displays, over the span of 3 years, the most diverse array of musical conceptualization. As the band played more and more, with the same line up, the music became so strong and well rehearsed that when listening to live recordings of the band, it seems as though the transitions are made through a psychic connection.
These characteristics include:
Suspension of time
Open or nonexistent harmonic structure
Syncopated, percussive and driving rhythms
Transitions and motivic cues
Odd or no time signatures
Vamps (ostinati) and riffs for compositional design
Rock bands at this time were no different in their use of riff based tunes or rubato like sections. Santana’s Soul Sacrifice is an example of soloing over a driving riff that repeats in ostinato fashion. Mwandishi members would improvise over several vamp sections in their music that created tension and release as the soloist carried out their lines. These musical moments would create excited statements in the performance and allowed the band to explore uncharted musical territory. “Our whole idea was to create something that was multi-textural, with multiple nuances so that it was like a moving tapestry of some sort. There were no restrictions…everyone was listening to each other, leaving our egos out of the process, just responding to what the overall group invents.” (Julian Priester, Gluck 147)
The band’s early repertoire consisted of Hancock’s compositions: Maiden Voyage, Toys, Speak Like A Child, Wiggle-Waggle (from Fat Albert), and Firewater (The Prisoner, written by Williams) and displayed the musical concepts mentioned prior in each performance. Sometimes these songs would last whole sets, spanning over an hour in length.
The sextet’s first major performances occurred at the Fillmore East/West. The venue’s owner Bill Graham, was interested in promoting jazz and programmed his concerts to feature jazz acts with rock bands. The Mwandishi band fit perfectly amongst the psychedelic rock groups of the era, and the band was receiving positive responses from their concerts. In today’s standards of music festivals, Mwandishi seemed to fit at the Fillmore just as comfortably as The Bad Plus would, at say, Bonnaroo.
It was common to see jazz acts play the same bill as their rock music counterparts. Miles Davis famously opened for the Steve Miller Band the nights he recorded his new project in 1970 at the Fillmore. Other bands included the Charles Lloyd Quartet, Return to Forever, Tony William’s Lifetime, etc. Hancock followed suit and his band was aimed at pop audiences. When David Rubinson entered the band as producer/co-manager, this business focus became more evident. The electric nature of the band suggested the potential of its marketing within the world of rock music. (Gluck 121)
However, the traditional jazz audience was divided concerning the new band’s sound. “He was getting some negative audience reaction when they’d play a jazz club, some of the new stuff. But when he played some of the rock clubs, that’s what they loved. There was that kind of positive feedback…the band was also playing in college towns where younger people came to listen and, often, to dance. (David Rubinson, Gluck 84)
The band and Hancock experienced this divided response at their two week engagement in Chicago. “We were booked for a dinner set, and a late night set. The dinner time audience was not really digging us, but the late set as I recall, it was standing room only.” (Eddie Henderson 2006) Music has always suffered from its progressive nature. When audiences aren’t familiar with what a musician is doing, it can cause negative back lash based on the ignorance of the listener and the inability to categorize it. As divided as the jazz audience was, the band continued and earned a strong, devoted audience.
In 1971, Hancock’s band released their first album titled, Mwandishi. Warner Bros. was keen on Hancock continuing to record a follow up to the moderately successful Fat Albert Rotunda and thus hired producer David Rubinson, who demonstrated success previously with projects across various record labels including WB and Columbia. Rubinson and Hancock developed a working relationship almost immediately, where as, Rubinson was interested in promoting jazz on the level of rock similarly to Bill Graham, and intended to support an artist create the art they were trying to make. (Gluck 90)
As Hancock moved away from the straight down the pike R&B sound that the record executives wanted, Rubinson became a spokesman for the band. Rubinson worked in every way possible to make Hancock’s music accessible to the masses.
Mwandishi has only 3 tracks to it, and still evoke some of the most original sounding jazz in the last 40 years. The band recorded two Hancock compositions and one by Pepo Mtoto(Priester) with the addition of Hancock’s newest instrument, the Fender Rhodes piano. The opening track, Ostinato: Suite for Angela, is an open form composition with no set melody except a riff set in 15/8 time. The song begins with a rubato section featuring the electric piano played through an echoplex. Eventually the riff is premiered and for 13 minutes, the band literally jams on the tune. Mganga (Henderson) displays a searching, exploring solo. The beat creates massive amounts of tension and builds to a keyboard solo. The trombone, bass clarinet, and bass share the riff throughout the song until a siren-like solo from Mwile (Maupin) takes it to the ‘outro’. The song is infectious, tribal and extremely danceable; a song for the next era in jazz music.
The rest of the album is equally invoking with long, extended jam like songs, but with more focus on composed sectional playing in between solo sections. The music still holds up, showing no sign of age or date compared to some of the jazz and fusion albums of the time.
Mwandishi opened at No. 16 on the Billboard’s top jazz chart and received overwhelming praise in the New York Times labeling it ‘genius’ and ‘dwelling in emotion and concept.’ James Litchenberg’s review also included [proof] “musicians could play directly off the patterns of emotions…Hancock has thrown the doors open to everyone.” Billboard offered a brief promotional review: “A broad appeal for this set because Hancock is a respected name for the rock crowd.” (Gluck 102-103)
Despite the praise of being labeled as one of the top 5 jazz recordings of 1971, Warner Bros. was deeply displeased with the release. The primarily white and older record executives did not get the music, could not identify with it, misunderstood it, and therefore shunned it for lacking commercial appeal.
Hancock’s sophomore release, Crossings, was recorded in 1972. Again, continuing in the same vein of composing and performing, Hancock recorded 3 more compositions: Sleeping Giant and two by Maupin, Water Torture and Quasar. The latter two compositions thrusted Hancock and the band into the next phase of their sound with the use of the Moog III synthesizer programmed by Dr. Patrick Gleeson. Eventually, Gleeson would be added as a 7th member of the band, and would go on the road performing for the Crossings tour.
Crossings is merely an extension and the next step in the sextet’s sound. The use of vamps, riffs and open improvisation, now with added synthesizer, is creative and just as powerful in its use of timbral color and sound as its predecessor.
However, the album was going to be a tough sell for David Rubinson to convince the record company that the album had merit. To Rubinson’s credit, to prepare the executives for Crossings, he played for them a tape of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, at that time the highest selling jazz album. They expressed that the music was “limited in commercial potential,” where as Rubinson rebutted with the commercial success the album had on the charts. Rubinson won and the album went to market, but would be doomed upon arrival.
Warner Bros. did not have the adequate promotional and marketing department to release a young black musician playing an original form of music. They were unaware, and could not fully grasp that the album should be exposed to the jazz and the rock/pop markets and problematically issued the release alongside easy listening and adult markets. In an April 1972 advertisement for Sam Goody, Crossings could be found next to Arlo Guthrie’s Hobo’s Lullaby and Randy Newman’s Sail Away. Jazz fans would not think to look, and fans of easy listening would not consider Herbie Hancock.
Despite the set back Crossings was being played in college radio stations, and recieving praise from the critics who heard it. Unfortunately, it did not earn the profits Warner Bros. wanted and very foolishly blamed the music instead of the marketing. As David Rubinson recalls it, “They were good enough to let [Hancock] leave the label. (Gluck 122)
Columbia Records was the next to take up Mwandishi under contract. With the success of Miles Davis’s fusion and other jazz-rock projects (mainly which featured Hancock on keyboards) the release of other successful fusion albums, and Rubinson’s history with the label, Columbia was interested in the potential the Mwandishi sextet could bring. The band continued to tour and perform at jazz clubs and rock venues over the succeeding year. The press were mixed; the conservative ‘jazz police’ camps were very unhappy with the direction away from traditional bop Hancock was going, while at the same time was praised for having the courage to pursue something new night after night from those more accepting. Downbeat Magazine labeled the band “stimulating.”
Sextant was the third and final release from the [now] septet. Staying true to their convictions and stylings they recorded three more compositions of open, grooved base songs. Studio effects along with synthesizers were used even more than on Crossings. The album is funky, provoking and most definitely’Mwandishi.’ The ensemble’s sound is filled out by delaying and reverb effects along with the oscillations of sound provided by the Moog. The album opened at number 14 on Billboard and rose to number 3 after sixteen weeks.
Even with all the successes despite the many hurdles, the band was having a hard time surviving on road. Hancock kept his band members on the payroll mainly through his royalty money from Watermelon Man, Maiden Voyage, and an early version of You’ll Know When You Get There which was featured in an airline commercial, but the accumulating debt was far too burdensome. “Herbie was in serious debt, and David Robinson became more interested in controlling the band. What [Rubinson] didn’t realize was that Herbie was only a figurehead, he all owned a piece of the music.” (Eddie Henderson 2014)
Hancock would total a debt of $30,000 to Rubinson by the middle of 1973; the ultimatum soon followed. Rubinson wanted Herbie to reassemble a new band, one that could be more marketable, pop, and lucrative for not only the record companies, but for Hancock himself. Rubinson never stopped believing in Hancock, but with the next album, it was obvious Rubinson wanted a new sound to bring to the table. Either fire the band, or pay back the money.
“Three weeks after our last performance in California, Herbie let the band go. Around that same time Head Hunters was released. He told us it was because he wanted to try something new for his art, but we knew it was because of the money.” (Henderson 2014)
Head Hunters was the commercial bombshell that it was intended to be. A jazz-funk album with all the impressionistic, open, ambient aspects Mwandishi had, stripped away. It consists of 4 groovy tunes (including a new arrangement of Watermelon Man) set to hard driving funk beats. The songs are sectional, but dwarf in comparison to their predecessors. Only Bennie Maupin remained as the sole horn player. The Swahili names were dropped, as Herbie Hancock was presented as a rock star. In it’s initial release Head Hunters reached No. 1 in the jazz charts, No. 2 in R&B, and No. 13 in Billboard Top 200. By 1992, it became the highest selling jazz album of all time.
Instead of blending all the styles of jazz into one band, Hancock started down the path of having multiple projects working alongside each other to fulfill his artistic endeavors that he continues to this day. Around the success of Head Hunters, Herbie formed the VSOP Quintet, and worked on various other projects including concerts with Chick Corea, Bennie Maupin’s Jewel in the Lotus, and Eddie Henderson’s Inside Out, and Realization. The era of his super stardom had begun.
Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi band will forever remain over shadowed in the world of music regardless of its musical originality. Often times in the art of music, the most central band is overlapped by its contemporaries for the need for monetary success. That was indeed the case for Herbie Hancock. In the present, audiences get a glimpse of the creative aura he encompassed in the early 1970’s. In between the crowd favorites and the pop collaborations, Hancock will throw in little nods of his playing that are reminiscent of the old band. Had he stayed the course, the world would have still gotten the master Herbie Hancock, but not the pop superstar that exists today.
Interviews with Eddie Henderson conducted in 2006 & 2014
You’ll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandshi Band; Bob Gluck; The University of Chicago Press and London; 2012
Herbie Hancock: Energy in the Environment: The legacy of Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi Album; Jeff Tamarkin; Jazz Times; September 2010
Mwandishi: The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings [Liner Notes] Bob Blumenthal; 1994
Speak Like A Child [Liner Notes] Nat Hentoff; Blue Note Records BST 84279; 1968
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Very interesting read and thank you for sharing it. These albums were very important listening for me at the time they were released, along with Miles’ work, and Weather Report. I remember being disappointed after hearing Headhunters for the first time. It definitely felt dumbed down in a sense. I recently discovered Waddada Leo Smith who is carrying on somewhat in the tradition.
Thanks for reading, Bill. Please check out my own records. Heavily influenced by Mwandishi!