Herbie Hancock’s 70s oeuvre is a series of masterworks hanging on the wall of our mental museums, A Theme in Variations of browns and blues, brilliant, vibrant and prosaic. (Courtesy photo)

By Darin Atwater
Special to the AFRO

The 70s arrived bronzed and honey glazed, slow roasted from the heat of 10 turbulent summers turning on a rotisserie of 60s unrest – blackened, now relaxed, cooled into brown sugar, bearing the burden of freedom like a fractured horizon. 

The 70s arrived like a Peacock in full plumage; black song and ritual dance, big-thick-black-hair, lunar; gloriously sprouting from neon-spectacled costumes with collars so wide they could double as sails on a large ship. 

This amalgam of creative expression traversed 400 years of Walking Up the Kings Highway – a roadmap and a history of Black life triumphant in the face of an unrelenting assault from cultural mercenaries deployed to pillage and profit from a menagerie of black, brown and beige humanity; a blues people from ovah-cross-yonder on the great blue sea – from the shoreline of West Africa to the Americas, to the call of Tis the Old Ship of Zion from the outer banks of the Deep South, and the response from the outer spaces of Funkadelic’s The Mothership. The echoes echo…Soulful. Resolute. Deafening. . 

The 70s arrived exhausted, ready to pivot, dress down and experiment. The varied social movements reflected this neat turn towards the future, a future that arbitrarily occurs every ten years. The off-ramp this time being Counterculture with music as its mascot and soundtrack…People’s Music. An unlikely chef would emerge as a major contributor to this cultural stew, an outsider of sorts, representing formal and traditional ingredients from other forms of American music. His pepper and spice fused perfectly in the creation of 70s Soul Music. 

The 70s arrived as Herbie Hancock’s bold fusion of jazz, soul, funk and electro which was a stark and unexpected departure from the post-bop and modal jazz recordings he’d come to be known for, as sideman in the monumental quintets of Miles Davis. It was with this gumbo of Blues, Swing and Bebop that he would assume his seat at the table. He came with utensils in hand, carving up harmonic shifts with clarion virtuosity soaring over what can only be likened to complex avionics – improvising while flying wing-to-wing with a trio of sonic acrobats and a legendary squadron leader all at the top of their game. 

Like a lens refocused on new territory, Jazz-Fusion became his new method of aural documentation as he captured the rich, boundless beauty of Black Culture; noble and fiercely defiant yet chained to the tragic reality of American injustice.

From the groundbreaking release of Headhunters in 1973 – which became the first jazz album to sell a million copies – to the funk-influenced Man-Child – with its consolidated riffs and chest-thumping grooves – his refined approach superbly crafted a style at ease with both mainstream affectation and critical approval. 

There’s nothing more inspiring than observing a great artist paint and frame a personal vision on the canvas of our collective narrative. We carry their work with us daily as we curate and rotate our private exhibitions, art that inspires. Like a divine succor, art provides a buffer against hardship and invites us to examine our truth, at times painful but always liberating – that’s its purpose. 

Herbie Hancock’s 70s oeuvre is a series of masterworks hanging on the wall of our mental museums – A Theme in Variations of browns and blues – brilliant, vibrant and prosaic – he arouses harmonic and lyrical precipitation like the rain you can taste and smell before the first drop falls. Like a tonal tailor, he weaves down-home Soul into a Funk-tinged tapestry without ever losing a thread of Blues or a stitch of Jazz, and we find ourselves dressed-to-the-nines in layers of electro-acoustic orchestration, band interplay and storytelling swinging wildly in the wind – HEY; trading twelves, HO; rhythmic shifts and WHEW: twirling phrases like dancers tossed back and forth in the famed but threadbare Savoy Ballroom. Herbie holds it all together like a swiss watchmaker – design, functionality and soulful precision encased in an elegant timepiece, light years ahead of its time. No B Sides – Straight Classics! 

Herbie Hancock’s place among the pantheon of great American artists is not so much that of a musical stylist as that of a sonic storyteller, because he’s sermonizing more than just a congregation of notes and sounds; he is telling his-story, our stories – People Music: from the album Secrets. (1976). Understanding this interconnectivity strengthens our collective ideas and amplifies our creative expression.

Artists give meaning to our shared humanity. I was shocked to learn Entertainment and our Creative Industries are the greatest export we exchange around the world. Lawd-Have-Mercy… the 70s was a sho-nuff Cultural Cash Crop.

The 70s, suspended in the air, frozen in time, arrives to us here and now, fifty-plus years later, thawed by fiery protest, warmed by change, is still best served fresh with a good-ole brown-hued helping of Black Culture and like songs on repeat, we repeat the songs that endure… People Music!

Long Live People Music…

Shout it aloud together from the 70s until forever! 

Shout it aloud together from the 70s until forever! 

Long Live People Music…


Darin Atwater is Artistic Director for The Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission at Merriweather Post Pavilion and founder of Soulful Symphony.

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