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In the groove with Herbie Hancock

As a young jazz pianist, I feel absurdly lucky to be at Harvard during a time when an incredible series of jazzmen have swung through campus. During the last four years, I’ve seen and/or worked with Wynton Marsalis, Vijay Iyer, Joshua Redman, Joe Lovano, Roy Haynes, Benny Golson and Don Braden up close. I’ve studied their techniques and riffs, and tried to soak up their aura and experiences.

I got even luckier when my favorite pianist Herbie Hancock showed up on campus last week. Hancock is this year’s Norton Professor of Poetry and will deliver six lectures on the ethics of jazz. (Wednesday, Feb. 12 is the next one.) He has also graciously agreed to show up at all—no, really, all—of the jazz classes on campus this semester, and made his first stop last Tuesday to Ingrid Monson’s The Musical Worlds of Herbie Hancock.

Hancock has been an idol of mine since I was 9, when I learned his classic Watermelon Man on the piano. Since then, I’ve spent dozens of hours jamming on Chameleon with friends, put his transcendent solo on Butterfly on repeat and devoted a final academic project on Hancock’s transformation from modal extraordinaire to funk master.

So it was an unbelievable treat to see him at Sanders Theatre, surrounded by students and community members who idolize him as much as I do. Hancock doesn’t think of himself as only a musician: His outlook is global, and he touched upon slavery, UNESCO and Buddhism during his first lecture. He’s also a natural storyteller, and talked about advice Miles Davis gave while Hancock was going through a crisis in confidence. “Don’t play the butter notes,” Miles told him. The pianist interpreted this to mean: Don’t play the most obvious notes in the scale. It shook up his approach, and he regained his confidence.

It only got better when Hancock elaborated the “butter note” idea in a small gathering the day after in Monson’s class. Hancock noodled around on the piano, showing how to remove the “butter notes” and turn “wrong” chords into surprising ones. His chord voicings sounded breathtaking and perfect to me, and yet he still confessed his ongoing quest to improve. “I’m working on freeing myself so that I can trust myself more,” he told us.

Jazz musicians are notoriously prickly, but Hancock was serene, earnest and humble. His eyes lit up when he talked about working with other legendary musicians such as Coleman Hawkins or Joni Mitchell, and he carefully responded to each of our questions, whether it was about lyricism or intellectual aestheticism.

The best part? I’ll be seeing and meeting him several more times throughout the semester, in classes, in jazz band and, of course, in Sanders Theatre. The February 12 topic is “Breaking the Rules,” something that Hancock has done throughout his career.

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