Jan Hammer is a multi-talented musician and composer who has achieved success as a jazz musician, composer, and electronic music innovator.
His career has spanned over three decades, and with each decade he has successfully reinvented his music. In the sixties, he worked as a keyboardist and conductor with jazz great Sarah Vaughan. In the seventies, his career took off, as a member of the pioneering jazz-rock group Mahvishnu Orchestra, and in collaborations and solo albums. In the eighties, he moved into soundtrack work. He created the score for Miami Vice, getting a number 1 instrumental hit and revolutionizing television scoring in the process. In the nineties he scored movies and video projects like the computer animation hit Beyond the Mind’s Eye.
He’s played with a Who’s Who of jazz artists, including Sarah Vaughn, John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham, John Abercrombie and Elvin Jones. He’s also had many successful collaborations with guitar greats, including Jeff Beck, Al Di Meola, Carlos Santana, and Neal Schon.
Hammer was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia. He began playing piano at age four, and started formal classical instruction two years later. By 14 he was performing and recording throughout Eastern Europe with his own jazz trio. He entered Prague Academy of Muse Arts, but with the Russian invasion in 1968, he came to the U.S. to attend the Berklee School of Music in Boston and eventually become a citizen.
Jan spent a year as keyboardist/conductor with Sarah Vaughan. In 1971, he became a member of the original Mahavishnu Orchestra , one of the most influential and respected jazz-rock groups. The group has sold over 2 million records worldwide, and performed 530 shows before their December 31, 1973 farewell concert.
Jan’s solo career began with The First Seven Days (1975), produced and recorded at Red Gate Studio in his upstate New York farmhouse. This synth-heavy set showcased Hammer’s compositional and soloing chops, and many consider it an early synth classic. This has recently been remastered and rereleased. It is the first time that it has appeared on CD, and features a 12-page booklet, extensive liner notes and photos from the era.
Over the next decade, Hammer produced and performed on nearly 20 albums with his own bands, the Jan Hammer Group and Hammer, and guitarists such as Jeff Beck, Al Di Meola, and Neal Schon. Hammer also began scoring for movies, commercials and television shows.
In 1984, he was started work on the television hit Miami Vice, which required a grueling work schedule, but brought his music into homes around the world. His music was an integral part of the show, and was so popular that the Miami Vice Theme hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart. The show theme earned Jan two Grammy awards, and was a top 5 international hit.
His music for Miami Vice has continued to be tremendously popular. The original soundtrack album has sold over 7 million copies. Hammer released several more CDs with music from the show, including Miami Vice II and Escape From Television, both million-selling albums.
In the 90’s, Hammer continued his focus on scoring for movies and television, including I Come In Peace, Curiosity Kills, the British TV series Chancer, episodes of HBO’s Tales From the Crypt, pilots for NBC television, Knight Rider 2000 and News At 12; The Taking of Beverly Hills and New Line Cinema’s Sunset Heat.
In 1992, Miramar released Beyond The Mind’s Eye, a computer animation video featuring an original score by Hammer. The video was a stunning combination of electronic music and state-of-the-art computer animation. The video was described as “breathtaking” by Roger Ebert, who named it his “video recommendation of the week.”
1994 was dominated by Jan’s recording of Drive, his first full-fledged album of original new non-soundtrack material under his name in several years. He also reunited with longtime partner Jeff Beck on Underground.
He continued his soundtrack work throughout the nineties, on television series like Vanishing Son, films like A Modern Affair and Beastmaster III – The Eye of Braxus. From 1996 through 2000, Hammer composed all the original music for TV Nova, the first commercial television network in Eastern Europe. Jan composed all the music, themes for 23 original shows, 50 station ID’s, the music for all of the network’s special broadcasts, plus the music for all the news, sports and weather programs.
He also moved into soundtracks for computer games, including Outlaw Racers (MegaMedia) and others.
1999 saw the release of The Lost Trident Sessions, the “lost” studio album from the Mahavishnu Orchestra, right. The album was recorded in 1973, just prior to the bands highly publicized breakup. The masters were somehow lost and only resurfaced in 25 years later. The album is the “Holy Grail” for jazz-rock fans, because it captures Hammer, John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham, Jerry Goodman and Rick Laird at their peak.
Hammer started off the new millennium by introducing an official web site, www.janhammer.com. Reruns of Miami Vice on TNN created a renewed interest in Hammer’s music, and led to many request through his site for more music from the series. According to Hammer, “Fans would make reference to themes that I had forgotten about after all these years, so I went back, watched the shows for myself, and realized how much music there was that cried out to be released.”
Jan sat down and began to record many of the previously unreleased compositions. In order to maintain continuity with the show’s original sound, Hammer utilized his vintage 1980s equipment, along with more current state of art digital gear.
In 2002, Miami Vice: The Complete Collection was released. The first of the set’s two CDs contained all 20 of Hammer’s compositions previously featured on five separate MCA releases: the soundtracks Miami Vice, Miami Vice II, Miami Vice III, and Escape from Television and Snapshots. The second CD featured 22 tracks never released or heard anywhere but on the television show.
Though Hammer has had success for over three decades, he remains busy as ever with soundtracks, solo CDs and the occasional tour. His son, Paul Hammer, is carrying on the family tradition. Hammer recently produced Paul’s debut CD, 19.