By Eric Levin
Updated January 19, 1987 12:00 PM

Before a full house at the JVC Jazz Festival in New York last summer, Herbie Hancock hit a treble key on the concert grand and heard, instead of an F, the metallic slap of a broken string. Rather than avoid the broken key, or stop and complain about it, as another eminent pianist had done the previous night in similar circumstances, Hancock hit the bad key again. Curiously probing its sound, he continued seamlessly, ingeniously recasting his ballad Dolphin Dance as a duet for piano and one-note percussion.

Digging into a packet of Gummi Bears backstage after the show, Hancock actually brightened when asked about the errant key. “It was there,” he said, “so I figured, ‘Why not use it?’ ”

“Why not?” could well be Herbie Hancock’s motto. “Herbie doesn’t linger on the negative,” says his East German-born wife, Gigi. If anything, that is an understatement. Wayne Shorter, the tenor saxophonist who played with Hancock in Miles Davis’ great ’60s quintet and has remained a friend, says he has never heard Herbie complain about anything.

Hancock attributes his power of positive thinking largely to Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism, which he has practiced for 14 years. Twice a day Hancock kneels—before his own rosewood altar, when he is at home—rings a bronze bell and chants the words nam-myoho-renge-kyo for up to an hour, generating a sound like swarming bees.

He says Buddhism has brought him freedom, which he defines as “not being afraid of things that may happen in your life. It’s knowing that you can turn all the poison into medicine.”

But Buddhism didn’t change Hancock’s nature, it simply reinforced what was already there. He tells this story: When he was 14 his parents punished him for some minor misdeed by not letting him go to a party. “At first I whined in my room,” he says. “Then I realized, once the party is over, what’s the difference between having gone and not having gone? Not much; some nice memories. So I said, ‘If I can just be cool enough to get past the time when the party is on, I should be fine.’ So I read a book, and at a certain point I looked at my watch and thought, ‘The party’s over, I would be home now.’ And I felt great.”

At 46, Hancock can go to all the parties he wants. But often he’s just too busy. Few artists straddle contemporary music as widely or as well as he does. He remains one of the leading jazz pianists of his generation, touring and recording with blue-chip side-men. “Working with Herbie is a joy and a challenge,” said bassist Ron Carter after an empathic set with Hancock at New York’s Village Vanguard in 1985. “I work 52 weeks a year, and I have my choice of places to be and people to work with. This is my most cherished engagement.”

Hancock is as comfortable with electronic keyboards and pop recording technology as he is with acoustic jazz. “I never claim to improvise as well on synthesizer as I do on piano,” he says. “But I feel satisfied when I can play both jazz and pop.” Living in Hollywood, Hancock has written movie sound tracks, including Blow-Up, Death Wish, A Soldier’s Story and Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling. Last month the Los Angeles Film Critics Association cited him for his work on the score of the acclaimed jazz film Round Midnight—in which he also acted. His funky radio ads for Thorn McAn shoes won him a Clio last year, and his streetwise pop albums have won two Grammys. Rockit, from his 1983 gold LP Future Shock, became the best-selling 12-inch single ever on Columbia Records.

Night is Hancock’s favorite time. He has a long attention span and will pursue new sound permutations far into the night on one of the synthesizers in his home recording studio. If the phone rings—there are 7 lines in the house, plus a private number his wife says even she doesn’t know—he will talk for hours, then return to his music as if there had been no break.

One thing he does not like to do is sleep. “If I could do without it that would be great,” he says. He gets a reluctant four to six hours a night, except when he is on deadline. He stayed up two nights in a row to finish his Round Midnight compositions on time, and on the morning they were due he crawled into bed with a battery-powered keyboard and sheets of staff paper on his lap. “I took everything away from him,” says Gigi. “He’s like a little boy. I closed the shades, said ‘Sleep,’ and he turned over and went right out.”

One consequence of Hancock’s total absorption with the present is that he is notoriously tardy. Gigs and TV tapings he makes on time—everything else, well, have a seat. “What happens is, because my organizational sense is not so good, things get pretty hectic,” he says. “I take on a lot and create problems for myself.”

Hancock was six hours late for his first date with Gigi, whom he met in 1964 at the Village Gate in New York. She thought he was ostentatious (he had a shiny new Nikon around his neck and was wearing a new leather coat and silk suit), and he thought she was a brat (though it was in her favor that she had never heard of his new boss, Miles Davis—Herbie has no patience with groupies). In 1968 he did get to the church on time, mainly because she told him the ceremony was at 2, when in fact it was at 4. “He’s exasperating,” she says, “but I love him.”

As a child, Herbie displayed all his lifelong traits except lateness. His mother, Winnie Hancock, made sure there would be none of that. Her family had owned land near Americus, Ga., inherited from her father’s ancestors, one of whom had been white. Young Winnie Griffin received music, poise and elocution lessons, and the family had a cook. Then, somehow, they lost everything. When Winnie was 6, the Griffins moved to Chicago. She eventually married a grocery clerk named Wayman Hancock, “a nice quiet man who got along with everybody,” she says. “But me, I was restless. I wanted more. I wanted education.”

Though Winnie took courses and became a secretary, she spent most of her ambition on her three children. The Hancocks lived in a South Side apartment house. “Other kids were out in back playing until all hours,” Winnie says. “My kids had dinner, did their homework, had their baths and were in bed by 8 o’clock.” All were bright and studious, but the middle child, Herbert Jeffrey, with a quiet, curious disposition, was especially easy to manage. Herb, as his mother called him, wasn’t interested in playing outside. He’d sit for hours, listening to the radio or “tinkering with things, trying to fix them,” Winnie says. “I’d have to call him a couple times to come to dinner.”

Because he skipped grades, Hancock was always the youngest in his class. “It gave me an identity,” he says. “If I wasn’t as socially in or attractive as others, people accepted me anyway because I was young. So it was okay to be bumbling in a way.”

When he was 7 his parents bought for about $5 a piano which they’d found in a church basement. Now he had a new identity. When he was 11 he performed the first movement of Mozart’s Concerto in D Minor in a young people’s concert with the Chicago Symphony. Later his mother, the first in a long line of mentors, pushed him to join the high school orchestra and the yearbook staff, and to attend Grinnell College in Iowa and study something practical—engineering. “Everybody in my father’s family thought she was crazy, too highfalutin,” Hancock says. “But my mother gave us hope.”

Hancock’s second mentor was a high school classmate named Don Goldberg. Herbie had always loved the rhythm and blues that was popular in the neighborhood, but until he heard Goldberg play piano like George Shearing he thought he hated jazz. Herbie asked Goldberg to show him the rudiments of the acoustic bass so he could accompany him, the better to see what Goldberg was doing on the piano. “People laugh when they find out Herbie Hancock learned to play the blues from a nice Jewish boy,” he says.

At Grinnell, Hancock eventually switched his major to music. By the early ’60s he was gigging around Chicago. One day trumpeter Donald Byrd came through, needing someone to fill in for his pianist, who had been delayed by a blizzard. A club owner Hancock knew recommended him for the job, and it became permanent.

“Donald was like my big brother,” Hancock says. “He was the one who told me I was ready to cut my own record, because I didn’t think so.” Byrd’s coaching helped Hancock land a contract with Blue Note and, more important financially, retain the publishing rights to his music. Wanting to make sure his first record wasn’t his last, Hancock, for the only time in his life, he says, wrote a song “just to sell.”

The result was Watermelon Man, which Mongo Santamaria later made a hit and which was subsequently recorded by 200 artists. In writing the tune, Hancock faced the dilemma of choosing between his own instincts and other people’s preconceptions. Back on the South Side the watermelon man, with his horse drawn wagon, had been a beloved character. Hancock wanted to write about something real. But watermelon evoked a racial stereotype. “Some people said, ‘You’re really going to call it Watermelon Man?’ But I thought, ‘What’s wrong with watermelon? Nothing. What’s wrong with being black? Nothing. What’s wrong with a black man eating watermelon? Nothing. So am I going to be a coward or stand up for something?’ ”

Hancock tested himself again when he played briefly in 1962 with the brilliant avant-garde multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy. “I played things that were almost blasphemous and sounded grotesque,” he says. “But they had a certain beauty that we could feel even if nobody in the audience could. Sometimes it was good and sometimes it wasn’t, but I had to stand up for all of it or else I couldn’t play any of it. I learned how to be courageous from that experience. That had a profound effect on my work with Miles.”

Recommended by Byrd, Hancock joined Davis in 1962. Tony Williams, Davis’ 17-year-old wunderkind drummer, became Hancock’s new mentor, leading him through the thickets of Bartók, Varèse and Ornette Coleman. “Tony opened me up,” Hancock says.

As much as Miles challenged his gifted young sidemen to play emotionally “naked in front of everybody,” as Hancock says, they stimulated him as he developed the unique shorthand style that made the quintet one of the two most important bands of the decade—the other being John Coltrane’s quartet. Meanwhile, Hancock on his own was becoming a renowned composer and soloist for Blue Note. He had an intellectually formidable sense of harmony and rhythm and a buoyant way with melody and phrase.

“Herbie had a real appreciation of life,” saxophonist Wayne Shorter recalls. “He carried a movie camera everywhere. He’d know where the most happening places were. He loved to have continental breakfast, and dinner was always an event with him. One time he rented a limo and took Ron Carter and me to the Napa Valley, where he bought wines.”

Davis had turned Hancock onto the electric piano, a scoffed-at toy at the time. Hancock tried it, was seduced by the sound and decided once more not to worry about what other people thought. By the time he left Davis in 1968 he and fellow Davisites Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul had legitimized electronic keyboards, changing the face of pop music.

Electronic jazz was one thing. But, when Hancock’s 1974 LP Headhunters, with its funky dance-floor hit Chameleon, sold a million-plus copies, purists disowned him. “Yet when he was accosted at a party about what he was playing,” says Shorter, “he never retaliated, never got defensive. He’d just bubble over with life. Something inside him transcended the trivia.”

Only part of that was Buddhism. “I realized I could never be a genius in the class of Miles, [Charlie] Parker or Coltrane,” Hancock had said in 1973. “So I might just as well forget about becoming a legend and just be satisfied to create some music to make people happy.”

And in fact he does seem to be satisfied. Instead of mentors he now has collaborators. His main man of late has been the innovative producer Bill Las-well, who works up skeletal rhythm schemes and textural inventions for Hancock to take off from. Their partnership struck gold with Rockit, and Hancock’s next album, due in May, will be their third together.

At the Hancock residence the housekeeper has left wild rice and stuffed mushrooms on a plastic-wrapped plate on the kitchen table. Gigi has gone for dinner at Nucleus Nuance with her girlfriends. Eventually Herbie comes in from his studio and pops the plate in the microwave. The phone rings. Twenty minutes later he hangs up, eats quickly and heads back to the studio. The next morning Gigi finds him asleep on the couch in his chanting room. “We’re a strange household,” she says. But she’s not complaining—and neither is Herbie.