The first of two days entirely at sea marked Day 6 of the inaugural North Sea Jazz Cruise, an 11-day voyage through Scandinavia aboard Holland America Line's 1,316-passenger flagship Rotterdam. Keeping consistent with some shakedown aspects of the first-time voyage, last-second scheduling changes were announced around 9 a.m., with an afternoon jazz history presentation moved to the first event of the day at 10 a.m. in the Queen's Lounge where the headline concerts are playing.
Bassist Marcus Miller, who passengers are getting to know at a rare close-up level as he's been a generous and ubiquitous host of the cruise, guided the chat accompanied by Neil Tesser and Mark Ruffin of KFSR radio in Chicago, prodding the audience for comments, questions and additions as they saw fit.
"I'm not going to try to explain the history of jazz in an hour on a boat," Miller said. "Any music a record executive in America can't figure out, they put a jazz label on it."
The discussion moved briefly from decade to decade, covering terrain familiar to hardcore fans, but filled with useful tips for those getting their feet wet in the genre.
"If you have two records of jazz one has to be Kind Of Blue, but the other one and I'm talking to you guys is John Coltrane's Ballads because it's all ballads from the decades before and it's magic," Miller said.
(My tip for newbies wanting to hear Hancock or other legends free without breaking copyright laws: Find a podcast of their work by doing a search on Google or a directory site like podcastdirectory.com.)
I gleaned the most afterward, as Miller sat on the edge of the stage and chatted for maybe 20 minutes with a handful of people. I didn't even attempt to ask questions those of the informed and inexperienced alike were more insightful than anything I could have contributed. Besides of the obvious intimacy of seeing him outside of his big stage persona was his unfakeable enthusiasm and knowledge across the jazz spectrum. The last time I saw him in a discussion, at the annual IAJE conference in New York, he spoke frankly, at length and unhappily about the deliberate smoothing of artistic edges he and many other popular musicians (not to mention corporate minds and even individual radio outlets) do to make much of their music commercially appealing.
Miller played a midday concert with his band and a few others in the same theatre (he's performing so often I'm done reviewing each show) before conducting a 45-minute interview of Hancock shortly after. Immediately obvious was the longtime pioneer of technology hasn't lost his flair after more than 40 years.
"He walks onto the boat and he's like 'iPhone!'" Miller said after seeing the pianist flash his new gadget at his greeters. "That's Herbie Hancock. As soon as new technology comes out he's got to have it. And he knew how to use it, which means he'd had it for a few days."
The audience didn't get deep insight into the piano legend's work, but he offered advice for developing players based on his experience. Miller and Hancock also exchanged numerous stories about their experiences working with Miles Davis at very different points of his career.
Miller started the discussion saying there's probably two modern jazz pianists recognizable instantly by their sound Hancock and McCoy Tyner, both of whom are on the cruise and asked about one of the potential pitfalls of penning compositions played by massive numbers worldwide.
"There's no way you can play the jazz piano without knowing you guys," Miller said. "I just want to know, Herbie, what it feels like...turning on the radio, going 'He's playing my licks again, playing it wrong.' What do you think?"
"I don't think about it at all," Hancock said. "When I first became aware I was having an influence on other piano players I was flattered. My only experience has been flattery."
At the same time, he added, he hopes people learning his material use it as a springboard to finding their own voice. He said many people copy Bill Evans, but when hearing him as a youth "I said 'I don't want to be a copy of somebody I'm not.'"
Playing with Davis helped because "I had to look for some solutions I didn't hear from Bill Evans," Hancock said. "I had to just reach into that dark room."
Davis also possessed a critical trait of jazz's better musicians in that "they stand up for what they believe in," Hancock said. "Miles stood up for social issues. It's being true to yourself, what you believe in. Miles had demons, but underneath there was this bright, caring human being. He wanted to make it so musicians could stand up for themselves."
As for the quality of Davis' music, "I saw him get physically ill because he had to walk on the stage and he wasn't feeling like himself." Also,
I love jazz because next to my kids, it's the love of my life.
I was first exposed to jazz by Joe Rico from a tiny station in Niagara Falls in 1954 when I was 13.
The best show I ever attended was Maynard Ferguson who blew the roof off Massey Hall in the late 50s.
My advice to new listeners is to listen to everything you can and then listen again.