October 11, 2023

About the Author: Stefan Joubert

Stefan Joubert manages the London Piano Institute, a premier destination for adult piano learners seeking individualised instruction and progress towards their musical goals. He believes anyone can learn to play regardless of age or ability!

In a Nutshell:

  • “Watermelon Man” is a jazz standard by Herbie Hancock from his 1962 debut album, “Takin’ Off.”
  • The original version featured Freddie Hubbard and Dexter Gordon in a grooving hard bop style.
  • Mongo Santamaría’s Latin pop rendition reached No. 10 on the pop chart and was Grammy Hall of Fame inducted.
  • Hancock later reworked it with funk influences for his 1973 album “Head Hunters.”
  • The song’s structure is a sixteen-bar blues drawing from R&B, soul jazz, and bebop.
  • Over two hundred artists have recorded the song, including David Bowie’s band and live renditions at Montreux Jazz Festival.

About the Piece:

“Watermelon Man” is a jazz standard composed by Herbie Hancock for his debut album, “Takin’ Off” in 1962. Hancock’s original version was a grooving hard bop record featuring Freddie Hubbard and Dexter Gordon. It gained popularity when Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaría released a Latin pop version, which reached No. 10 on the pop chart and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Hancock later reworked the tune in a funk style for his album “Head Hunters” in 1973.

Hancock wrote the piece with commercial intentions, as it helped pay his bills for several years. The song has a sixteen-bar blues form and draws from R&B, soul jazz, and bebop influences. The piece features a bluesy piano riff, with Hancock on piano, Butch Warren on bass, Billy Higgins on drums, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, and Dexter Gordon on tenor saxophone.

Mongo Santamaría’s version of “Watermelon Man” originated when Hancock filled in for pianist Chick Corea in Santamaría’s band, leading to the recording of a lively Latin cha-cha version. Hancock’s composition is often considered a precursor to Latin boogaloo.

Hancock’s 1973 re-recording of “Watermelon Man” for “Head Hunters” introduced synthesizers and a funk influence, making it a fusion of different musical elements. The tune also featured beer bottle blowing imitating Central African singing/whistle-playing.

The song has been recorded over two hundred times by various artists, including a ska version by Jamaican trumpeter Baba Brooks and performances by David Bowie’s band, David Benoit, and a live rendition at the Montreux Jazz Festival featuring Fourplay, George Duke, Boney James, Kirk Whalum, and Rick Braun.

Listen to the piece of music:

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