Herbie Hancock (photo by Jessica Hancock, courtesy Herbie Hancock)
He can’t remember when he last visited Richmond, but Herbie Hancock knows that it was raining. “A whole lot of rain, too,” he says, his voice laced with laughter. One of the most gifted pianists and composers of our time, Hancock, 76, has created music that moves people for more than 50 years. Works like the punchy, electro-flavored “Rockit” (1983) and the ethereal “Maiden Voyage” (1965) reveal him to be an innovator whose music can’t be neatly labeled as just “jazz.” Ahead of his appearance at the (rain-free, we hope) Richmond Jazz Festival, we talked with him in June about his current projects, how his hometown of Chicago influenced his earliest recordings, and the complexities of life and humanity woven into his work.
Richmond magazine: You're busy in the studio. What are you working on?
Hancock: A new record, and it’s got a lot of amazing people on it — Zakir Hussain, an amazing Indian tabla player, and Terrace Martin, who plays sax and is one of the producers on Kendrick Lamar’s, “To Pimp a Butterfly.” He’s producing a lot of the record, and plays the sax and the keyboard. I’m bringing Terrace with me [to the Richmond Jazz Festival].
RM: When will this new project debut?
Hancock: I have no idea! [laughs] We’re still putting the elements together.
RM: This will be published in August, but right now, it’s Black Music Month. Speak to the contributions black people have made to American music.
Hancock: It’s the foundation of American music. American culture’s foundation is from the culture of African-Americans. That’s expressed in language, how language has evolved, and not just with black people, but with Americans in general. I remember one of the talk shows on TV, maybe three or four years ago, and the host, who was white, said, “If you don’t think you know any black people, look at your children! Listen to what they’re listening to, look at the clothes they wear!” [Laughs.]
RM: You’ve said your song “Watermelon Man” (1962) was your expression of the black experience in America, based on a common scene you witnessed in your hometown of Chicago — the watermelon man selling his fruit. What did you mean by that?
Hancock: Well, when I was about to record my first record, I was told by [jazz trumpet player] Donald Byrd, who was the guy that discovered me, that when you make a jazz record, half the record is for you, and half is for the record company. I asked what he meant, and he said, "Nobody knows who you are, so the tunes that you’ll write, nobody is going to buy your records. What sells is what they’re familiar with, like blues, or other standards." So I looked at Horace Silver’s records [a jazz pianist who specialized in the “hard bop” style], and I thought, "Hmm, they’re selling very well. What is it about his records that are attracting people?’ And I realized, because they were just … funky, right? I’m from Chicago, and God, Chicago has its roots in the blues. So if I can’t write something funky, I might as well hand in my card [laughs]. So I started to think — and the whole thing of “funkiness” really comes from the black experience — "what can I bring from my own experience as a black person, and write about?" Most of the funky songs I heard were about chain gangs, or jail or the South. … I didn’t know anything about the South, really. I had been there once or twice when I was very young. So I thought, and the image that stood out the most in Chicago was the watermelon man. There’s nothing more ethnic, more real than that. He’s going through the streets in his horse-drawn carriage, [mimics singing] “Water-mellow, red, white watermelons ...” Then I thought about the women yelling off their back porches, “Hey, watermelon man!” So I decided to make that the melody.
RM: In the 1960s, you pulled musical inspiration from Chicago. What if you were coming of age now, with the violence, the racial tensions, the unrest we see there?
Hancock: I think times have changed so much, in the African-American community, having to do with our own realizations of ourselves. The huge change that came about during the civil rights movement, in the '60s, brought a high awareness of our own value. … Now, the anger factor has increased exponentially since I was a kid. That set the stage for rap, which we also invented. But if I were coming up at this time, my music might be a lot more about the struggle in Chicago for equality. I’ve been practicing Buddihism for more than 40 years. So, my approach would not be so much about complaining. It would be, what can I do to un-victimize myself, unshackle myself? What can I do to elevate my own life condition, so that in spite of what the external conditions are, I can move myself forward? Every human being has the ability to do that. There is so much to be gained from realizing that every human being is deserving of respect, even if they don’t realize it themselves. I would also be seeing what I can do to elevate the consciousness of the people in my community, so that they’re not bound from moving forward, no matter what they’re facing.
RM: After your first record, you began playing with the Miles Davis Quintet. What was the most significant thing you learned from Davis?
Hancock: The importance of listening. You know, I hope that I will always be a student. And not just a student of music, but a student of life. That keeps you young and vibrant in spirit. In order to be a student, you have to be willing to listen. So I listen, and not just to people who are older than me, but to people who are younger than me. You can find wisdom in a child.
RM: I can’t imagine how many times you’ve played “Watermelon Man” or “Maiden Voyage” over the span of your career. But every time you play them, they sound new. How do you keep your music fresh, and keep reinventing yourself?
Hancock: Well, I would get very sick of my own tunes, no matter how popular they were, if I played them the same way every time. Jazz is a music which promotes innovation. So I always try to find a new way to promote my older songs, or as people say, my signature songs. I make a new arrangement. I open it up to be freer, explore more territory; I use the original as a springboard into creating something new. Otherwise it’s not fun. Why should I do it? For money? No, I’m not like that. I’ve got to enjoy what I’m doing. But at the same time, it’s important for me to work hard at what I’m doing. Music is about being in the moment, not just copying something that you’ve done before. To me, that’s what keep me alive, and keeps me going.
RM: Your music transcends American jazz, and is considered global or world music. What have been some of your favorite collaborations with international artists?
Hancock: My last few albums have been more global records, about bringing things together. Starting with my record “Possibilities,” even the title suggest something, the concept of looking forward. There are an infinite number of ways to look at things. And my last record, “The Imagine Project,” really brought the point home. There are seven different languages on the record, people from 11 different countries on that record. I’ve worked a lot with Lang Lang, a classical pianist from China, who is amazing.
RM: This year's Jazz Fest boasts an impressive lineup, with you headlining, of course, but also The Roots, Jonathan Butler, Morris Day, Stephanie Mills, Wyclef Jean, Esperanza Spalding and so many others performing. If you were a spectator, not a performer, which artist would you be most excited to see?
Hancock: All of them! [Laughs.] All of the above. I don’t make things a hierarchy, who’s better than who. They’re different people, with different sounds, who express themselves in different ways. They’re all top-level artists.
Herbie Hancock will perform at the Richmond Jazz Festival at Maymont on Aug. 13.