A Fireside Chat With Herbie Hancock
“ I was just signing with them (Verve) and I asked some of the executives if they had anybody at the label that was looking into the new technologies... new ways to distribute music. They looked at me as if I was crazy. ”
To know Miles Davis is to know Herbie Hancock. Herbie, having been a member of Miles' infamous quintet with Tony Williams, Ron Carter, and Wayne Shorter, is required reading. But long before I was casually interested in improvised music, I knew Herbie. You see, being a member of Gen-X that grew up on daily feedings of MTV, Herbie was old school for me. In the early Eighties, Herbie had "the" hit on MTV, "Rockit," a pre-house, industrial anthem accompanied by a kick ass video that played in heavy rotation on the before mentioned music video network. From there, I found my way to Thrust, which gave way to Sextant, which bridged Miles Davis, which began Coltrane, and Trane to Ornette, Ornette to Ayler, and so on. Without further ado, Herbie Hancock, folks, as always, unedited and in his own words.
All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning.
Herbie Hancock: My best friend had a piano when I was about six years old. He was actually several months older than me. He had already turned seven. I would go to his house and ask if I could play his piano. Of course, I couldn't play it. I would just bang on it, but my mother noticed that I was interested in the piano and on my seventh birthday, they bought me a piano. So my older brother, my younger sister and I started taking lessons soon after that. After about three years, my brother and sister stopped their lessons and I continued on. For some reason, my interest never waned. It continued to progress and what really did it was when I was about twelve or thirteen years old, when I first started to pay attention to jazz and get involved with that. That really pulled me in like a magnet.
FJ: Because initially, you were classically trained.
HH: Right, I was playing classical music at first, but the fact that jazz is creative from another standpoint because it is an improvised music. You can express things and find ways of creating your own spontaneous melodies. That was one of the things. In my experience, it felt like I could put more of me into it. When you are playing classical music, you are reading someone else's music and interpreting that music. Whereas in jazz, you may be playing someone else's song, but the interpretation and the rendition is your own, moment to moment.
FJ: Miles had boxing and later, painting to continue his creativity away from the music, how do you approach quenching the creativity?
HH: I'm very much into technology, Fred. And even though, on the surface, it sounds like that is not a very creative pursuit, I'm constantly on the internet searching for things, trying to learn stuff, trying to figure out how things work and a lot of things spark my interest, some of the newer technologies having to do with atomic technology, machines that are on an atomic level, those tiny, tiny machines. To me, all that stuff is fascinating. And things having to do with other planets and other systems in the universe, that is fascinating for me too. So from the very, very small, atomic level, all the way up to macro level, those things are very intriguing to me. Life on Mars, that kind of stuff is intriguing. I just recently came back from Kennedy Space Center where I saw the launch of an Atlas 2 rocket. They were launching a satellite, a tracking and relay satellite. It was fantastic to me. I got a chance to get a real special VIP tour of the Kennedy Space Center and be inside the Atlantis Space Shuttle, which will be the next one going up in January and I hope to be able to see that launch. So I am totally into that kind of stuff. I certainly like my titanium PowerBook. I've got the latest one, the 1.0 GHz one. I just got it, so I haven't even really used it yet. I am transferring some files into it now. But I am also very much interested in humanity. I am interested in the world that we live in and the environment that we live in and the fact that it is very important that we protect all of those, the human beings and the environment.
FJ: With the advancement of technology, the world has grown largely smaller.
HH: (Laughing) Interesting way to put it, largely smaller.
FJ: The flipside being the haves and the have nots. How does the proverbial gap get bridged?
HH: Absolutely, absolutely, there are ways, but first of all, Fred, you have to understand that the thing that is most needed on the planet for most of the poorer nations on the planet is not technology. It is water. That's first. Secondly, technology on the surface is about data and knowledge, but it takes wisdom to be able to use those elements in a proper way to move humanity forward. So technology without wisdom is dangerous and one of the problems today is the word wisdom has almost disappeared from the map of our vocabulary and it really needs to be put there because it is with wisdom that we can figure out in a more comprehensive and a more positive way, how to use the technology and how to even transfer the technology to other nations so that we don't interfere with their own ability, so it is not like a hand-me-down.
There is a tendency for the haves to think, even the do-gooder haves, to think that the have-nots have nothing to offer and the haves have something to offer and we really should take care of those poor people who have nothing to offer. That is very arrogant and elitist. That needs to be changed because it is not the have nots that have put the world into a lot of trouble. It's the haves. So maybe it is the have nots that have some of the solutions that we need. Perhaps if we paid more attention to providing the technology to the have nots so that they can give us what it is that they bring to the table, we might not have had to face the problem of 9-11.
Perhaps if we paid more attention to, not the short term view, but the long term view of what we Americans do and what we in quotes "contribute" to the rest of the world, we'd find that a lot of what we think is good is not really so good. We're not liked very much, not only by people who are more obvious enemies to our culture, but even by our allies. I go to France. French people don't like us very much. Yes, they like the American people, but they don't like what we do because we are very, very arrogant. We always think we are the best. We are the biggest, yes, but we always think we're the best.
Well, our best, to me, isn't good enough. I think we need to look further inside and look further into not only glazing over whatever mistakes we may be thinking and just focusing on the good things. We need to really re-examine ourselves and find out what it is we really need to change about ourselves so that instead of being hated by the world, so that we are loved by the world. We have the capacity to do that.
First of all, war is a last resort. War is the last resort and it should come as a result, if anything, of someone striking you in the face, but even at that, I hate the idea of war. I hate the idea of war. I haven't been aware yet of enough proof that, OK, here is what bothers me. Where do we get off in being the country that decides who is supposed to have weapons of mass destruction and who isn't? Oh, because we're the good guys? We won't do any bad things with it. Dream on. Since when have we been the good guys? We're the only ones that dropped an atomic bomb so far. And we are threatening to possibly include nuclear weapons in this war? To me that is insane.
The axis of evil? I think we should look in the mirror and then we will see what the axis of evil is. We are becoming the bad guys and I hate that. I really hate that.
There is no reason that we should be the bad guys. One of the problems is that our whole system is based off of consumerism, based off of money. That is the motivator. In order to get money, you have to get people to buy things. In order to get people to buy things, you give them whatever it is they want, whether it is good for them or not. So we have kow-towed to the lowest common denominator in America for far too long and to a total imbalance compared to all the different factions and age groups and tastes that exist in this country.
This is a big country that has a variety of things. One of the best attributes of this country is our variety. It is a whole tapestry of everything that is in this country. That's good. But it seems that the only thing we're trying to sell is to teach people to be gluttons and greed. That is not good.
So my concern is not just to complain about, as I am doing now, about what is not good, but I am concerned about finding solutions on how we can improve ourselves as Americans and improve our image, not just because, out of the fact that we hear about just the image, but we care about who we really are. That is my concern.
FJ: Should you, as an entertainer, preach from the pulpit?
HH: Well, we are all human beings, right? OK, we have the right to decide what we want to do with our lives, at least in theory. Our choice is our right and our privilege. To a certain extent, I have the eye of the public, to a certain degree, and perhaps the ear of the public. That is why I am on your show right now. So my feeling is since I have this opportunity that a lot of people don't have, I would prefer to take advantage of the opportunity to express things that I feel can be catalysts to inspire people to move forward and to bring out the best of what they have to offer. I have been practicing Buddhism for thirty years and the reason I practice this Buddhism. It is Nichiren Buddhism. I practice it because the philosophy is amazing. It is very open and it is very inclusive and doing the practice really helps me get a clearer vision of what it is that I need to do. The next thing is actually doing it, which takes strength and courage and wisdom and I hope to be able to develop those attributes along with others to help me be all that I can be and encourage everybody else to be all that they can be too.
FJ: The musical journey has advanced to the supreme tribute by a recording label, the box set. And Columbia/Legacy has recently issued your material via a four disc set and DVD ( Future to Future ), a testament to your musical legacy.
HH: Maybe it only says that I'm this old, Fred (laughing). That I have been around a long time (laughing). Future to Future, yes, that is a new DVD. Did you figure out how to open the CD box?
FJ: It didn't come with a manual, but I got the gist of it.
HH: (Laughing) Wow.
FJ: The shoe fits.
HH: (Laughing) Well, I'm very happy to have spent many years under, what was then, the Columbia Record label, which is now Sony. They are a class act, that is for sure. My relationship with that label began when I started with Miles Davis because Miles was on Columbia. Then I got to meet a lot of executives at the label and they were interested in me as the years went by. I was always attracted to that label and I spent many wonderful years making a lot of different records, records that I wanted to make with that label. I have been fortunate to have been in a position to pretty much do what I want and not have the concepts dictated to me. I think one of the reasons is because I try to keep an open viewpoint of the reality picture and the artistry picture and try to marry the two in some kind of way. I've done records from very far out stuff, my very first record was called Sextant and that was a pretty avant-garde kind of record and the next one was Headhunters, which was a pretty funky record, but at the same time, had some pretty advanced jazz stuff floating on top of these funky rhythms. That was my entry into the label and Headhunters was a huge album and Sextant was not. It is interesting to me that actually now, that record has come back. Sextant has come back and a lot of people who are into the new electronic music have told me that they were influenced by Sextant.
FJ: I have heard that praise in the DJ community for both Sextant and Thrust.
HH: Right, right, which, I had never thought that record would come back in any way, shape, or form. And here it has, that whole period. So I was very happy and very fortunate in being on that label and adding them to my resume. What is happening the back of my mind is the fact that at this point in time, the record business and next will be the film business, will not be what they have been because again, new technology bringing the possibility of people being able to download music for free. Napster pretty much started that and MP3.com and some other entities. Actually, ten years ago, I was speaking to the label that I signed with at that time, which was Polygram, now owned by Universal. I am signed to Verve, which is part of that family. Anyway, I was just signing with them and I asked some of the executives if they had anybody at the label that was looking into the new technologies of new concepts and new ways to distribute music. They looked at me as if I was crazy. The answer is "no." They hired somebody to do that, but they never paid attention to this guy and later on, they let him go. If they had paid attention to it, the whole business that we are embarking on, this new scene for the record industry would be totally different. The record industry would have been the Napster. On the other hand, what has actually happened to is that a lot of indiscretions that I feel the record labels in general have been guilty of have now been exposed. So they haven't really been the good guys either. CDs are, at this point, you can get a hundred blank CDs for twenty-five dollars. Why are they charging eighteen, they are charging twenty dollars for those things. I told them about that before. Why are you charging so much money? They always came up with excuses and I didn't buy any of them. Now, it is all out in the open.
FJ: CDs are the same price as DVDs, which include a wealth of features and source material.
HH: Exactly. The fact of the matter is, that piece of plastic called a CD doesn't have a whole lot of value anymore. It doesn't have any value because CD burners are cheap. Anybody can make their own CDs now and they can buy them for a few cents, a blank CD and burn whatever it is that they want. That in itself, doesn't really have major value. What does have value is the content. It is the music itself. It is the film itself. It is the T-shirts and the tours and the cups and whatever merchandising that they come up with and whatever new ideas. We need some new ideas as to what the public would benefit from in terms of their relationship with the music and the artists that are making that music or the filmmakers and the artists that are making those films. I'm afraid the record companies are a little slow in making this transition, which is a major one because the record industry will not be, in any way, shape, or form, what it has been in the past and right now, they are trying to protect what was in the past and baby, this is the Twenty-First Century and they better start looking for some new ideas because trying to protect what they had in the past is not going to work. The only thing they are going to do is make more enemies.