Herbie Hancock: ‘Miles Davis told me I’m not paying you to get applause’

WWhen the pandemic dragged the now 82-year-old jazz legend Herbie Hancock off the road, his half-century passion for Nichiren Buddhism came to the rescue. “I could have been miserable about what I was missing,” he says from his Los Angeles home, “but for the first time in 50 years, I ate with my own wife every night and slept next to her in my own bed. blessing. Music is what I do, but not what I am.” With his Glastonbury castle on the horizon – making it one of the oldest to ever grace the Pyramid stage – Hancock reflects on his work with Donald Byrd and Miles Davisplus his own groundbreaking innovations in funk, soul, hip-hop and more.

What’s on Glastonbury’s menu?

I’m going to play [1973 album] heads hunters-era material, but also some newer stuff. I’m always on tour, so I don’t have much time to hang out. But it is enormous, that’s what I remember from Glastonbury. And the audience is always very enthusiastic. And that it sometimes rains, and then you have to wear wellies.

Hancock performs in Tennessee, USA, in June 2022.
Hancock performs in Tennessee, USA, in June 2022. Photo: Daniel DeSlover/ZUMA Press Wire/Shutterstock

It’s been ten years since your last album The Imagine Project. Do you still have music to make?

Yes, my last album! No, let me rephrase that – the last album I worked on. This new album has taken a long time and is still not ready, but Terrace Martin produces it, and thunder catRobert Glasper and Kamasi Washington will be on it, as it is Kendrick Lamar† I look to these guys for ideas because this is their century, and I’m from the last century. some of them, their fathers or mothers were jazz musicians, and they inherited that feeling, while some learned it by studying. I have a school, the Herbie Hancock Institute – it used to be the Thelonious Monk Institute – and Terrace was one of our students, as was Kamasi.

In your Harvard lectures On the ethics of jazz, you said while you were making your first album, 1962’s Takin’ Off, you had”a subconscious feeling that it would be my last record† Why?

I was 22 years old and I was lucky enough that Blue Note was even interested in making my record. I played in ‘s band Donald Byrd, who discovered me and took me from Chicago to New York. Donald said, “Herbie, it’s time for you to make your own record.” Blue Note had a reputation for signing the so-called “young guns” of the era, such as: Freddie Hubbard and Wayne Shorter, these 20-year-olds are leading the next wave in jazz. But they were still reluctant to include someone like me. Donald said, “We’re going to tell them you’re being called up and you want to make a record before you go to Korea,” and Blue Note said yes, which was a surprise, and meant I had to write some material – and fast! I wrote three tunes one night and three more the next. One of them was Watermelon Man, who covered Mongo Santamaria and made a huge hit. Within five days of Mongo’s release being released, Xavier Cugat made a version, as did Trini López, and there were five different recordings of it in Jamaica alone.

Miles Davis then enlisted you for his Second Great Quintet.

Miles Davis on stage with Hancock in Berlin, 1964.
Miles Davis on stage with Hancock in Berlin, 1964. Photo: Jan Persson/Getty Images

I had the feeling that the impossible had happened. Joining Miles and making Watermelon Man a hit at the same time made me feel like I was on top of the world.

Has success gone to your head?

I couldn’t walk around and say, “Hey, look at me, I’m playing with Miles Davis.” No no. I had to be serious, right? Because the level of musicality was so high. You had to play with Miles, but it was so inspiring to work with him.

What was Davis like as a bandleader?

He said [hoarse, Miles-ish whisper]: “I’m not paying you to play just to get applause.” He told us he paid us to experiment on stage. He said, “I want you to try new things, brand new things.” And I told him some of it might not work, so what about the audience? He said, “Don’t worry. I have the audience.” He loved to be challenged, stimulated and kicked a ball. It’s like playing baseball: he was the home run king, ready to hit any ball and send it across the stands.

Miles encouraged you to play electronic instruments with him in the later stages of your time.

I was delighted because I was studying electrical engineering in college and had some understanding of electronics. In fact, I got my first computer in 1979, which was very early in the game. I still have that computer. It was an Apple II Plus, and it had 48k RAM, and you had to store the programs on a cassette. But I knew computers were going to be important in music, and I encouraged every musician I met to learn how they worked.

How was your employment with? Will Davis end?

I got married in 1968. I told my wife we ​​can either have a big wedding in New York and invite all our free friends to give us gifts we don’t want or we can get first class tickets to Rio de Janeiro and spend our honeymoon at the top hotel there. She said, “Where’s my ticket?”

But I got food poisoning in Brazil and the doctor said my liver was swollen and I had to stay for a few more weeks. I was supposed to play with Miles, but I stayed another week, because I didn’t want to risk my life. When I came back he had already replaced me with… Chick Corea† I later learned that Miles knew that myself, drummer Tony Williams, and saxophonist Wayne Shorter all had their own record deals and had talked about leaving his band. He realized that if he included Chick in the group, he wouldn’t have to start all over again when Tony and Wayne left.

But I was in love with that band – we had such a great time, and nothing beats accompanying Miles Davis. What he did was always genius. And Wayne Shorter too. I couldn’t imagine how I would ever leave. But moving on opened up a whole new side of my career that I hadn’t explored before.

You formed your own forward-looking, challenging unit, the Mwandishi group, with fusions of jazz, funk and early synthesizers later recognized by writer Kodwo Eshun as masterpieces of Afrofuturism.

Mwandishi band plays in New Yor, 1976, with Hancock on keyboards.
Mwandishi band plays in New York, 1976, with Hancock on keyboards. Photo: Tom Copi/Getty Images

Dr. Martin Luther King’s work for civil rights had been a defining moment for many of us in this country, and our friend James “Mtume” Heath, who was Jimmy Heath’s son and a musician himself, kept wondering when myself and the musicians I worked with would join “the movement.” He gave us all the Swahili names – my name, Mwandishi, means ‘writer’. We wore dashikis and talismans and other things identified with the homeland – the homeland of humanity.

Musically, the Mwandishi band was always exploring new territories. We were always looking for new ways to explore our “space music”. We were all into that – we had joined the avant-garde, although my manager David Rubinson knew I was looking for ways to get this music across to the average person, not just the avant-garde enthusiast. David said, “These new instruments are starting to be used on rock records called synthesizers,” and he put me in touch with a man named Dr. Patrick Gleeson, who had a studio nearby. I asked Patrick to record an intro to one of the songs on our next album, Crossings. And what he recorded amazed me, so I immediately hired him. He was supposed to bring an ARP 2600 on the road, but in the studio he had a large Moog modular synthesizer. they were huge back in those days.

Was your next group, the headhunters, another attempt to win over the average listener?

For the past year and a half of Mwandishi, I listened a lot to Sly Stone and James Brown, and I loved it. I’m from Chicago, a blues and R&B city, so that’s part of my own personal roots. I had done the space thing, now I wanted something from Earth. So in 1973 I started the Headhunters.

Your 1983 album Future Shock and the breakthrough single Rockit marked your early foray into the world of hip-hop.

My dear friend Maria Lucien’s teenage son Krishna was a percussionist, and he told me to look for this record, Buffalo Gals by Malcolm McLaren† He said, “Maybe you’ll find an interesting sound there.” My assistant, Tony Mylon, was always looking for underground stuff, and he met Bill Laswell and Michael Beinhorn, two musicians who produced other people’s records in addition to their own records. [as Material]† I said, “I want something with crabs!” Rockit was the first thing we worked on and I decided, “Let’s do the whole record with these new guys.” Rockit got so big, it opened up everything. Rap was just starting to happen, and then that whole scene exploded. And here we are today.

People have argued for decades that jazz is dead, and have… said records you were working on, like Davis’ On the Corner murdered the. Is it dead? Where do you see the future of music?

The point is that jazz is so open, it’s hard to kill it. An individual can kill their own career – if you keep it limited to one sound or era, it’s hard to get past the audience you started with, and they get older as you get older. That’s not exciting to me. I want to be open enough to attract an audience of any age. That’s why I work a lot with younger people. They are the future, and I always look ahead. When I was young, musicians from the generations before me really helped and encouraged me, and showed me mistakes in my thinking about song structure. I’m at that point in my life where it’s time to pass the baton to younger musicians. But I’m not ready to leave yet.

Herbie Hancock will perform on Glastonbury’s Pyramid stage, Sunday at 2pm.

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