Head Hunters (album cover / 1973)

Pop, Hard Bop and the Jazz Vamp: Herbie Hancock’s ‘Head Hunters’ vs. Miles Davis’ ‘On the Corner’

Head Hunters, spanning one or two lifetimes since its release, remains utterly applicable to the contemporary soundscape, encompassing the sensuality of gutbucket funk as well as airy confines of so-called jazz.

Jazz, like many genres, eludes its designated name. What exactly is jazz and how can it be explained, succinctly? We can try and narrow it down by noting that it’s improvisational; often instrumental. It relies on a high degree of musicianship; but then, we don’t usually call Jimi Hendrix “jazz”.

When critics cite a “genre” (like jazz), most of the time he or she decidedly draws a line; but practically speaking, a “genre” isn’t a line in the sand. It may follow a lineage, but it also expresses momentary conventions. One such convention witnessed Jimi Hendrix being elected to Down Beat’s 1970 Reader’s Hall of Fame, the first non-jazz musician to attain that distinction. (“Jimi Hendrix and Jazz“, Shadwick, Keith, jazzwisemagazine.com, undated)

Designated jazz musicians, such as Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus, distanced themselves from the title. Duke Ellington proposed the alternate “Negro folk music”, while contemporary multi-instrumentalist Nicholas Payton proposes “Black American Music” (or BAM), digressions that highlight jazz’s breadth and depth as well as its contentious cultural whereabouts. (“When ‘Jazz’ Was a Dirty Word“, Teachout, Terry, The Wall Street Journal, 8 March 2013)

Even from the beginning in 19th century New Orleans, the distinction “jazz” wasn’t precise, with a repertoire influenced by brass bands as well as the integral aspects of Congo Square. As the music evolved it split its terms: “hot” (in the ’20s) switched to “swing” (in the ’30s and ’40s); “Dixieland” (a contentious term on it own) or “traditional” squared off with its counterpart “modern” (which, in this case, means “bebop”). “Blues” is the one style we know well (or can identify) when we hear it; the distinctive American style can be heard in the works of a wide variety of musicians, everyone from Sidney Betchet to George Gershwin to Little Richard to ACDC, and on to contemporary jazz saxophonist David Murray and guitarist Marc Ribot.

While New Orleans, Kansas City, and Chicago hold their place in jazz origins, New York City has practically become its capital. When Thelonious Monk was asked “What is jazz?” he replied, “New York, man. You can feel it. It’s around in the air.” (“Feel the City’s Pulse? It’s Be-bop, Man!” Douglas, Ann, New York Times, 28 August 1998). Jazz musicians even helped to popularize a nickname for the city that is still in common usage: The Big Apple. It’s the city where the genre developed its more esoteric, niche, or less popular tangents. In the city, jazz assuredly moved from its roots in New Orleans to swing (or big band), and on to the farthest reaches of the avant-garde. The New York City jazz label, Blue Note, led off with Boogie Woogie pianist Albert Ammons (in 1939), and then went on to record avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor (in 1966).

When we talk about the relative popularity of jazz, let’s also keep in mind the “bottom line”. While jazz as a “popular American art form” might have given way to the marketplace juggernaut of rock ‘n’ roll (circa 1955), New York City jazz (at the same time) supported multiple jazz labels, imprints such as Commodore Records (founded in 1938) Prestige (founded in 1949), and perhaps the most famous of all, Blue Note (founded in 1939, bought by EMI in 1979).

Popularity did translate into sales, but on the relative scale of city/state rather than nation/continent. Studios like Blue Note were far more willing to let their artists hit the ground running, not digging for the next hit but following the leader, the ensemble, as the music progressed (for example see their 12″ LP releases). Those terms encapsulate artistic fervor.

Many artistically inclined New York City jazz musicians were grounded in delivering the occasional hit, making it clear that even if the whole of America wasn’t buying the latest avant-garde New York City jazz record, some of the pop that America was buying eventually made its way into the jazz repertoire. (For example, “Ode to Billie Joe” by Bobbie Gentry, a #1 pop hit, as interpreted by jazz saxophonist Lou Donaldson; both in 1967).

That kind of cross-fertilization should be obvious enough seeing as 19th century New Orleans’ musicians combined African syncopation with European melodies. And if we qualify jazz as a genre that requires a high degree of musicianship, some of those same jazz players are the stalwart studio musicians who put a professional gloss on the pop hit.

But it’s the commonality of the blues that brings us back to jazz and its place in the popular marketplace, as exemplified by Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters, released in October of 1973, spending 47 weeks on the Billboard charts, peaking at #13. More specifically, Hancock’s encapsulation of the blues as it evolved (or mutated) into funk, re-emerged in jazz under the heading (between 1953 and 1965) of hard bop. This was a trend that reacted to the airier, chamber music hybrid of cool jazz (sometimes referred to as “West Coast jazz”, but which included bi-costal musicians such as Gerry Mulligan and The Modern Jazz Quartet).

When I first tried to get a handle on jazz, I thought that cool jazz (as heard on Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool) would be more like hard bop, a driving, urban beat made ultra-hip by wailing saxophones, instead of cooler compositional exercises. That’s what the word “cool” indicated to me; I was a youngster who found the frenetic exercises of “hot”, “traditional” or “Dixieland” jazz rather corny, especially when it was promoted by ensembles of white, parent-like men in straw boater hats.

It’s those twist and turns that make jazz education so compelling, dispersing the fog and connecting who played what and how, with whom, and with what kind of result. Those details distinguish jazz and demonstrate how a label like Blue Note made all the difference, letting the musicians wind it out from one style to the next, from one combination of players to another (from the hot jazz of Earl “Fatha” Hines to the free jazz of Ornette Coleman). Just consider that Herbie Hancock has released 42 studio albums, including the outstanding early releases on Blue Note, let alone all the jazz musicians that he has accompanied.

We begin to build a cosmos, and can place the planet (or sun) Hancock in relation to the blazing star (or super nova) Miles Davis. It is Davis, the seminal instigator of the cool jazz sessions who eventually turned to hard-bop, thinking that jazz had become “over-intellectualized and needed to refurbish its funkiness. (“Jazz at 100 Hour 39: The Birth of Hard Bop” Perry, Russell, WJTU 91.1FM University of Virginia, 24 November 2017) His 1957 album Walkin‘ points the way, and includes Horace Silver on piano, composer of the quintessential hard-bop tune, “Song for My Father” (from 1965).

Herbie Hancock, huge in the jazz spectrum, will always be associated with Miles. He played keyboards in Davis’s “second great quintet” starting with the release of E.S.P. in 1965 and culminating with the release of Filles de Kilimanjaro in 1968, including Wayne Shorter on saxophone, Ron Carter on bass, Tony Williams on drums. He was pushing or being pushed by Davis through free jazz tangents and onto to “fusion”, a rock/jazz or jazz/rock hybrid that sounds more like funk to these ears.

The confusion between “sales” and “popularity” or “the market” versus “art” is at the heart of the Miles Davis story, a jazz musician who also surely ranks as a star. Yet Davis’s legacy is weighted with his supposed desire for a hit, being pushed by Columbia Records for a hit, and “selling out” with “fusion” (a genre that supposedly fused rock and jazz), accusations that don’t seem to acknowledge how weird, outré, or avant-garde albums like Bitches Brew can sound.

Regardless of the disdain heaped on Bitches Brew by someone like Stanley Crouch (“Thinkin’ One Thing and Doin’ Another: James Mtume and Stanley Crouch on Miles Davis” Segal, Dave, The Stranger, 3 March, 2014) or the album’s artistic as opposed to commercial merits, Davis’ “electric period” provided me with a gateway into jazz. And though Davis made albums like On the Corner with the express purpose of appealing to a younger, funkier, black demographic, the music wasn’t exactly soul or funk, or danceable (in the usual sense of the word) but demanded a different kind of attention. Perhaps what has been obscured is that Davis wasn’t necessarily looking for a hit, but expressly wanted to connect with a younger demographic. In that case, Prince’s later day acknowledgement of Davis’s influence should be enough to indicate that his ambitions were more than successful. (“Inside Miles Davis’ Prince Obsession, As Detailed by Davis’ Family and Collaborators” Hart, Ron, Pitchfork, 12 April 2014)


And so, even though a recording like On The Corner was how I, as a teenager, entered jazz, it’s not exactly jazz! I had made a couple of half-hearted attempts at listening to a Jay Jay Johnson record (who plays trombone on Walkin’) but didn’t latch onto the genre until I became a full-blown Miles Davis freak, even becoming one of the worst kind of jazz snobs even though I wasn’t listening to jazz! At least I looked into Davis’s back catalog and bought his first Columbia Records release, but I didn’t know that “Round About Midnight” (included on that album) was a Thelonious Monk composition.

To be fair, it was hard, at first, to get a handle on jazz, and the pre-internet record outlets in my hometown weren’t exactly helpful. Many jazz records were out of print or poorly-distributed. My jazz education, which I would put down and then pick up again, proceeded slowly but surely (up to this day). Early on, I would have appreciated if someone had pointed me in the direction of those classic hard-bop compositions, one of which I had to be aware of (if only by osmosis): Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man”.

Not only did “Watermelon Man” achieve one of pop music’s hit-bound requirements, providing a chorus that the average pre-teen could hum along to, but it appeared right out of the box on Hancock’s first recording under his name (Takin’ Off from 1962). The compelling twist and turns of jazz turn up in this case as the saxophonist on that date was Dexter Gordon, a jazz figurehead in his own right but someone who surely wasn’t going to end up playing on Head Hunters or On the Corner.


Image by geralt (CC0 Creative Commons / Pixabay)

Even if it was so-called “fusion” that eventually led me to a greater appreciation of the totality of jazz (in which I would finally comprehend Dexter Gordon), back then, I floundered around with musicians like Grover Washington, Jr. and The Crusaders (who, in 1971, dropped the “Jazz” prefix from their name). It really was a matter of distribution, and so I also came across Weather Report, an ensemble that enlisted some of the integral players from Davis’ first “electric” albums (most especially Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul).

And then Head Hunters came around, and more specifically, two of its tracks: “Chameleon” and an update of “Watermelon Man”. It doesn’t seem exactly correct that the Billboard chart lands the album at #13, as “Chameleon” seemed to be everywhere at the time, on AM radio (an edited single version was released by Columbia Records), and in the collections of casual record buyers. It was so ubiquitous that I didn’t, at that time, find the need to buy it. But it certainly caught my ear.

But what else was I prey to (at that time)? One doesn’t want to be the type whose record collection consists solely of Grover Washington and the like (and Grover Washington isn’t all bad, OK?). That might seem like you are not so serious about music (but why not?) or you’re someone who prefers a lighter touch, something playing in the background rather than right in your face. Yes, my collection at that time was stocked with Miles’ Bitches Brew, Live Evil, and On the Corner, but I was also wholly inclined to James Brown and Sly Stone (even though, due to my naïve jazz snobbery, I had put them aside for the moment). But apparently, Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock had not put them aside for the moment.

In fact, one of the tracks on Head Hunters is titled “Sly”, which actually sounds jazzier than “Chameleon”. It’s “Chameleon” that lands firmly in the jazz vamp mode à la James Brown. One can even imagine an old-school blues shouter growling on top of its riff. It’s pretty simple, straight forward and in the groove. It’s the contemporary instrumentation that makes all the difference, that brings it up to date; it’s the 15 minutes 41 seconds album length that allows the band to improvise, giving the song its jazz credentials. Otherwise, it’s impossible to understand how any one of the millions of simple funky riffs (throwaways and warm-ups) will catch on with the public, landing squarely on the Billboard charts.

Given all that, it’s amusing, or curious that Hancock had this to say about Head Hunters: “I was beginning to feel that we (the sextet) were playing this heavy kind of music, and I was tired of everything being heavy. I wanted to play something lighter.” (Hancock’s sleeve notes: 1997 CD reissue). Well, James Brown’s funk style seems about as heavy as you can get. Leave the lighter stuff to, well, Grover Washington. When a song like “Chameleon” came out, or more precisely “Fame” by David Bowie, James would complain that, really, those were his songs. (“The Stories Behind the Songs: David Bowie”, Purden, Richard, Classic Rock, 28 May 2018).

The funk/jazz or blues/jazz or jazz/soul riff cuts all ways at once and should again demonstrate that musical genres or categories are far from impermeable. If Brown thought others were gaining off his innovation, one can also note that his band, The JBs, used to lead off with a rendition of Lee Morgan‘s hard-bop standard “The Sidewinder”. Now you get the idea where Brown got some of his ideas.

If Hancock “was tired of everything being heavy”, or to put it anther way – of over-thinking — it’s astute that he also chose to resuscitate the hard-bop hit, “Watermelon Man” on Head Hunters. This was presented in such a different guise that again, as a neophyte jazzhead, I didn’t make the connection at first.

The iconography of Afro-centrism circa 1973 is duly noted on the Head Hunters cover. The image of Hancock’s head is comprised of both a tribal mask and the dial of a futuristic musical instrument. The Watermelon Man, an anachronistic urban character selling watermelon from a pushcart, is similarly updated. The intro, played on a bottle by percussionist Bill Summers, evokes the street seller as an African type. Once Hancock hits the keyboard, his stride becomes slinky and self-assured. The Watermelon Man is still laying down a key rhythmic element of the streets, but now seems to have other things on his mind, representing both the glorious past (in the flute playing method of the Ba-Benzélé, a Central African pygmy tribe) and the future funk (implicit in the sound of Hancock’s clavinet and synthesizer).

Hancock also faced the kind of backlash that Davis had endured, with critic Lee Underwood tarring Hancock with the epithet “Mr. Communicate-With-a-Wider-Audience”. Hancock responds by saying, “The notion that I’d gone in a new and different direction because I knew I’d make money was funny to me… The idea that I had some master plan for making a big commercial hit was just not logical.” And then he adds, “Anybody who ever played with Miles Davis learned that you can’t worry about what the critics think. You have to make the music that your heart tells you to make.” (Herbie Hancock: Possibilities, Hancock, Herbie with Dickey, Lisa, Penguin Books, 2014)

What has changed for the better since the era when I floundered around trying to figure out jazz is the plethora of music available, and information about music, via the internet (let alone the Wikipedia listing who plays on Head Hunters). Of course, this involves unauthorized file sharing and the loss of revenue, but these circumstances have also unintentionally broke open the strict ordering of categories. The internet-aged consumer appears to be far less factional, far more open-minded when it comes to landing on a favorite song, than listeners’ past, let alone the loop digger who willingly digs the classics along with the cheese. One can now even get a handle on Hancock’s output by way of those who have sampled him.

To Hancock’s endless credit (regardless of being identified as a “jazz musician”) he has adapted and contributed to multiple genres in the span of his lifetime, right up and into the era of sampling. Head Hunters, spanning one or two lifetimes, remains utterly applicable to the contemporary soundscape, encompassing the sensuality of gutbucket funk as well as the airy confines of so-called jazz.