Settled in an armchair and mutely dressed in a grey fleece half-zip and black jeans, Herbert “Herbie” J. Hancock, the 2014 Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry, exuded pure calmness. The legendary jazz pianist, known for leading fearless, searching electric and acoustic projects (Head Hunters, Mwandishi, his Trio) as well as his tenure with Miles Davis’s seminal “Second Great Quintet” in the ’60s, was charmingly low-key but coolly energetic. Hancock, who turns 75 next month, showed absolutely no sign of his age, save for when he stood up and a slight paunch quietly emerged.
Over the course of a half hour, we talked about his thoughts on the lectures, the epistemic status of the word “jazz,” the difference between composing and improvising, his feelings about being named the first African-American Norton lecturer, and his impression of the Harvard scene.
The Harvard Crimson: How did you find the process of writing these lectures?
Herbie Hancock: Well, I’ve been working on them for almost six months. I’ve been working with a woman who has written speeches for me before over the past few years. The majority of them were for functions having to do with the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz; some were for keynote addresses for graduating classes, and there were some cases of me receiving an honorary doctorate or something like that.
In a lot of cases, she did interviews with me and she would just take my words and my ideas and perfect the construction of them, and that’s kind of how we worked on these lectures. Over the years she’s learned a lot about how I think, my style—more than how I express myself: how I feel about things. She knows I’m Buddhist, and there are certain ways I look at things that have to do with my perspective because of my practice of Buddhism. As a result, she’s learned a lot about that perspective; as a matter of fact, she is now interested in Buddhism! *laughs*
THC: How do you think about the relationship between composition and improvisation? Do you think there’s a difference between the two?
HH: Yeah, for me there is. Improvisation is composition—it’s spontaneous composition—but it’s without consideration of any time except the moment, whereas what we call composition is done at a particular time, but you’re not restricted to the moment. There’s a kind of unconscious realization that composition is purposely structured for continuous play, or listening. I mean, you’re not conscious of it in those concrete, detailed terms at the time that you’re composing, but inherently you hope that people are going to want to hear it over and over again! *laughs*
THC: It seems that jazz is gaining respect within higher institutions of learning, since improvisation isn’t necessarily being thought of as below composition, as it sometimes has been in classical music departments.
HH: I hear people say things to me—people from the classical world (not necessarily here, I don’t think they’d necessarily say it to my face)—but they say stuff like, “Oh, I hear you’re getting back into classical music!” They say it with such glee, you know! “Oh, you’re coming back into the real, fine art of classical music,” as though jazz isn’t, and that just goes in one ear and out the other.
I don’t pay attention to that because I have a great deal of respect and admiration for the art of improvisation—especially jazz, because it has solid roots that come from the people, come from ordinary people, and it’s not stuck in any attempt to aspire to some kind of hierarchical placement. The only hierarchy is within the individual musician himself: to become better, that’s all.
THC: Before your first lecture, you went into why you chose the word “Ethics,” but I was also curious about the word “Jazz,” since the term has come under fire in recent years. Do you have an opinion on that whole debate? What does the word “jazz” mean to you?
HH: Well, I do have a perspective on that: we can make jazz mean anything we want it to mean. I’m not so concerned about changing the word as I am about defining, by our behavior and by our focus on establishing a meaning in the eyes of the public, a music that’s one of respect and one that’s worthy of adoration.
THC: Hence initiatives like International Jazz Day.
HH: I mean, you don’t have to change the word! To me, that’s like—I don’t know why this popped into my head—but a guy that gets married to one woman, divorces her and marries another one, divorces her and marries another one, and now, he’s got five wives and a big alimony.
This is a very broad and dangerous generalization to make, but, in general, I think in a lot of cases the fault isn’t the wife or the marriage itself—it’s how you perceive the relationship and the stuff that you throw into the relationship that destroys it! It’s more that you have to deal with yourself; that’s kind of where I’m at. It’s up to us to define what jazz is.
THC: At the first lecture, I was surprised when Professor Homi Bhabha announced that you are the first African-American Norton Professor of Poetry. Was that a surprise to you?
HH: Yeah, it was a surprise to me. On one hand, I felt honored; on the other hand, I felt like, “This is 2014 and you never had any other black Norton professor? Like, what’s wrong with you, Harvard?” *laughs*
Well, Homi Bhabha said the same thing, like, “Well, what took them so long?” But I’ve moved past that. Next! That’s how I felt: “What took you so long,” “Okay, next,” and now you’re past it, so that’s good.
THC: This is a bit of nerdy question, but there’s a story about the infamous 1965 Live at the Plugged Nickel recordings that drummer Tony Williams, on a plane to Chicago, suggested that you and the rest of Miles Davis’s band play “anti-music.” Is that a true story?
HH: Yeah, that’s true. Well, we didn’t know anything about them recording. What had happened was that we got so good at being able to make the music work—to make it happen—because we kind of knew what each one was going to do based off of what each one was going to play. It just became too comfortable and, to us, it was like stagnation. We had grown to the point where we could do that. Now, what’s next? We needed to push the envelope in some kind of way. It was the idea that came from Tony, but as soon as he said it, I totally agreed with him. We needed to break the rules and play against everything we had done before. The idea was: whatever somebody expects you to do at a certain musical idea, do the opposite.
THC: Did you tell Miles?
HH: No! *laughs*
THC: But he caught on.
HH: He never said one word. He never said one word. But one thing we knew was that Miles always told us to always be working on something, and this was working on something. But the worst thing was, we walk into the Plugged Nickel and we see a bunch of tape recorders! We didn’t know we were going to be recorded and we were like, “Oh…we decided to do anti-music on the day we’re going to record, so maybe we shouldn’t do this…maybe after the record.”
But we kind of made that vow—almost in blood!—so we gritted our teeth and we said, “We’re going to do it now,” because otherwise it was like now or never. I think inside we were thinking, “Okay, the idea came, so we better do this idea while it’s hot instead of being swayed,” so we did.
And after the first night they said, “You want to hear some of the tapes back?” Well, none of us wanted to hear anything back because we thought it was awful. We knew that this was like growing pains or something, and we didn’t expect it to sound like anything, you know.
THC: Did you ever end up listening to it?
HH: It was I guess months later; they didn’t put the record out for a while. I read that they had put one out—this was before they did the whole collection—and I didn’t want to hear it. Somebody called me up and said, “Have you heard the stuff you guys did at the Plugged Nickel?” and I said, “No, and I don’t want to, either!” So whoever called me—I don’t remember—they said, “I think you should listen to it.” And I said, “Why? You know, that stuff is really bad.” And he said, “No, I think you should listen to it.” And then I listened to this record...and it sounded really raw, and there was a certain honesty in the rawness that I was happy about, and everything wasn’t perfect and all—the i’s weren’t dotted and the t’s weren’t crossed - but...
THC: But the spirit was there.
HH: Yeah. And Wayne was killing! And Miles, too, and Tony, and…I mean, there were things in there—not moment to moment, but just in general. It’s not my finest piano playing, but it’s all searching, you know, and it had a value that I never expected.