Herbie Hancock always has been one of my favorite jazz musicians.
My admiration for him goes beyond the fact that he is an extraordinary keyboard player and a prolific composer. Mostly I admire him because he always has been such a fearless innovator.
Many people have the ability to make beautiful music, even write beautiful music. A few of the most talented have the courage to be “different” — to see beauty where others fail to look, or take someone else’s notes and truly make them their own.
Hancock turned 83 in April — something that is hard for me to believe, because his music doesn’t seem to age and in my mind he will always be that 20-something musician creating new rhythms and innovative cords behind the trumpet of the much older Miles Davis.
Hancock was once asked in a television interview how he has been able to be so versatile — how he became a man who has embraced and developed every kind of music from classical to jazz to rock to fusion to bebop — to whatever struck his ear and his imagination, while so many other would-be greats stayed in their ruts.
Hancock answered with a story about his first European tour with the legendary Miles Davis Quintet in 1964.
He was 24 at the time and was still in awe over the fact that Davis — 40 years old and already considered among the best jazz musicians of all time — had picked him as a band member.
Hancock was nervous on stage during the opening performance, but all went well until the second set. That was when, out of the blue, Hancock hit a chord on the piano that was totally “wrong.” It didn’t fit in the song and it didn’t fit as any sort of transition to the solo Davis was about to play.
Hancock said his heart began to beat in his throat and his mind raced about for some way out of the embarrassment. At that point, Davis stepped forward, took a breath and played a note on his trumpet that “made the missed chord right.”
“Miles didn’t hear the chord as wrong,” remembered Hancock. “He heard it as something new. He didn’t judge it. He just went with it.”
Hancock said that lesson is good for music and it is good for life.
“Take what happens and make it work.”
That may well be why at an age when many contemporaries are transitioning to assisted living facilities, Hancock is out on tour. This week he plays Iowa City then on to St. Louis, Boulder, and Salt Lake City next week before heading to a series of performances in Canada. And in his spare time he serves as a professor of music at UCLA.
I will bet he never hits a bad chord.
The world would be a better, happier and more loving place for all of us if we just spent less time harshly judging the chords other people play and spent more time appreciating the beauty of differences.
And, maybe, as we embrace the different notes of others, we might expand and improve our own music.
Bud Herron is the retired former editor and publisher of the Daily Journal. Contact him at [email protected].