Herbie Hancock: interview

The stellar jazz musician and living legend talks about taking risks and working as an ambassador to the UN

Douglas Kirkland, press image
Herbie Hancock
How would you define jazz today?

Well, jazz has been defined in a lot of different ways. One thing that sticks in my mind is that jazz means freedom and openness. It’s a music that, although it developed out of the African American experience, speaks more about the human experience than the experience of a particular people. You know, like it’s ability to take sometimes the worst of circumstances and challenges of life and turning them into something of beauty and creativity. So it has continued to evolve over the years.

You’ve been playing for more than fifty years so will know better than most … were there really any ‘good old days of jazz’ back in the day?

Back in the day for me was a great time in my life – I was in my twenties. Most people refer to their experiences in their twenties as being a highlight in their life. It’s a period of time where you often develop your own way, your own sound, your own identity, and that happened with me, when I was with a great teacher – Miles Davis. But these are great times too. I mean I could point to any of the five decades I’ve been playing in as having fine experiences; many of them have been transformational.

Talking of transformations, you have been through many in your career, taking risks to explore new projects. Do you think you have to take risks to become successful?

Yeah. I think risk-taking is a great adventure. And life should be full of adventures. If you wanna go through life skating along when everything is just nice and just pleasant it’s gonna be a very dull life – and that’s not the kind of life I want to have.

How can you learn courage if you haven’t taken chances? If you haven’t put yourself out on a limb. That’s what makes things exciting, when you try things you haven’t tried before and do things that you believe in, even if nobody else does. Figure out a way to make it work – that’s how you become a winner.

You are a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador – how do you think music, jazz, culture can affect change and make a real impact on the mission for world peace?

One of music’s functions can be entertainment, but that isn’t the only function that it can have. It can also affect the human heart and it can encourage and heal people. There’s data that can attest to that. This concept of being an ambassador fortunately doesn’t require that I confine myself in the position to music either.

I also wanna have symposiums about conflict and about how we very often demonise cultures and ideas outside of that which comes from our own and that is what can create problems. Anything that I can do to encourage the elevation of the concept of desiring to become a global citizen is the goal that I have as a goodwill ambassador to UNESCO.

By Roseanne Hanley


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