Here I am, reading a bit from the beginning of Herbie Hancock’s new book, “Possibilities,” (Viking) written with Lisa Dickey, at the start of our public conversation last night at Barnes & Noble on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
The upstairs room, less than a dozen blocks from the apartment Hancock live in decades ago, was overflowing. When the time came to field questions from the audience and Hancock waded into the seats, microphone in hand, the staffers looked concerned: But Herbie was just doing what he does—engaging people, and improvising.
I began our talk by reading a bit from his book set in the mid-1960s, when Hancock was a young musician in Miles Davis second great quintet, playing alongside Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams.
“Miles starts playing, building up a solo, and just as he’s about to really let loose, he takes a breath. And right then I play a chord that is just so wrong. I don’t even know where it came from—it’s the wrong chord, in the wrong place, and now it’s hanging out there like a piece of rotten fruit….”
Herbie picked up the anecdote, explaining how Miles considered that note, digested it, and turned is wrong chord into the right catalyst for something better, more musical, distinctly right. There’s much in the book about Miles, including the image of the trumpeter as he “sautéed dinner for us in a tuxedo—no apron, no nothing.” But mostly, Hancock expresses how Miles introduced him to the ideas of taking chances, never looking back and embracing possibilities however they arise.
Herbie’s new book traces a musical life that includes his landmark work in Davis’s band and as leader of his own bands, his Grammy and Oscar awards as well as unexpected moments, like “ending up in a boat in the Gambia with Miss Piggy and Kermit, playing a portable keyboard as we floated on a river, looking for sounds to sample.”
We discussed his early hit “Watermelon Man,” for which, he said, he reclaimed from caricature the image and sound of beloved character from the Chicago neighborhood of his youth; he also recalled how, acting on trumpeter Donald Byrd’s advice, he claimed up front the publishing rights (which paid off neatly).
We addressed his ongoing battles with himself to “overcome my own musical snobbery”: when he moved from classical music to jazz as a child; when Miles first presented him with a Fender Rhodes electric piano to play instead of an acoustic instrument; and when he followed his heart and instincts into funk and hip-hop styles, despite the protests of record-company executives and music critics.
That battle, which rages still within jazz’s ranks, is well known. In his book, Hancock also discusses a private and previously hidden battle decades ago with addiction to crack cocaine.
We ended by examining the Nichiren Buddhist practice, grounded in chanting nam myoho renge kyo, that bassist Buster Williams introduced Hancock to some 40 years ago, and that has anchored his life ever since.
Hancock ended with this admonition: “The strongest you can be is to be a person who follows your heart.”
And here‘s a 2010 Wall Street Journal piece I did on Hancock that touches on some of the above.