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Herbie Hancock, in His Own Words, on Improvisation, Chanting, and Unfunny Drunks – Esquire

Herbie Hancock, in His Own Words, on Improvisation, Chanting, and Unfunny Drunks – Esquire


One of America's best musicians, in his own words


The publication this month of Herbie Hancock’s new memoir, Possibilities, is a choice opportunity for the master musician to look back on his protean career and what it taught him. The book covers the many highlights: Growing up a classical-piano prodigy in Chicago. Joining Miles Davis’s second great quintet at 23. The hit tunes (“Cantaloupe Island,” “Watermelon Man,” “Maiden Voyage,” “Rockit,” et al), albums (Head Hunters), and Grammy wins (most notably River: The Joni Letters, which in 2008 became the second jazz album in Grammy history to be voted album of the year). The fascination with technology that put him in friendly competition with Stevie Wonder to be first to own each new synthesizer as it came on the market. Scoring TV shows (Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids) and films (Blow-UpDeath Wish, best original soundtrack-winning ’Round Midnight, in which he also acted). Extra-musical successes include being named a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and delivering a series of six lectures at Harvard this past spring as Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry. More significantly, the book explores Hancock’s long, deep commitments to his wife, Gigi, and to chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo each day as an adherent of Nichiren Buddhism.

Hancock’s life has not been trouble-free, however. His book makes public for the first time how he eventually overcame an addiction to crack cocaine. Just out of rehab at the tail end of 1999, he toasted the new millennium with Martinelli’s Sparkling Cider instead of champagne, and decided that night that he was giving up alcohol, too. Hancock spoke of all this with me by phone in late August. This is what he said:

Going out into the unknown, there’s nothing really to fear. But it opens the doorway toward new possibilities. A broadening of one’s talent. Growth. Moving forward. All of those things that make life exciting and wonderful.

What Im thinking about is the purpose of jazz, the purpose of music, the purpose of improvisation. It really is a vehicle for bringing people together. It’s not just about playing notes. It’s encouragement. It’s hope. It’s courage itself. Because we’re improvising, we’re in the moment, we don’t know what we’re going to play next. At its best, we are really fearlessly stretching out and trying things—and getting outside of the comfort zone.

I got a lot of encouragement from Miles, because his whole impetus was in being true to yourself musically. Doing what you believe in, and not depending on someone else’s reaction or response to it. It’s a great life lesson to learn how to have what in Buddhism we call “stand-alone spirit.” To have the conviction to be true to yourself, and not have to depend on the opinions of others. That’s been a rock for me.

Yet, were committed to not just serving ourselves, but to sharing this experience with an audience. The audience becomes a member of the band, in other words. That’s why live recordings sound different from studio recordings: because the lives of the people are part of the equation.

My outlook and my perspective of life got a lot clearer. It was almost like putting on glasses for the first time, when I was about 7. I mean, what I thought was clear before wasn’t clear. But I didn’t know that until I put the glasses on. Then I realized, “Oh, this is what it really looks like.” That’s what Buddhism does. 

Actually, chanting refreshes you. It’s like clearing out the cobwebs.

This is the 21st Century, and it looks horrible—the world is more difficult now than it was when I was younger. But personally, I really think that it’s the storm before the calm.

We have to create the kind of world where we actually work together in harmony. I use the metaphor of the human orchestra—working toward that.

We have a huge challenge for humanity, and that’s global warming. We can’t solve that fighting these stupid wars that are going on now, having values turned upside down. Having power being at the top of the list, having money being at the top of the list. That’s not what should motivate people. That’s just greed and ignorance. What’s going to lead us into a more harmonious road is placing value in the potential that every human being has. The greatness that’s in every human being. That’s what Buddhism talks about—about building and encouraging that.

Look, slavery is over. I don’t want to be another slave to that. I want freedom.

I had snorted coke before. Many people have done that. I didn’t realize that first time that crack is not something you can just fancy seeing what it is, and then say, “Oh, okay, that’s what that is,” and walk away from it. I didn’t know that until I actually did it. And when I did it that first time, as it says in the book, I said inside, “Oh, no. I should have never done this.” Because it threw me into this hole that’s not easy to get out of.

I needed the intervention that happened, that my wife did. For me, it was like, “The jig is up.” On one hand, I was relieved. At the same time, I was totally embarrassed and ashamed. But I knew that this was the end. I’ve got my road out of this. And I had to go to rehab. And I said, “I have to chant my butt off. And I want to do everything they say and do it right, because I don’t want to have any regrets about, like, I didn’t try hard enough.” I went to AA meetings and chanted every day in the hospital, in rehab. 

I wasnt that heavy a drinker. I mean, I could drink heavy. I’m not saying that I couldn’t. But I stopped.

The first thing that I noticed happened when I went to one of my favorite spots here, a little bar that’s in Beverly Hills not far from my house. They have a piano in there, musicians—usually rock musicians—would come in there. Sometimes they would just start playing some music, and I would sit in with different people. When I stopped drinking, I went to that club, and I just drank water and juice. And for the first time, I saw what happens to people.

I didn’t realize how severe it was until I observed it sober. I’m watching other people drink and what happens to them. They thought they were clever. And it wasn’t at all. It was annoying.

The most important thing is for you not to depend on the other person for your happiness. Your happiness is your own responsibility. It’s not something that you put on anybody else. And they have to do the same thing. And it’s not about you changing another person, either. The only person you have a responsibility to change is yourself.

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