CHAT WITH HERBIE HANCOCK
To know Miles Davis is to know Herbie Hancock. Herbie, having been a member
of Miles' infamous quintet with Tony Williams, Ron Carter, and Wayne Shorter,
is required reading. But long before I was casually interested in improvised
music, I knew Herbie. You see, being a member of Gen-X that grew up on
daily feedings of MTV, Herbie was old school for me. In the early Eighties,
Herbie had "the" hit on MTV, "Rockit," a pre-house,
industrial anthem accompanied by a kick ass video that played in heavy
rotation on the before mentioned music video network. From there, I found
my way to Thrust, which gave way to Sextant, which bridged Miles Davis,
which began Coltrane, and Trane to Ornette, Ornette to Ayler, and so on.
Without further ado, Herbie Hancock, folks, as always, unedited and in
his own words.
Let's start from the beginning.
HERBIE HANCOCK: My best friend had a piano when I was about six years
old. He was actually several months older than me. He had already turned
seven. I would go to his house and ask if I could play his piano. Of course,
I couldn't play it. I would just bang on it, but my mother noticed that
I was interested in the piano and on my seventh birthday, they bought
me a piano. So my older brother, my younger sister and I started taking
lessons soon after that. After about three years, my brother and sister
stopped their lessons and I continued on. For some reason, my interest
never waned. It continued to progress and what really did it was when
I was about twelve or thirteen years old, when I first started to pay
attention to jazz and get involved with that. That really pulled me in
like a magnet.
FJ: Because initially, you were classically trained.
HERBIE HANCOCK: Right, I was playing classical music at first, but the
fact that jazz is creative from another standpoint because it is an improvised
music. You can express things and find ways of creating your own spontaneous
melodies. That was one of the things. In my experience, it felt like I
could put more of me into it. When you are playing classical music, you
are reading someone else's music and interpreting that music. Whereas
in jazz, you may be playing someone else's song, but the interpretation
and the rendition is your own, moment to moment.
FJ: Miles had boxing and later, painting to continue his creativity away
from the music, how do you approach quenching the creativity?
HERBIE HANCOCK: I'm very much into technology, Fred. And even though,
on the surface, it sounds like that is not a very creative pursuit, I'm
constantly on the internet searching for things, trying to learn stuff,
trying to figure out how things work and a lot of things spark my interest,
some of the newer technologies having to do with atomic technology, machines
that are on an atomic level, those tiny, tiny machines. To me, all that
stuff is fascinating. And things having to do with other planets and other
systems in the universe, that is fascinating for me too. So from the very,
very small, atomic level, all the way up to macro level, those things
are very intriguing to me. Life on Mars, that kind of stuff is intriguing.
I just recently came back from Kennedy Space Center where I saw the launch
of an Atlas 2 rocket. They were launching a satellite, a tracking and
relay satellite. It was fantastic to me. I got a chance to get a real
special VIP tour of the Kennedy Space Center and be inside the Atlantis
Space Shuttle, which will be the next one going up in January and I hope
to be able to see that launch. So I am totally into that kind of stuff.
I certainly like my titanium PowerBook. I've got the latest one, the 1.0
GHz one. I just got it, so I haven't even really used it yet. I am transferring
some files into it now. But I am also very much interested in humanity.
I am interested in the world that we live in and the environment that
we live in and the fact that it is very important that we protect all
of those, the human beings and the environment.
FJ: With the advancement of technology, the world has grown largely smaller.
HERBIE HANCOCK: (Laughing) Interesting way to put it, largely smaller.
FJ: The flipside being the haves and the have nots. How does the proverbial
gap get bridged?
HERBIE HANCOCK: Absolutely, absolutely, there are ways, but first of all,
Fred, you have to understand that the thing that is most needed on the
planet for most of the poorer nations on the planet is not technology.
It is water. That's first. Secondly, technology on the surface is about
data and knowledge, but it takes wisdom to be able to use those elements
in a proper way to move humanity forward. So technology without wisdom
is dangerous and one of the problems today is the word wisdom has almost
disappeared from the map of our vocabulary and it really needs to be put
there because it is with wisdom that we can figure out in a more comprehensive
and a more positive way, how to use the technology and how to even transfer
the technology to other nations so that we don't interfere with their
own ability, so it is not like a hand-me-down. There is a tendency for
the haves to think, even the do gooder haves, to think that the have nots
have nothing to offer and the haves have something to offer and we really
should take care of those poor people who have nothing to offer. That
is very arrogant and elitist. That needs to be changed because it is not
the have nots that have put the world into a lot of trouble. It's the
haves. So maybe it is the have nots that have some of the solutions that
we need. Perhaps if we paid more attention to providing the technology
to the have nots so that they can give us what it is that they bring to
the table, we might not have had to face the problem of 9-11. Perhaps
if we paid more attention to, not the short term view, but the long term
view of what we Americans do and what we in quotes "contribute"
to the rest of the world, we'd find that a lot of what we think is good
is not really so good. We're not liked very much, not only by people who
are more obvious enemies to our culture, but even by our allies. I got
to France. French people don't like us very much. Yes, they like the American
people, but they don't like what we do because we are very, very arrogant.
We always think we are the best. We are the biggest, yes, but we always
think we're the best. Well, our best, to me, isn't good enough. I think
we need to look further inside and look further into not only glazing
over whatever mistakes we may be thinking and just focusing on the good
things. We need to really re-examine ourselves and find out what it is
we really need to change about ourselves so that instead of being hated
by the world, so that we are loved my the world. We have the capacity
to do that. First of all, war is a last resort. War is the last resort
and it should come as a result, if anything, of someone striking you in
the face, but even at that, I hate the idea of war. I hate the idea of
war. I haven't been aware yet of enough proof that, OK, here is what bothers
me. Where do we get off in being the country that decides who is supposed
to have weapons of mass destruction and who isn't? Oh, because we're the
good guys? We won't do any bad things with it. Dream on. Since when have
we been the good guys? We're the only ones that dropped an atomic bomb
so far. And we are threatening to possibly include nuclear weapons in
this war? To me that is insane. The axis of evil? I think we should look
in the mirror and then we will see what the axis of evil is. We are becoming
the bad guys and I hate that. I really hate that. There is no reason that
we should be the bad guys. One of the problems is that our whole system
is based off of consumerism, based off of money. That is the motivator.
In order to get money, you have to get people to buy things. In order
to get people to buy things, you give them whatever it is they want, whether
it is good for them or not. So we have kowtowed to the lowest common denominator
in America for far too long and to a total imbalance compared to all the
different factions and age groups and tastes that exist in this country.
This is a big country that has a variety of things. One of the best attributes
of this country is our variety. It is a whole tapestry of everything that
is in this country. That's good. But it seems that the only thing we're
trying to sell is to teach people to be gluttons and greed. That is not
good. So my concern is not just to complain about, as I am doing now,
about what is not good, but I am concerned about finding solutions on
how we can improve ourselves as Americans and improve our image, not just
because, out of the fact that we hear about just the image, but we care
about who we really are. That is my concern.
FJ: Should you, as an entertainer, preach from the pulpit?
HERBIE HANCOCK: Well, we are all human being, right? OK, we have the right
to decide what we want to do with our lives, at least in theory. Our choice
is our right and our privilege. To a certain extent, I have the eye of
the public, to a certain degree, and perhaps the ear of the public. That
is why I am on your show right now. So my feeling is since I have this
opportunity that a lot of people don't have, I would prefer to take advantage
of the opportunity to express things that I feel can be catalysts to inspire
people to move forward and to bring out the best of what they have to
offer. I have been practicing Buddhism for thirty years and the reason
I practice this Buddhism. It is Nietzchean Buddhism. I practice it because
the philosophy is amazing. It is very open and it is very inclusive and
doing the practice really helps me get a clearer vision of what it is
that I need to do. The next thing is actually doing it, which takes strength
and courage and wisdom and I hope to be able to develop those attributes
along with others to help me be all that I can be and encourage everybody
else to be all that they can be too.
FJ: The musical journey has advanced to the supreme tribute by a recording
label, the box set. And Columbia/Legacy has recently issued your material
via a four disc set and DVD (Future to Future), a testament to your musical
HERBIE HANCOCK: Maybe it only says that I'm this old, Fred (laughing).
That I have been around a long time (laughing). Future to Future, yes,
that is a new DVD. Did you figure out how to open the CD box?
FJ: It didn't come with a manual, but I got the gist of it.
HERBIE HANCOCK: (Laughing) Wow.
FJ: The shoe fits.
HERBIE HANCOCK: (Laughing) Well, I'm very happy to have spent many years
under, what was then, the Columbia Record label, which is now Sony. They
are a class act, that is for sure. My relationship with that label began
when I started with Miles Davis because Miles was on Columbia. Then I
got to meet a lot of executives at the label and they were interested
in me as the years went by. I was always attracted to that label and I
spent many wonderful years making a lot of different records, records
that I wanted to make with that label. I have been fortunate to have been
in a position to pretty much do what I want and not have the concepts
dictated to me. I think one of the reasons is because I try to keep an
open viewpoint of the reality picture and the artistry picture and try
to marry the two in some kind of way. I've done records from very far
out stuff, my very first record was called Sextant and that was a pretty
avant-garde kind of record and the next one was Headhunters, which was
a pretty funky record, but at the same time, had some pretty advanced
jazz stuff floating on top of these funky rhythms. That was my entry into
the label and Headhunters was a huge album and Sextant was not. It is
interesting to me that actually now, that record has come back. Sextant
has come back and a lot of people who are into the new electronic music
have told me that they were influenced by Sextant.
FJ: I have heard that praise in the DJ community for both Sextant and
HERBIE HANCOCK: Right, right, which, I had never thought that record would
come back in any way, shape, or form. And here it has, that whole period.
So I was very happy and very fortunate in being on that label and adding
them to my resume. What is happening the back of my mind is the fact that
at this point in time, the record business and next will be the film business,
will not be what they have been because again, new technology bringing
the possibility of people being able to download music for free. Napster
pretty much started that and MP3.com and some other entities. Actually,
ten years ago, I was speaking to the label that I signed with at that
time, which was Polygram, now owned by Universal. I am signed to Verve,
which is part of that family. Anyway, I was just signing with them and
I asked some of the executives if they had anybody at the label that was
looking into the new technologies of new concepts and the new ways of
the distribution of the music. They looked at me as if I was crazy. The
answer is "no." They hired somebody to do that, but they never
paid attention to this guy and later on, they let him go. If they had
paid attention to it, the whole business that we are embarking on, this
new scene for the record industry would be totally different. The record
industry would have been the Napster. On the other hand, what has actually
happened to is that a lot of indiscretions that I feel the record labels
in general have been guilty of have now been exposed. So they haven't
really been the good guys either. CDs are, at this point, you can get
a hundred blank CDs for twenty-five dollars. Why are they charging eighteen,
they are charging twenty dollars for those things. I told them about that
before. Why are you charging so much money? They always came up with excuses
and I didn't buy any of them. Now, it is all out in the open.
FJ: CDs are the same price as DVDs, which include a wealth of features
and source material.
HERBIE HANCOCK: Exactly. The fact of the matter is, that piece of plastic
called a CD doesn't have a whole lot of value anymore. It doesn't have
any value because CD burners are cheap. Anybody can make their own CDs
now and they can buy them for a few cents, a blank CD and burn whatever
it is that they want. That in itself, doesn't really have major value.
What does have value is the content. It is the music itself. It is the
film itself. It is the T-shirts and the tours and the cups and whatever
merchandising that they come up with and whatever new ideas. We need some
new ideas as to what the public would benefit from in terms of their relationship
with the music and the artists that are making that music or the filmmakers
and the artists that are making those films. I'm afraid the record companies
are a little slow in making this transition, which is a major one because
the record industry will not be, in any way, shape, or form, what it has
been in the past and right now, they are trying to protect what was in
the past and baby, this is the Twenty-First Century and they better start
looking for some new ideas because trying to protect what they had in
the past is not going to work. The only thing they are going to do is
make more enemies.
Fred Jung is the Editor-In-Chief and has been naughty and nice. Comments?