Jan Hammer - the man behind the Miami Vice theme

Jan Hammer, photo: www.janhammer.com

Czech-born composer Jan Hammer is perhaps best known for Crockett's Theme - the signature tune from the popular TV series Miami Vice, which was a massive worldwide hit in the 1980s. Crockett's Theme, however, is just one of many highlights in Mr Hammer's glittering musical career, which has spanned many genres and seen him sell several million albums and win several awards. Born in Prague in 1948, Jan Hammer's family background meant that music was practically destined to be his calling in life.

Jan Hammer,  photo: www.janhammer.com
He is the son of singer Vlasta Pruchova, the so-called "first lady of Czech Jazz". and his father Jan Hammer senior was also a renowned jazz musician. Coming from such an illustrious musical background, their son - Jan Hammer junior - says it was almost inevitable that he would embark on a musical career:

"Well, obviously growing up in a family like that, there was barely anything else I could do, even though I almost became a doctor, which is what my father was in addition to being a musician and a composer. But by the time I was about sixteen years of age, my work in the field of music had gotten so good or rewarding that I was pretty much able to support myself, so I decided that it was going to be my career."

The young Jan Hammer's early achievements included writing the music for the Czechoslovak film Silene Smutna Princezna or The Terribly Sad Princess, which he wrote before he was even 20 years of age. Both the film and its soundtrack have become something of a cult classic for Czech audiences, on a par with Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or The Wizard of Oz in the English-speaking world.

That Jan Hammer had become a national success story in his native Czechoslovakia at such a young age is hardly surprising given that he began studying the piano when he was four and was part of a touring and recording jazz ensemble by the time he was fourteen.

Despite such a dramatic rise to prominence in his own country, however, Jan Hammer was keen to continue developing as a musician. After winning a scholarship to Boston's Berklee School of Music in 1968, he took the decision to remain in the US after Soviet troops occupied Czechoslovakia in the same year:

"I knew that sooner or later I would end up over here in the United States, simply because when you reach a certain level in music you have to join your peers - so to speak - and I felt that the only way I could move forward and really get to the level I was capable of was to come to the US and play with the musicians that lived here. You just have to join what I guess they call the big professional league. And that's how it happened. There was no question in my mind about staying here. I'm sure the Soviet invasion in 1968 helped me make my mind up more quickly, but it was sort of inevitable that I was going to end up here sooner or later."

It was well-known jazz singer Sarah Vaughan who gave Jan Hammer his first major break in the United States, when she hired him as a keyboardist and conductor for a year-long tour. Shortly after this engagement ended, Jan Hammer began collaborating with jazz guitarist John McLaughlin and drummer Billy Cobham. The trio were to eventually form the Mahavishnu Orchestra, a legendary combo who were to end up rewriting musical history:

The Mahavishnu Orchestra are largely credited as being one of the founders of what is now known Fusion Music - a combination of jazz and rock, which today has millions of fans all over the world.

Jan Hammer says it was obvious from the outset that himself, Cobham and McLaughlin were creating something special:

"When we got together the first time and started rehearsing, we realised we were coming up with something quite new and like nothing that had come before. It was a pretty seismic moment for us and we knew that something was happening. It's hard to describe, but it wasn't something that we decided, it was just a combustible combination of people, which came together at the right time, and we really changed things around."

By the time they disbanded, the Mahavishnu Orchestra had sold more than two million albums and their work is still considered by many to be the blueprint for Fusion Music to this day.

After leaving the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jan Hammer's career continued to blossom. He released his first solo album The First Seven Days in 1975 and he also collaborated with renowned musicians such as Jeff Beck and Mick Jagger.

Jan Hammer's success abroad, however, came at a price. Like many people who emigrated from Eastern Bloc countries in the 1960s and 70s, his decision to leave Czechoslovakia had an adverse impact on the family he'd left behind:

"That was the hard part - mainly the family part. As far as living here [in the US] is concerned, I never felt like an immigrant or anything like that. I really felt American almost from the start. Once I went to New York and started touring with Sarah Vaughan, I really felt completely at home here. But I do remember having a hard time and worrying about what was going to happen to my family, because obviously there were difficulties that the regime put in front of them simply because I ran away and didn't return. They were sort of punished for that - especially my father. You know he was not allowed to travel, especially in his scientific work. He should have been free to travel anywhere, but they wouldn't let him out. Things like that weighed heavily on me, but the life here was very nice so I never complained."

Jan Hammer's output continued to be prolific in the 1980s, a decade in which he began to concentrate on composing soundtracks for television and film. His first major breakthrough in this field came when he was asked to write the score for the Miami Vice TV series. After he had finished writing Crockett's Theme, the signature tune for the series, Jan Hammer instantly knew that he had created something extraordinary:

"I remember when I first wrote the melody or the piece of music, I had a feeling that it would be widely accepted. It had a certain universal feel to it and I knew that it could be a big hit if it was given a chance. Fortunately this happened and it was a huge, huge hit."

Crockett's Theme won two Grammy awards and is still the only instrumental to top the American Billboard singles chart. The Miami Vice soundtrack album itself went on to sell 11 million copies worldwide.

Since the Miami Vice series, Jan Hammer has continued to enjoy a successful career. Besides further platinum-selling soundtracks, such as the score for the animated film Beyond the Mind's Eye, he also produces music for advertisements, computer games and television series.

Following the fall of communism in 1989, his music for television actually gave him the chance to work once again in the Czech milieu after a gap of nearly thirty years.

In 1994, he began writing signature tunes and jingles for TV NOVA, the Czech Republic's first commercial television station after 1989. He has since written dozens of compositions for the station and, in a small way, this project helped him reestablish some ties with his homeland after many years of exile:

"I was also working for quite a long time with TV Nova from when it started in 1994. For eight years or so, I was doing most of their music for nearly all of their programmes. So I was very much connected with Prague in that way. One thing that I noticed and that I really enjoyed on a couple of my visits to Prague was that I could walk down the street and it was summertime and the windows were open and I would hear my music coming out of all the open windows. That was an incredible feeling; you cannot imagine what it was like."