Jazz musician Herbert “Herbie” J. Hancock was named the 2014 Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry earlier this week. The professorship, previously held by the likes of poet T.S. Eliot, Class of 1910, composer Leonard Bernstein ’39, and most recently author Orhan Pamuk, is awarded periodically to an individual with notable accomplishments in the arts.
“[Hancock] is both a legend and a pioneer,” Homi K. Bhabha, director of the Mahindra Humanities Center and a member of the 2014 Norton committee, wrote in an email to The Crimson. “It is no exaggeration to say that his influence on jazz, and a range of affiliated musical traditions, has been utterly transformative.”
A prolific composer and former member of the Miles Davis Quintet, Hancock has explored a number of musical genres, including electronic jazz, R&B, and funk. With his band, The Headhunters, he produced the first album in the jazz genre to go platinum, and throughout his musical career, he has won 14 Grammy Awards as well as an Academy Award for his score of the 1986 film Round Midnight. He was recently named the Creative Chair for Jazz of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and also serves as chairman of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz.
As Norton Professor, Hancock will deliver six lectures in a series entitled “The Ethics of Jazz.” The lectures, which will take place in February and March, will be hosted by the Mahindra Humanities Center and each will take place at 4 p.m. in Sanders Theatre. Hancock will be in residence at Harvard for the duration of his lectureship.
In an interview with The Crimson, Hancock said that his lectures would center on life lessons and the experiences that he has had working with others. His lecture topics include cultural diplomacy, Buddhism and creativity, and innovation and new technologies.
“There will be a lot of stories about things that I have observed, that I have learned from others,” he said. “I want to share some of those experiences with the people who attend the lectures, because, perhaps, it will have significance to their lives and hopefully they will gain something from it that they can carry with them.”
Hancock said that he hopes that the lectures spark dialogue and critical thinking among attendees.
“I dont want them to walk out and they close the doors of their thinking on anything on the issues that I bring up in my lectures,” he said. “I hope it is something they can carry with them over their lives.”
Professors and other figures in the humanities scene at Harvard said that they were pleased by the appointment of a jazz musician to the esteemed post, which has hosted a range of figures from literature, music, and the fine arts since its inception in 1925.
“He was an obvious choice,” said Steven H. Biel, executive director of the Mahindra Humanities Center, adding that it was the appropriate time for a musician to be named Norton lecturer. “I am excited to hear from him in terms of what he has to say about his work and also to hear from him musically.”
Music professor Ingrid T. Monson and Music Department chair Alexander Rehding, both members of the selection committee, said that they considered several individuals for the professorship and sought out a jazz musician, a departure from the classical composers often chosen for the post.
“He is living history. He embodies a really important part of jazz in this country, so we are hoping to get a sense of his musicality and his humanity that he will include in his lectures,” Rehding said, adding that he hopes that performances from Hancock will become “an integral part” of the lecture series.
Monson and Rehding also commented on Hancock’s humanitarian efforts and the global perspective of his music. Hancock was named a Goodwill Ambassador by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2011.
“There is a very strong idealistic streak in his thinking,” Rehding said. “It is a big part of his persona, so I think it is something that we can look forward to [in the lectures].”
Hancock said that his humanitarian endeavors and pursuit of world peace manifest themselves in his music and will also come up in his lectures.
“I am not fundamentally a musician, I am fundamentally a human being,” he said. “As a human being, one of the areas that I focus on is how I can use music...an avenue that draws the attention of people [to] address somebody’s issues and to illuminate the solutions some of the issues that people have to deal with.”
Hancock’s first lecture, “The Wisdom of Miles Davis,” will take place Monday, Feb. 3. Tickets are free and available through the Harvard Box Office.
—Staff writer Jill E. Steinman can be reached at email@example.com.