Jazz icon Herbie Hancock

The award-winning jazz great discusses his first-ever solo tour and reflects on the key to a great performance.

A modern music icon, Herbie Hancock played with the jazz greats and went on to become an Oscar- and Grammy-winning musician-composer. The Chicago native took up piano at age 7 and, classically trained, was performing Mozart with symphony orchestras by age 11. He's scored a number of films and is involved in several educational endeavors, including the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. Hancock is the L.A. Philharmonic's creative chair for jazz and UNESCO's Goodwill Ambassador for the promotion of Intercultural Dialogue. This fall, he embarks on his first ever solo tour.


Tavis: Always delighted to welcome Herbie Hancock to this program. The iconic musical star has just announced the first-ever solo tour of his 50-year career. The tour kicks off September 17th at the Monterey Jazz Festival with many notable stops along the way, including one here in L.A. at Disney Hall, a concert with famed conductor Gustavo Dudamel. Herbie, as always, good to see you, you ageless wonder, you. (Laughter) You doing all right, man?

Herbie Hancock: Age is just a number.

Tavis: I was just teasing – last time I saw you I was on stage bringing you out, as a matter of fact, at the Hollywood Bowl for your 70th birthday set that night, and that was quite a night. I was honored to do that, so thank you again for having me do that.

Hancock: Oh, thank you, thank you for doing it. I really appreciate it. Really do. I had a ball that night, but I was working hard. (Laughter)

Tavis: Yeah, you were bouncing around from – yeah.

Hancock: People from all countries. Some guys flew in from India. It was a lot going on.

Tavis: To your point about that – we’ll come to your tour in just a second here – but what’s the excitement for you or the challenge that you rise to every time you put together a show? There are two people I’ve seen in my life play a thousand times, you and my friend Prince. I can say honestly with the two of you I have never, ever seen the same show twice.

Every time you hit the stage, by design, you want the show to be different. So you have different collaborators, different guests, different run of show. Prince, of course, is the same way. But what’s the fun, the challenge, of putting together a different show every time you hit the stage?

Hancock: Well, I like to present something that the people haven’t seen or haven’t heard before. Otherwise they might as well just stay home and play the record. (Laughs) So I’m very conscious of the idea of trying to each time present something that I haven’t presented before. It’s a challenge to me to find something new, to find something innovative, but it’s also very exciting.

Tavis: How do you know on any given night that what you are giving the audience the audience is prepared to receive? All you know is what you’re giving. You don’t know what they’re receiving. So how do you know they’re going to receive what you’re offering on any given night when you change the run of the show that much, particularly when you have fans who are rather fickle and only want to hear the stuff they want?

They want to her “Rock It” and some other stuff, but how do you know they’re going to receive what you’re offering them?

Hancock: Well first of all I have to give them my heart. That’s the first thing. I have to care and I have to be honest and have the courage to be vulnerable. If that happens, then that’s the best I can do. To just be a puppet for the audience is not very courageous. Just to do whatever they say they want – because a lot of times people will hear something new that they hadn’t heard before and get turned on by a new experience and will want to hear more of that.

That’s what happened when “Headhunters” first came out. People heard “Headhunters” for the first time, many of those people became avid fans of acoustic jazz because of that, because I met many of them over the years on different tours.

Tavis: You said something a moment ago, as you often do, that makes me think, that causes me to back up and pause and marinate on what you have just said. I love that phrase – and it’s universal, it’s not just about music – “Have the courage to be vulnerable.” Have the courage to be vulnerable.

You’ve got to unpack that a bit more for me, (laughter) because I’m going to use it. You’ll get attribution the first time.

Hancock: Okay. (Laughter)

Tavis: The first time.

Hancock: Well, people always want to protect what’s really going on inside. They want to kind of make visible something that looks more pleasant than what may be happening inside of themselves.

Being vulnerable is allowing yourself to trust. That’s hard for a lot of people to do. They feel a lot more secure if they kind of put walls around themselves. Then they don’t have to trust anybody but themselves. But to allow you to trust not only yourself but trust others means – is what’s required to be vulnerable, and to have that kind of trust takes courage.

Tavis: When you say the courage to be vulnerable as an artist –

Hancock: It means making mistakes. Not afraid to make a mistake.

Tavis: Got it.

Hancock: I mean, you could do it right here on TV. You could make a mistake.

Tavis: I do it every night. (Laughter) I got a whole lot of courage – a whole lot of courage. I’m making mistakes every single night.

I’m glad you went there, because I was about to say that for an artist, I would think that when you step on the stage there’s a certain level of vulnerability just coming out every night because you don’t know what’s going to happen on any given night, if you’re going to hit all the notes, if the voice is going to be there, if the pitch is going to be right, if the hands are going to be right, if the band is going to be tight. I assume there must be some level of vulnerability every time you hit the stage.

Hancock: It’s true. That’s true. But beyond that, I like to take chances. I like to be on the edge, on the cutting edge, or be into the unknown, into the territory where I have to depend on being in the moment and depending on my instincts.

Tavis: Because you are so iconic, because you like, to your own point, being on the edge, because you like taking risks and trying things and being vulnerable and making mistakes, what happens inside of Herbie Hancock when you push it and it didn’t work, or you tried it and it didn’t work? You were courageous, you were vulnerable, and you fell flat. So what happens on those occasions inside of you?

Hancock: You have to get up. (Laughter) You have to get up and try it again. You can’t let that throw you. Years ago, if I fell on my face somehow in the middle of a show or something, it just didn’t work – and actually, I can give you an example. I was playing with Miles one time, the great Miles Davis, during the ’60s, and we were performing in Europe.

We were on this tour. This particular night was the peak of the tour. It was the night, you know, when it’s all happening? Every song was building and building and building. We had the audience grasped like this. It was all like one. So Miles played the tune “So What,” and Wayne Shorter plays his incredible, fiery saxophone solo, Tony Williams is burning up on the drums, Ron Carter on the bass is amazing, and then Miles comes to his solo, right?

At the peak of Miles’s solo I play a chord that was so wrong (laughter), I thought I had lit a match to the whole thing and just burned it to the ground. I didn’t know what to do. Miles took a breath and then played some notes that made my chord right. (Laughter)

I couldn’t believe what I heard. He made it fit somehow. What is he, some kind of alchemist or something? Merlin the magician? It took me years to figure out actually what happened. What happened was Miles didn’t judge what I had played. He just heard it as an event that happened and went, “Hm, that’s interesting,” and then found some notes to make it work right. (Laughter)

Tavis: Was there ever a conversation about that after the show, or Miles took it as a challenge, did his thing and kept on moving?

Hancock: Well, yeah, he did that, but afterwards I said, “Miles, how did you do that? How did you do that?” and he just shrugged his shoulders. (Laughter) Oh, he said, “Do what?” (Laughter)

Tavis: That sounds like Miles. (Laughter) I figured something had to be said.

Hancock: Right.

Tavis: I’ll take that. Speaking of Miles and your playing back in the ’60s, it is hard to imagine – when I saw this come across my desk – I’m always happy to have you on the show, but I was like, does Herbie have a new project coming out, what’s going on? They said, “Herbie’s about to go on tour,” and I said, “OK, that’s cool.” But when I read this is the first-ever solo tour?

Hancock: Well, I actually did one once before in Europe, a short solo, just acoustic piano tour. But this one is acoustic piano and synthesizers and computer with newer software. One of the things I hope to do is not just do things, songs that I’ve recorded before.

What I hope to do is write something new. I keep recycling and repackaging music that I’ve done in the past, as though I can’t write anymore. Like, okay, I’m done with that. But I need to kind of prod myself again into come on, Herbie, get off your duff and start writing some new music. It’s time for me to do that.

So that’s what I hope to do, to have some new things, but also some things that I’ve done before. But this time it’ll be in a different context, different kind of environment, because I have to create it all myself.

Tavis: That means, though, right quick, if you do what you’ve just suggested that you want to do, that means that you ostensibly will be writing some stuff here and there that you will play on this tour almost as soon as you write it.

Hancock: Yeah, right.

Tavis: You a bad man, Herbie. (Laughter) That’s why you’ve got to catch Herbie Hancock while he’s on this solo tour. You don’t know what he’s going to do on any given night, including some new stuff that ain’t nobody heard but you if you’re in the audience that night. So Herbie, it’s an honor to always have you here, sir.

Hancock: Oh, thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: Congratulations on a successful tour in advance.

Hancock: Thank you very much.

Tavis: I will see you on the road.

Hancock: Great, I hope so. I’ll look for you.

Tavis: You can believe that.

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Last modified: August 30, 2011 at 1:19 pm