Herbie Hancock on Playing with Miles Davis and the Meaning of Life

Herbie Hancock talks with Mark C. Horn.
Herbie Hancock talks with Mark C. Horn. Douglas Kirkland

Many musical greats over the course of modern history have spent the twilight of their respective careers content to play out the string with the obligatory greatest hits tours to appease old fans and with high hopes of staying relevant in order to gain younger fans, and with hopes of staying relevant. That’s not Herbie Hancock.

The 77-year-old, legendary jazz genre-bender, composer, keyboardist-pianist, and collaborator has made a career out of being relevant. He eats, sleeps, and breathes relevancy.

After having cranked out more than 50 studio and live albums, and winning 14 Grammy Awards and one Academy Award among a ridiculously long list of accomplishments, his unquenchable thirst and curiosity has led him through an incredible journey as one of jazz music’s greatest innovators, pioneers, and global citizens, and baby, he ain’t close to being finished. You dig?

A child prodigy, born in Chicago, Hancock began playing piano at the age of 7, and by 11 was playing Mozart piano concertos with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. His passion for science and piano led him to Grinnell College where he had a double major in music and electrical engineer.

As he has played the role of mentor to so many in the music industry, he was inspired by the late trumpet great Donald Byrd of the Art Blakely Messengers, who took the 21-year-old under his wings and made him a member of his band in 1961.

A year later, Hancock’s debut solo album, Takin’ Off, on the fabled Blue Note label, did just that for the precocious, now 22-year-old piano prodigy who showed a rare mix of sophistication and openness to incorporate some funk elements way ahead of its time. This caught the eye of one Miles Davis. His hit song “Watermelon Man” would become his signature song and is today still a jazz standard, and by 1963, Davis would recruit him for his Quintet II, a group that would define post-hard-bop, modern jazz.

Even while playing with the Quintet II, Hancock would release another gem album and title track with 1965’s Maiden Voyage, a jazz classic that further showcased Hancock as a vital composer and band leader with three-fifths of the Quintet II, Ron Carter on bass, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, and Tony Williams on drums to go with tenor sax man George Coleman.

Not one to rest on past successes, Hancock would be at the forefront of the dawning of the synthesizer in the early '70s. With it, he first broke through with his band and eponymous album The Headhunters, and its crossover hit “Chameleon.” That cut is considered by many the to be the seminal jazz fusion album. Oh, and in his spare time wrote the soundtrack to Saturday morning Bill Cosby cartoon Fat Albert and — among other soundtracks — the music to the Charles Bronson film Death Wish in 1974.

He transitioned over to the MTV era and won over younger, hip-hop dance fans with his pulsating and catchy instrumental “Rock-It” from his 1983 Future Shock LP as he led the charge toward electro-funk. He would get back to his jazz roots to create an Academy Award-winning soundtrack for Round Midnight in 1986.

His definitive 2007 tribute album River: Joni Letters, on which he collaborated with a wide-ranging group of vocalists from Leonard Cohen, Nora Jones, Tina Turner, Corinne Bailey Rae, and Luciana Souza, transcended jazz but won him yet another award, and not just any Grammy, but Album of the Year.

He continued to fuel his hunger for bringing people from all over the planet together to collaborate in musical harmony with his most recent release, the 2010 Imagine Project, in which he infused the West African koro and Celtic flute, fiddle and Uillean pipes among others in covering Lennon-McCartney, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, Sam Cooke, and Peter Gabriel.

His efforts, while bold and trail-blazing, did not always win the approval of critics, such as on the early '70s Mwandishi avant-garde funk trilogy, but he stayed true to his need to explore and experiment, all the while breaking the rules and reinventing them, and himself time and time again.

His humanitarian efforts were recognized in 2011 when he was designated an honorary UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for his dedication to the promotion of peace through dialogue, culture, and the arts. He topped that in 2013 as a recipient of a prestigious Kennedy Center Award.

New Times had the chance to converse with the music master and humanitarian, who is coming to the Mesa Arts Center Ikeda Theatre on Thursday, August 17, as part of his current 34-city international tour. Hancock will play some of his hits but will also be unveiling of a few new cuts to be released on his long-awaited next album. Hancock’s current band consists of guitarist-vocalist Lionel Loueke, keyboardist and sax player Terrace Martin, veteran drummer Vinny Colaiuta, and bass player James Genus.

Hancock discussed his lifelong curiosity for science, his devout Nichiren Buddhist beliefs, the caveats of modern technology, bringing a global world and solar system closer together, and how the infamous Plugged Nickel show went down and changed the course of jazz history.

click to enlarge Herbie Hancock pictured in 1961. - FRANCIS WOLF
Herbie Hancock pictured in 1961.
Francis Wolf
New Times: So your career has had many defining moments. Can you share with us how one of your first major breakthroughs, relative to the infamous December 1965 Plugged Nickel two-night, seven-set sessions, changed the world of jazz and for you, your approach to performing and creating?
HH: It was a pivotal moment. We had already been working with Miles for a couple of years, I think, before we played at the Plugged Nickel. Way back with the record ESP, that’s when things first started to change. At the beginning of the year, when the band recorded ESP, it was playing behind Davis, and there were some rough transitions to perfect the sound, but then, some of that evolution was on that record. Between then and the Plugged Nickel, we began refining it and refining that and refining that more and more, until we got kind of comfortable. And if you think ‘comfortable, that’s cool. That’s a good thing, right?’ Naw, not in the world of jazz. You get comfortable, you get lazy and complacent, and then the discovery disappears.

What can we do to get back to where we‘re on the edge again, the cutting edge? And the Tony [Williams drummer] said, "I’m gonna play anti-music tonight. Anything that people expect me to play, that’s what I’m not going to play." I decided to join him. Ron [Carter, bass] was down for it. And then we told Wayne [Shorter] and Wayne was cool with it. I don’t remember telling Miles. We were too afraid to tell Miles.

And what did you think of your innovating and gutsy output those two nights?
We thought it was terrible. We just knew we had to get through that fire, or walk on the nails. That was the only thing that was going to lead us out of that prison of being too complacent. Miles never said a word. Never objected to anything. He just let it go on. The weird thing was that when we entered the club, we saw all of these huge tape recorders. We weren’t told that Columbia Records was gonna to record us. And so, I was ready to back out of that pact we had signed, and then Tony said, "I’m not backin’ out," so I said, "I’m not backin’ out either." So, anyway, we made the record.

One of your other big breakthroughs came a decade later with synthesizers. Can you put into your own words how your curiosity of science and your burning desire to integrate technology into music played such a big part of your career?
In my particular case, because I’ve always been interested in science, and I was an engineering major in college, at least for a couple years, I have that kind of bent. First, when synthesizers came along, a lot of musicians were afraid of them; not me. I jumped in there right away. But, I didn’t abandon the acoustic piano because that’s part of my DNA too. That’s fundamental to me. I was, I guess you could call me, one of the pioneers that helped to encourage musicians to get computers and learn about it because it was new; it was gonna have an effect on music, and the tools for the creative process.

Your passion for mankind is equal to that of your passion for technology, and the two are not mutually exclusive. Why?
I hope it doesn’t just stay the technological age because it needs to be a technological age along with humanity. That’s the danger, that if we don’t add the humanitarian element, we’re all doomed. The good news is technological development opens the channels for people to come together. The bad parts are the caveats – social media, for example. You see kids sitting at the same table, and they’re texting each other, rather than talking to each other. You can say things that you type that you would never say directly to a person. It’s also the idea of entitlement to get everything free. It is the age of technology, but I hope it becomes the age of humanity.”

To bring music back into the center of the ring, you are collaborating with a wide variety of forward-thinking musicians from all over the world and right here in the U.S. such as Steve Ellison, a.k.a. Flying Lotus, English prodigy Jacob Collier, Dhafer Youssef, Zakir Hussein, and bandmates Loueke and Martin. Talk about why these relationships and joint musical efforts are so vital to you and to the world.
I know that right now, the concept of global citizenry is really new to a lot of people. And, I know that is what we need, in order to be able to survive as a species. I want to do what I can to show the value of working with people from different generations, different walks of life; they have different experiences, different cultures, speak different languages. That when you put different people together, from different places, and work with them, you can produce something that no one of them could do by themselves.

How did you get involved with NASA space probing Juno Project, and what role is sound and music having on it?
I got a call from one of heads of the project, Scott Bolton [American theoretical and experimental space physicist and principal Juno project investigators]. It turns out that many of the elements that they were involved with, have a connection to music. For example, one of the elements that they use for sending signals back and forth, and for other purposes, is harmonics. The number of revolutions that Juno would take around Jupiter before it actually crashes into the planet is 33 full revolutions, and a third of a revolution that would crash it into the planet. It’s like 33 1/3 RPMs [on records].

So, they are excited to have young people excited about the space program with something about science and astrophysics; they thought "well, everybody likes music, so maybe we can make some connection with music and get people excited about the space program."

In your 2015 autobiography, Possibilities, you talk a great deal about your four-plus decades of Nichiren Buddhist beliefs, how it changed your life and connections with other people. You have even given those beliefs credit also for helping you to kick a drug addiction, which you didn’t have to share, but you felt compelled to share. Why?
It helped me to see that that’s the reason I went through [the drug addiction], so that coming out of it, I could use that to help other people. It makes it possible for you to turn everything that could be bad, and turn it into something of value. And, consequently, what that leads to is a fearless life. I am sure that if I hadn’t have been chanting that I wouldn’t have been in a position to even be selected for a Norton Professorship at Harvard, to give those lectures.

Speaking of the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University, you did your six-part guest professorship last year and it was under the title of “Ethics of Jazz,” but your theme was “Breaking the Rules.” What was your angle here?
Who do you think we study in school? The people that follow the rules, or the people that broke the rules? The people that followed the rules, we don’t know who they are because they never changed anything.

So once again, your Buddhist beliefs have allowed you to expand your thinking outside of the confines of daily life.
I have seen the results of not just in my life, but in how I behave, how I treat people, how I view other people, because the most important thing, the two most important things – one of them – the heart is the most important thing. The other thing is that everybody is born with the potential for Buddha-hood or enlightenment. It’s part of life. So, it’s not something that you get from outside yourself; it’s already something that’s in yourself. The object of life is to uncover that. Get the stuff out of the way that keeps you from revealing all that you can be.

Herbie Hancock is scheduled to perform at Mesa Arts Center on Thursday, August 17. Tickets are $38 to $66 through the Mesa Arts Center website.
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Mark C. Horn
Contact: Mark C. Horn