Herbie Hancock gears up for Harvard lectures

Dan Steinberg/ap/file 2005

Herbie Hancock released his debut album, “Takin’ Off,” on Blue Note Records in 1962 when he was 22, but in fact he’d been taking off since the age of 11, when he played the Mozart D major piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He’s since broken new musical ground as a member of the ’60s Miles Davis Quintet and as a composer and pianist who easily crosses boundaries from jazz to funk to pop and movie scores, collecting a passel of honors along the way, including an Academy Award for his score to the 1986 film “ ’Round Midnight” and the 2007 album of the year Grammy for “River: The Joni Letters.” In 2011 he was named a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, and last December he was a recipient of a Kennedy Center Honor. He is also Institute Chairman of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz.

Next week, as Harvard’s Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry, he begins a lecture series titled “The Ethics of Jazz.” (The lectures are free and open to the public, but tickets are required.) I recently spoke with Hancock over the phone about the lectures.

Q. Before Harvard called, were you aware of the Norton Professorship?


A. No, no, I had never heard of it! I understand now that originally it was a poetry designation. But they’ve expanded the concept of poetry to include culture and the arts in general.

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Q. The lectures have been give by other musicians — Igor Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein, John Cage — but no jazz musicians?

A. No, [Homi Bhabha, director of Harvard’s Mahindra Humanities Center] told me I’m the first.

Q. How was the subject matter determined?

A. The subject matter wasn’t given to me, and in fact the reason I was chosen was not just because I was a musician but because I have functioned as an educator and because I’m also a goodwill ambassador for UNESCO. I’m also a practicing Buddhist. I’ve been practicing now for over 40 years. So, from what I gather, it’s the whole person that they’re looking at — not just my hands as I’m playing the piano! (laughs)


Q. You’ve said that the lectures will involve connecting the lessons you’ve learned about life from jazz and Buddhism.

A. Much of it is about the extension of many characteristics that I find in jazz that are applicable to the perspective on your whole life. Simple things like the importance of listening, the importance of learning how to be nonjudgmental.

Q. One of the topics is “The Wisdom of Miles Davis.” What kind of life lessons did you get from Miles?

A. One of the things I mentioned a second ago: the importance of listening. That’s the first thing I noticed about Miles when you’re on the bandstand — how much he actually listens to what the other musicians are playing when he’s soloing. And how he responds to what he’s hearing. And how that ends up making the band really sound like a unit. It’s real harmonization of those elements based off of listening and trust.

Q. The more I talk to musicians, the more I hear about the importance of trust. You can take a big musical leap because you can trust that the other guy’s got your back.


A. It’s that and trusting yourself — if he does something that you don’t expect, which includes doing nothing, you have to trust that you’ll somehow be able to make that a part of the musical flow.

Q. The overall title of the series is “The Ethics of Jazz.”

A. I chose that title because, first of all, it’s provocative, and second of all, it includes how most people view me, which is as a jazz musician. But it’s ethics in a broad sense. When you’re playing with other musicians, your task is to make whatever happens work. So you’re trying to build something, you’re trying to improve, you’re trying to fashion something of “beauty.” I’m using beauty in quotes because it can be ugly if that’s the emotion that you’re feeling that you want portray as a truth.

In a lot of music you hear hope. And sometimes it’s protest. For example, with the civil rights movement, various musicians responded to that time. So it’s not always about nice and pretty things.

Q. Are there things going on now that you want to address as a musician?

A. I think the important thing is not just what I want to address as a musician, but what I want to address as a human being. What I want to address as a musician comes about because of my humanity. Not the other way around. My last record — which is called “The Imagine Project” — the whole idea behind that record was to promote a new kind of globalization, which is about being more involved with the creation of environments where human beings of different cultures, different ideas, can get together to create solutions to some of the problems that are global. That’s one of the things of utmost importance to me, to make a harmonious orchestra of humanity.

This interview has been condensed and edited. Jon Garelick can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jgarelick.