“Don’t play games that you don’t understand, even if you see lots of other people making money from them. ”
Pianist and composer Herbie Hancock-who ranks among the most influential jazz musicians of the last hundred years-is a bouncy and jovial free spirit. At age 70, he seems as excited about his new Apple iPad as he is about his latest album, The Imagine Project (which is also available as a video). The CD finds him performing with more than a dozen musicians from all over the world-from Pink and John Legend in the U.S. to Colombia's Juanes, the Congo-based band Konono No.1 and the nomadic Saharah Desert band Tinariwen-with most of the 10 songs on the disc recorded in the guest artists' home countries. The result expresses "peace through global collaboration," Hancock explained.
Trained as a classical musician starting at age seven, Hancock became captivated by the jazz scene in high school. Since then, he has won 12 Grammy awards as well as an Oscar for scoring the movie Round Midnight, in which he also acted. In 2008, his River: The Joni Letters-a tribute to his friend Joni Mitchell-became only the second jazz record to win an album-of-the-year Grammy.
Hancock has a long-time love of technology and pioneered the use of new types of instruments, especially synthesizers. But what seems to excite him most these days is not his iPad or his musical endeavors but his spiritual life as a chapter leader at the Buddhist temple near his home in the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles.
What influenced your interest in jazz?
When I was 13 I saw a performance of a jazz trio. And this trio had a piano player who was improvising with a bass player and a drummer and doing something I didn't know how to do. So it was kind of curiosity, maybe a little jealousy, but also I liked what I heard and I wanted to learn how to do that.
Classical music, which you started with, can be very rigid.
You're playing someone else's composition and it's always basically the same notes. What intrigued me about jazz and pulled me like a magnet was that I could create my own notes and chord sequences. And I learned more about the structure of music than when I was playing classical music. I learned harmony and a little bit about orchestration and about the creation of melodies from playing jazz and hanging out with musicians and asking them questions and going to jam sessions. Back in those days, they weren't teaching jazz in many schools.
Is it important for musicians to learn the fundamentals before starting to improvise?
I could read music. I didn't know anything about the fundamentals of harmony or the structure of music. Yes, I knew what a major chord was and a minor chord and a diminished chord, but beyond that I didn't know anything. If you're going to be an instrumental performer in classical music, they don't emphasize any of that. They emphasize repertoire, just learning to play pieces. They don't emphasize structure. Whereas playing jazz, it's really necessary to learn those things.
How do you like your iPad?
It's fantastic. I use it for e-mail. I also use my iPhone for e-mail. And for entertainment things. When I really want to relax? Solitaire. It's so basic that it just calms you down completely.
So did you wait for the 3G iPad? Or did you get the first one, with Wi-Fi?
Have you always incorporated technology into your music?
I've had an interest in science since I was a kid. I always want to know what makes things tick. I was one of the people who pushed the music world toward the use of technology. I got my first computer in 1979. An Apple II Plus. And I've had basically all the Apple products since then, including a Lisa that I still own.
You could start a museum.
One time I did that, at the National Association of Music Merchants [convention]. I had my own display of early instruments, early synthesizers and one of the first Rhodes pianos.
How do you feel about the way technology has transformed music distribution?
I completely embrace it. In fact, this record [The Imagine Project] is not on a major label. It's on Hancock Records and it's distributed by an independent company. And I hired my own companies to handle the manufacturing. I didn't go to a major company to do that.
Do you often travel on business jets?
As often as I can. I've been flying privately since the 1980s and I love it.
Do you have a favorite business jet?
Yeah, the Gulfstream G550. It's my preferred airplane when I'm flying in the U.S. because of its spaciousness, comfort level, seat design, speed, reliability and safety. Of course there are some other great companies. I've been on some Falcons and Embraers. Those are nice planes.
Will you fly privately on the upcoming European leg of your tour?
Yes, on an ATR 42-300 [twin turboprop] chartered from Hangar8 in the UK. It will carry me, my five-piece band, my tour and production managers, techs and all our gear. There's often a show in a different city every night, so this was definitely the way to go. We usually leave first thing in the morning for the next stop to allow time to unload, get gear to the venue, check into the hotel, freshen up and make it to soundcheck by late afternoon.
You've accomplished a lot. Is there anything on your bucket list?
I want to get back into classical music but in a new way, and also I want to get more into writing for larger structures, like orchestras. That's something that's gotten harder for me to do over the years. It's like the ink gets a little dry if you don't use the pen. So you gotta refill the pen and continue that process.
What do you do for fun when you're not thinking about music?
Play with computers. But also, in my practice of Buddhism I'm a chapter leader so there are members that I'm responsible for. You're dealing with people's inner lives, so it's a big responsibility.
It's not something you can just jump into.
You wouldn't jump into being the chapter leader. Practicing you can jump into. To start practice is easy. There's a phrase that we say: "Nam-myoho-renge-kyo." Chanting that over and over is the fundamental part of the practice. It's the recitation of the law, the sound of the law of life. You're dealing with cause and effect. So it's very compatible with the scientific method in a way.
The interesting thing about Buddhism is that Buddhism is the middle way. I think that what they're saying is that they don't believe in how most people define God. Buddhism would say the same thing. We think of God as something that's not external. It's internal. It's the essence of life. We just don't use the word "God." It's not that we're godless; it doesn't mean that.
What led you to create The Imagine Project?
This one is about peace through global collaboration. It's more about taking steps proactively toward creating the kind of environment that we want our children and our children's children to live in. Rather than waiting for someone else to create it for us. Or rather than just complaining about how awful it might be. In a way, this record is a call to arms for people to start actively participating in writing their own future.
Does music still have the power to influence people?
Hopefully music has power to change people to what they really are.
Is The Imagine Project about more than Herbie Hancock?
It's my vision, but I believe the essence of it is within the human spirit.
And were the artists you collaborated with chosen because of something about their spirit?
For many it was that. When we started putting together names of who we might like to have on the record, I remember the name Juanes was brought up. There was a video on YouTube. It's him performing in Havana. You see a banner behind him that says "paz sin fronteras," which means peace without borders. So I said, "That's great-that's exactly the spirit of what this record is about." And then I got the chance to meet him, to discuss putting a track together with him. He was really pleased with the purpose of this record and he said this is where he lives in his heart and he was excited about being a part of it.
Jazz is all about improvisation. Has your life been an improvisation, too?
Very much so. I think that's the beauty of life-learning to develop the confidence to not be afraid of circumstances that may confront you.
In other words, don't resist?
Right. Life would be dull without obstacles. You'd never learn anything, you'd never grow, you'd be bored and try to commit suicide. Certainly you can't be happy without obstacles, because true happiness is the victory of turning an obstacle into something of value. That's the hidden beauty with struggle.
What kind of obstacles have you faced?
Getting up in the morning [laughs]. Musicians are not used to getting up in the morning, but I've changed that. Practicing Buddhism, I've gotten to the point where I want to get up and go down to the center and do the morning prayers with some other members. It's a good way to start my day.
Kind of a spiritual jump-start?
Exactly. But you asked me a serious question: what kind of obstacles have I faced? Let's just take this situation of making this record. The first thing I thought about was, why do I want to make a record? What purpose would it serve? There's an obstacle in a sense. It's a quandary, but to make that kind of decision is an important first step. If I hadn't made that step, this kind of record would never have happened.
It's got to have a purpose?
I've come to the point in my life where this is the new reality for me. I feel a more value-creating approach to making music.
NAME: Herbert Jeffrey "Herbie" Hancock
BIRTHDATE: April 12, 1940
OCCUPATION: Jazz pianist and composer, winner of 12 Grammy awards and one Oscar. Producer of dozens of albums.
FAVORED TRANSPORTATION: Gulfstream G550
PERSONAL: Lives in the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles with wife Gigi. One daughter.