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