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Herbie Hancock Remembers Clare Fischer

Oct. 22, 1928-Jan. 26, 2012

Herbie Hancock
Clare Fischer, photo courtesy of the artist

When I was first learning jazz as a teenager, one of the things that I discovered I liked was the harmony, and particularly the jazz harmony in vocal groups. When I heard the Hi-Lo’s, it flipped me out. And there were certain arrangements on those records that I liked the most. I didn’t know at the time who’d written them, but when I did find out, the name was Clare Fischer.

I studied, on my own, the harmonies from his arrangements. They were more advanced than what anybody else was doing, and that kept up all the way until Clare died. I heard some of his last records, and he was still doing amazing harmonic stuff. And, of course, he was a wonderful pianist, too. But it was those vocal harmonies that were the first thing I heard. I was in awe of him.

As a matter of fact, when I was in high school, I formed a vocal group that was at first more like Four Freshmen harmonies-just this side of barbershop quartet. But then when I heard the Hi-Lo’s and Clare’s arrangements, I started writing more like that, and would write it down trying to figure out what they were doing. That was a big lesson for me on developing more advanced harmonies, and I took that with me to New York and all that. If you listen to Speak Like a Child, his influence is huge on that record, in the voicings and the harmonic devices.

It’s funny, because before that, when I was still rooming with Donald Byrd in New York-meaning that I was staying on a hide-a-bed in his living room-when I happened to mention the Hi-Lo’s and Clare Fischer’s arrangements, Donald said, “Oh, I went to school with Clare!” So there it was, somebody who not only knew Clare, but provided a close connection from him to me. That was a powerful thing to have.

Still, it was many years later that I met Clare-maybe 15 or 20 years ago, in the A&M Studios in Los Angeles. I wasn’t working with him, I just found out he was in the building and I jumped up: “Clare Fischer?! Aw, man, I gotta tell him what he’s done for me!” And when I met him, he had no idea that I even knew him, much less that he was a big influence on me. I explained the whole thing to him and it tripped him out, because he told me I influenced him! It was really pretty cool. We just bonded right away; I could feel it, and I knew that he could feel it, too. There weren’t that many more encounters, but when I got to meet Clare and talk to him just those few more times it was always special. I wouldn’t be me if it wasn’t for Clare Fischer.

As told to Michael J. West

Originally Published