‘I like to find new rules I can break’

Jazz pi­anist Her­bie Han­cock talks to Tim Adams about his years in Miles Davis’s leg­endary quin­tet, his debt to Bud­dhism and why he still has the urge to in­no­vate

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Her­bie Han­cock, now 77, started to play the pi­ano 70 years ago in Chicago. Con­sid­ered a prodigy, aged 11 he per­formed Mozart con­cer­tos with the city’s sym­phony or­ches­tra. A decade af­ter that he was in­vited to join Miles Davis, form­ing part of his “sec­ond great quin­tet” that de­fined jazz’s post-bop era. In the 1970s Han­cock had sev­eral cross­over chart hits. His 2007 al­bum, River: The Joni Let­ters , a trib­ute to Joni Mitchell, won the 2008 Grammy award for al­bum of the year. Han­cock is chair­man of the Th­elo­nious Monk In­sti­tute of Jazz at the Univer­sity of Los An­ge­les. This in­ter­view took place by phone at 1am LA time, with Han­cock about to em­bark on a Euro­pean tour. Old habits die hard, he ex­plained: “I’m re­ally a night per­son.”

Are you still ex­cited about be­ing on the road?

It’s still an ad­ven­ture. Ev­ery night the per­for­mance is dif­fer­ent. And you know, I’m old, so it’s great to see young peo­ple in the au­di­ence.

Has that de­sire to re­make what jazz might be ever gone away?

No, and at the mo­ment there is a re­ally strong push in that di­rec­tion. A lot of that is com­ing from young mu­si­cians in LA. Mu­si­cians like Ka­masi Wash­ing­ton, Ter­race Martin, who is in my band, Robert Glasper…

Do you see the same am­bi­tion in them that you had when you joined Miles’s band?

I do. I was 23 years old. I would sit and lis­ten to Miles talk, but he wasn’t a tyrant at all. He never told us what to play. He was just the op­po­site; he wanted to hear us do what we wanted. I sus­pect he had learned that men­tor­ing, nur­tur­ing spirit from other mu­si­cians when he was a kid, from peo­ple like Clark Terry.

Jazz, it seems, has al­ways been about el­ders pass­ing things on, bits of wis­dom, like a tribal re­li­gion in that way…

It is ex­actly that. We share and try not to judge each other too much. There is no species called mu­si­cian. We are hu­man be­ings. We are af­fected by the world around us, and of course that comes through in the mu­sic.

I was read­ing some of the in­ter­views you did around the time of Pres­i­dent Obama’s in­au­gu­ra­tion, when you re­leased

The Imag­ine Project al­bum. What hap­pened to all that hope?

It’s scary the way things have gone. We have no idea now what will hap­pen po­lit­i­cally from day to day, and a lot of it is com­ing from our pres­i­dent. Mu­sic can help, I think. It can show di­ver­sity for one thing: how we can cel­e­brate our sim­i­lar­i­ties and our dif­fer­ences. Which is the cel­e­bra­tion of life.

If there is a thread run­ning through your ca­reer, it seems to be that de­sire to break down mu­si­cal bar­ri­ers...

I think it is up to mu­si­cians to en­cour­age peo­ple to be coura­geous, to try things and lis­ten to things they haven’t heard be­fore. To hear things through other peo­ple’s ears.

I won­der, did you ever feel fear­ful on stage? Were there times with Miles, for ex­am­ple, when you thought, “I have no idea where I am go­ing with this”?

Oh, yeah. I was this kid walk­ing on stage to play with Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis. Ev­ery night was like walk­ing into a bat­tle against your­self. But you knew they also had your back. You went out there and you tried to make ev­ery mo­ment count.

You adopted Bud­dhist prac­tice in the early 1970s. Did that arise from the mu­sic?

When I first heard about Bud­dhism it sounded like what I al­ways be­lieved in. It was in har­mony with how I looked at jazz. Bud­dhism says that every­thing that hap­pens is im­por­tant; ev­ery mo­ment, good or bad, is to be ac­cepted as a way to move your life for­ward. In that way, you turn poi­son into medicine.

You have men­tioned how the dis­ci­pline has helped you through pe­ri­ods of anx­i­ety or cre­ative block…

What hap­pens is I have a tool I can use to ac­tu­ally change my mood. From one of con­fu­sion or de­spair or fear, to change it into one where I feel stronger and ready to face things.

Do you play the pi­ano ev­ery day?

No, but I chant ev­ery day.

It’s three score years and 10 since you started play­ing. Would you recog­nise that lit­tle boy in Chicago?

In many ways. I still feel the same won­der about things. I have al­ways been a very cu­ri­ous per­son. Dur­ing one pe­riod I had tun­nel vi­sion where I only lis­tened to jazz or clas­si­cal mu­sic and I felt closed. It was Miles again who showed me that it was cool to be open to all mu­sic. Joy comes from be­ing open.

Some more purist crit­ics have some­times ac­cused you of cross­ing too many bound­aries – is that pos­si­ble?

In the early 70s I did a record, Head

Hunters , a re­ally big de­par­ture, and peo­ple said that. Ac­tu­ally, I was just get­ting back to my roots. My own ear­li­est mu­sic ex­pe­ri­ence was lis­ten­ing to rhythm and blues groups and doo-wop groups from the 40s. That was the mu­sic of my neigh­bour­hood. How can [those crit­ics] ac­cuse me of sell­ing out? I know where I came from!

Do you still feel you have lots of mu­sic to ex­plore?

You know what I like to do? I like to dis­cover new rules so I can break them. I look around and see what is be­com­ing a mu­si­cal con­ven­tion. And then I work out how I might break it. That’s where in­no­va­tion comes from, that’s what keeps me play­ing.

Her­bie Han­cock plays two sold-out con­certs at the Bar­bican to­mor­row and Tues­day as part of the EFG Lon­don jazz fes­ti­val

Pho­to­graph by Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

‘I have al­ways been a very cu­ri­ous per­son’: Her­bie Han­cock at home in Los An­ge­les.

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