I think I was supposed to play jazz
As he hits 80years old, Riddle sits down with jazz legend Herbie Hancock
Interview by Andrew Threlfall
Herbie Hancock literally redefined the role of what a jazz rhythm section can do when he played with Miles Davis. He went on to experiment with jazz fusion, funk and electro but jazz and it’s territory, if not it’s inherent demons, kept pulling him back.
We are discussing the black president. If he delivered.
“I live in LA these days but was actually brought up Obama’s Chicago so of course his becoming president meant a lot to me especially as I came from the South Side of the city which was very much the ghetto.
“As a young musical protegee my parents, luckily, were very supportive of me to the point that my two siblings and I didn’t even realise how poor we were! We were always being exposed to things that existed outside of the ghetto like classical music which my mother would play me all of the time. I mean there was plenty of the early rythym and blues and jazz around but she would sit me in front of a radio and play classical music to me. It didn’t go quite so far as me being required to attend the ballet but I was sometimes taken to concerts and then afterwards we’d travel back to the ghetto.”
I ask him if there had ever been any other considered career path: “Well at the age of seven my mother paid for piano lessons and my Dad bought me a piano on my seventh birthday.” he laughs, “and that was amazing in my street! There was one house in my area in the street called The Big House where a lot of really bad stuff was happening and I recall that there was a big blind guy who was the numbers guy going around picking up the lottery money. They all had what we called zip guns – homemade guns – and everyone had knives. Not the kids though which as you know over here in the UK is a new development.”
It was a picture of hardship on the streets that has only recently improved. Not for all either: “Let me tell you more about Chicago, the city Obama made such a great difference to. Growing up I knew of the mafia prescence in the city, a legacy of the times of John Dillinger and Al Capone. But when I was growing up New York actually had a worse reptation for crime than Chicago. We, the black ghetto kids – we were part of the mass exodus from the southern states who in my parents’ generation had moved north to Chicago, Detroit and St Louis. We had also became America’s home to the meatpacking industry and also all the airlines and trains came through Chicago so we were a major hub.”
“Now Chicago in the summer, is the most humid and torturiously hot place in the states. And even colder than New York in the winter. Most of the year the weather in Chicago is really, really uncomfortable. And in a poor neighbourhood with no air con it was unbearable.”
“But in spite of this Chicago has been good to me because when I was just 11 I got a chance to play my audition with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In air con too! By now I actually wanted to be a classical pianist. The first time I played jazz I was 14 and the first time I snuck into a jazz club I was 16 when I could borrow someone’s ID card. At 20 I had moved to New York to play jazz and just three years later I was playing in Miles Davis’ band. It was pure love for the genre.”
“I had advice for Amy Winehouse, when she was still alive, because of what I saw in those Chicago and New York jazz clubs. At 27 or whatever she was, she had so much music left in her. Smoking majuana is one thing but heroin is a whole different thing. She had the ability to create a happy life for herself. That doesn’t mean to say it is easy. Before I arrived on the scene in the 60s I heard that musicians thought that to move ahead like Charlie Parker, who was the greatest musician of the time then, they had to take heroin like Charlie Parker. A lot of pot heads started using heroin becuase Charlie did. When I was recruited by the great Miles Davis to play in his band some of the band were also into heroin. By the 70s it was starting to die out because the musicians were starting to die as well! I was so lucky to come in at the end of a period where everyone seemed to have been experimenting with heroin. I saw a lot of people shoot heroin back then and I really tried to stop a lot of them even though it was a foreign world I didn’t get involved in.”
I shift uncomfortably in my chair and – off the record – Herbie allows me to confide in him that my own Jim Morrison-esque (I blame Morrison) excursions into kicking down the chemical doors of perception culminated in me sitting behind the wheel mesmerised by traffic lights at 4am with my only True Love (and supermodel muse of Yves Saint Laurent), interlocking our sweaty palms uttering the immortal words….”Andreeeeew, our love is bathed in green li—-gh, wait…amber….now red light.” We sat there for what felt like hours. Herbie, to this day I can’t believe there were no cops.”
“That sounds like something from a James Dean movie! The things we do for love. Haha. I’m sure that a lot of musicians have the deluded idea that making music is some kind of heavenly place. But even for someone like Amy Winehouse you’ve got to deal with real life too. You’ve got to look after your family, be responsible. Sometimes, because music is so percieved as this place that is like a path to nirvana, they get things distorted and ignore everything else. So musicians get a deluded idea that music is a kind of heaven but it doesn’t stand alone. It comes from the human spirit so it is an expression – at best – of life. So if you don’t have a good life your music is going to suffer. Music is about being a human being, taking your kids to school, being responsible, being a good lover in bed etc etc… you have to work at these things. The path to nirvana seems to be to believe that you can be so deluded so as to just play music and ignore everything else. And that is a complete distortion to what life is all about.”
Herbie should teach life lessons to the masses I tell him.
“Andrew, I’m glad you learnt. but you must have burned for her.”
“Likewise the essence of music is that it is as hard as you make it. It can be easy if you take the easy route but personally I like to challenge myself so it is in my basic nature to be a pioneer. You know the world is a really difficult and dangerous place these days today… let me tell you I am so glad that my daughter is in her 40s. I thought in the States we were through with a lot of the worse stuff and then along came something like Hurricane Katrina and that was just unbelievable. But thankfully at least the people of the world got to see the economic racism that still exists in the States because of all the camera crews who cover disasters like that. It takes a lot of courage to be a force for change though.”
“For me Buddhism has clarified things for me. Music alone cannot make a person, certainly not me, happy. I firmly believe that only you can make you happy. I had a moment twenty years ago when I realised that I’m not a musician… I’m just a human being. Music allows me to communicate that’s all. I love the example of Corrine Bailey Rae who sang on an album of mine. Now she is a really lovely, lovely girl who will use music to make herself better and recover (from her own personal tragedy).”
What lies ahead for the consumate professional now in his 80th year?
“Would I consider doing another record of someone’s songs like I did with Joni Mitchell? No, no way. I will travel to somewhere like Benin in Africa though and work with new musicians there. That’s how I want to keep it fresh. Jazz keeps getting crazier because and more diverse because of the internet. Music is just something I do. I’m a citizen, a father, a neighbour, but that is it.”
Enquiries: Herbie Hancock is touring this summer