In Conversation with Steven F. Pond



Steven Pond

An interview with the author of Head Hunters: The Making of Jazz’s First Platinum Album

Molly Sheridan: So, how many times have you heard the record at this point?

Steven Pond: How many thousands of times, you mean? [laughs] I listened to it a whole bunch when it came out, so I listened to it when writing, of course, but I didn’t need to as much as you might think because I had so much of it already committed to memory. But in an average week? Maybe a dozen times.

MS: Why look at this album, and in this context, now?

SP: You know it’s funny, no one has written a biography of Herbie Hancock. I wouldn’t call this a biography of him—but it’s a biography of the album, and by that I mean I’ve tried to include whatever went into the creation of album: all the people that played on it, the people that produced it, even the people who sold it, because it was such a marketing phenomenon as well as an artistic one.

So the reason for it now? Well, part of it is that jazz-rock fusion has effectively been written out of jazz history. People do that because it interferes with some other kind of narrative that they have in place, and that to me is very interesting. So I’m looking at what this narrative is and suggesting an alternative way to think about jazz history.

MS: Why was it written out?

SP: It really made a lot of people mad. People thought of it as pandering, as a sort of treachery to the seriousness of jazz. Here jazz was, blatantly trying to capture a larger audience, trying to do it in ways that appealed to a whole younger generation that had largely not gotten involved in jazz. A lot of people were alienated. My interpretation is that they feared they would be seen as no longer being musically relevant. The music was going in the path of young rebellious kids and they didn’t want to go there. They saw dollar signs all over the place and because this is the height of the major commercial wave of rock ‘n’ roll, it really offended them very deeply.

MS: And with phrases like the “imminent death” of jazz being thrown around, did this really damage “jazz,” as they wanted it defined, in any way?

SP: All you really have to do is look at the reaction to this music in the late ’70s and early ’80s and then forward from there. I don’t mean to single out one particular jazz figure, but of course Wynton Marsalis has become sort of a spokesman for the idea of promoting a much older style of music and pretending that fusion never happened. Just sort of hop-scotching over it.

MS: But fusion obviously didn’t hurt him or his sort of jazz—he’s been extremely successful.

SP: Right. A big part of this is that I don’t think Herbie Hancock really intended to strike a blow for a certain kind of ideology. What he was really trying to do was address a musical problem and along the way address a professional problem for himself.

MS: So this was very much conscious?

SP: Oh, of course. It is for anybody. Even if they’re inclined not to consider the market, there’s no way for them not to do it in real life—even if all you’re doing is selling 300 records and that’s all you mean to, you mean to do that. But they had no clue [Head Hunters] was going to sell like this. The closest that anybody had come to selling a jazz album on this scale was really Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew and that was 300,000. So here was something that doubled that, tripled it almost.

MS: That must have been sort of scary for them, in a way?

SP: How do you follow that? It does kind of present the question of what you do for a second act. The next album was also very well received and it sold almost as well as Head Hunters. But really shortly after that Herbie Hancock toured with a group called VSOP that was sort of a reconstitution of Miles Davis’s quintet playing acoustic jazz, very similar to stuff that had been played with Davis in the ’60s. So it wasn’t like he was leaving all this stuff behind; he was just following his muse, wherever that music went.

MS: Doesn’t sound like you feel this was a sell-out in any way, economics over art.

SP: Right, I don’t think so. I think this is a case where many things came together: artistic things, social issues, interaction between the musicians, the technology to put all this stuff into place, and the marketing infrastructure. All these things converged.

MS: What was particular about the marketing of this album?

SP: There was a whole way of marketing jazz recordings that was much more invested in highlighting a particular artist or even, by extension, the artist’s label. So you’d have things in the jazz bin in the back of the store—all the Horace Silver, for example. They might sit on the shelf for five or six years, but that wasn’t a problem because the production cost was very low and it didn’t matter when you turned it over. It wasn’t even the main thing that Horace Silver was doing—he was performing and that was at least as lucrative for him as these records.

That was the original way of approaching Head Hunters, but there was this one guy, Vernon Slaughter in the Washington D.C./Baltimore area, who took it on himself to market it in the way that you would do rhythm and blues and the emerging funk scene at the time, which was to put it on AM and FM radio. Low and behold, the freeform FM stations got a hold of it and they started playing it in its entirety as an artistic album. And freeform was the right name—very eclectic—but it was also the bellwether of what was hip. And it was Vernon Slaughter looking outside of the normal way you do jazz marketing that enabled a whole new crowd of people to be exposed to this music. There was talk on the street about how hip this album was and that started this buzz that became a marketing behemoth. Eventually the jazz record stores and radio stations did pick it up in a big way, but it didn’t happen first with those people. It happened first with the R&B folks.

MS: You mentioned earlier that there’s no biography of Hancock, so how did your perception of him as an artist and a person evolve as you were digging around and gathering people’s recollections?

SP: I really found two distinct and opposing sets of comments. One was made up of people who revered Hancock as one of the seminal jazz pianists of his age and most people referred to the period during the 1960s when he was both a solo artist and a member of the Miles Davis group. Then I found a whole other crowd of people who essentially vilified him for walking away from jazz. Many people pointed to Future Shock which was a major R&B hit—it was really one of the first songs in serious video rotation on MTV, the other being Michael Jackson’s Thriller. And that sort of stayed with him. I’m academically interested in figuring out what is it that people have at stake to corral somebody like that and place him in one particular narrative and leave it at that. To the extent that he violates that narrative, this group gets unhappy.

MS: I can see being disappointed if you’re a fan of one style, but vilification seems like such an extreme reaction.

SP: Well, there’s a lot invested in the idea of jazz being America’s classical art form. The United States has sort of sported a black eye as the stepchild of Europe when it comes to academic music, so we have enjoyed being able to point with pride to jazz as a high-art music. I think that’s a big part of what Hancock’s critics were disappointed about. In their eyes, he seemed to be turning away from that—something that had seriousness and probity—and was instead chasing dollars. But in fact, he was not really doing that. He was playing the music that he wanted to play.

MS: How much of this book is artistic discussion vs. how much is the extraneous process and politics and environment that surrounded this album?

SP: The book really is about the intersection of all the things you mention. I’d say that the transcriptions and analysis are peppered throughout and probably account for something like 15 percent of the book. A much larger part of it has to do with trying to assess the historical period and what the musicians had to say about the importance of the album, and the making of the album, and even the selling of the album. So it’s an oral history, it’s a cultural history, it’s a little bit of a biography, and a little bit of a musical analysis piece. And I’ve really made some wonderful friends out of it too, which is maybe the best thing.

MS: You devote a whole chapter in the book to the “African Thing.” At the time, how did this music intersect with the African-American culture?

SP: Think about the time. In 1973 it was just after the death of Martin Luther King. We were still reeling from the conflicts that led both to the advances of the Voting Rights Act and the death of Malcolm X. Some of the major agitating organizations were losing their political punch. The Black Panthers had been basically hounded out if existence. We were at the low ebb of our popularity with the Vietnam War, which was seen as something that was especially damaging to black people in the United States, so there was a lot of anger. And besides the anger, there was a desire to honor and valorize black consciousness, and it was important to these artists.

MS: How much of it was political and how much was it artistic for them then?

SP: It’s hard to separate these things. Herbie Hancock didn’t legally change his name, but he became called Mwandishi which is a Swahili name for composer, and it’s clear that Head Hunters refers very strongly to African aesthetics and ideals and images. I think that’s plain enough, not only in the way the music is put together, and I talk about that extensively in the book, but also the actual sounds that are incorporated—for example the opening and closing of “Watermelon Man.” But also the imagery in the album’s cover art is really invested in African imagery, and the name of the album itself is a sort of tongue in cheek reference to African images.

MS: I love this whole issue that you raise towards the end—is it jazz, is it funk—and who this question is important to. So, who’s on this list?

SP: As it turns out, it’s important to most historians and many if not most jazz players. The problem is that it’s music that doesn’t have to be labeled in order to have meaning, but the placement of a label on this music turns out to be of extreme importance to these people, so that they can control the meaning.

MS: Considering how fearful the jazz establishment was at the time this record dropped, what was its actual impact and influence as compared to the one they were imagining at the time?

SP: Let’s start with what they were imagining at the time. One of the things that they were very fearful of was that the style of production incorporated a lot of things like multitrack recording, amplification, and electronic manipulation of sound. People were worried to death that it signaled a huge loss in the improvisational quality of jazz and that the image of jazz as being a serious music was under threat. But in fact the album is highly improvisational. The other thing is just the size of the investment that companies were willing to put into a fusion record—in the old days the idea of putting $150,000 into producing a jazz album would have been absurd. You wouldn’t spend more than about 10 or 15 percent of that. So here’s an album that cost over $100,000 to produce, the record company recoups that money and they make a profit, and it encourages them to reinvest that money and keep their thing going. So there was a lasting influence in terms of the jazz production infrastructure that record labels were able to justify financially to themselves.

Jazz has always been this dance between tradition and innovation. This was a very innovative approach to making a jazz album which then got replicated by a number of people in various ways. It became part of the language that they would refer into and so it helped to expand the boundaries of what counts as jazz. I think that’s a good thing. And it turns out that because the labels were starting to make all kinds of money on these fusion artists, they were now emboldened to sign more mainstream jazz artists. The whole scene was starting to expand and they recognized that customers were now starting to get attracted to jazz generally.

MS: So, how many years before you’ll be able to listen to this album again?

SP: You know what, I’ll probably listen to it tonight. [laughs]