In this edited version of an interview to commemorate International Jazz Day, UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and iconic jazz pianist Herbie Hancock speaks to Kaya FM’s The Art of Sunday host and convenor of this year’s International Jazz Day Brenda Sisane, musician Nduduzo Makhathini and journalist Kwanele Sosibo about how his spirituality influences his approach to life and music and about jazz’s role in striving for a better planet
KS: As you have always had a keen interest in gadgets, what was the 1970s vibe like? What was it like to be involved in that milieu?
HH: I have always been interested in science ever since I was a child because I have always been curious, taking things apart and putting them together to see how they work. That attitude is something I’ve maintained throughout my life. When the 1970s came around and new instruments were being created, it was natural for me to gravitate in that direction. When I was in college, my major, in the beginning, was electrical engineering. I knew the language and technology. A lot of jazz musicians were afraid of it. My curiosity got the better of me and I became fascinated with it and the possibilities it could create. I was thinking about the potential of the sound of traditional instruments being replicated by synthesisers, rather than all the non-acoustic sounds that synthesisers could make. I immediately started including that on my records and some of the jazz critics frowned on that and accused me of selling out because synthesisers were really primarily introduced on the rock ’n roll scene.
I persevered through that. My interest in it was my background in electrical engineering and the fact that I was a piano player. I was gonna go in that direction whether people responded to it or not because it was my passion, something that I wanted to do. I’ve continued to do that; mixing synthesiser sounds with acoustic sounds. And everything has continued to develop. Now we’re living primarily in the technological age, which for me is very comfortable for where I sit.
KS: You’ve told a story about how a musician in your band kept the group in high spirits in a show that followed a long night out. He had been repeating a chant before the show, and he told you his secret, which was Buddhism. How has that encounter changed how you relate to music as a healing force?
HH: The musician you are talking about was Buster Williams, a bass player in my band … He turned me on to Buddhism and a particular chant that I have been practising for about 47 years.
At the time I was only interested in doing this because it seemed to have a really positive effect on the output of Buster’s music. And I was like, if it can [also] do something positive for me, I wanna know what it is. I wanted to try it for myself and I did. It changed my life and the way I look at life and other human beings and human potential. I believe every human being has infinite potential and they may not realise it themselves. But Buddhism helps you come to that realisation and it increases your respect for every human being on the planet.
We believe that you wouldn’t exist as an individual if you didn’t have something to offer to humanity, big or small. It’s pieces of the puzzle that need to be completed and each person has their own piece that they add to that. I learnt a lot more about the foundation of my own life. It’s not music, it’s actually more just about being a human being. The music grows from that. It’s not the other way around.
Through practising Buddhism you find ways to transform the obstacles into a way to move forward. If you think about an airplane, the only way it can get off the ground is for there to be resistance through the air. But if you slow down while moving forward, you will never get off the ground. The only way to lift yourself is to push more on the accelerator.
If you think about the way a child learns to walk, they don’t learn because their parents teach them how to walk. They observe and they fall. So they learn by scraping their knees but they keep at it and eventually they walk.
Learning how to talk is the same thing. That same process can move us forward in life. I spend a lot of my life now helping people awaken to their greatness, and the only way it can happen is for all of us to help each other.
That’s why I’m excited to be associated with Unesco and the fact that they unanimously agreed to the establishment of International Jazz Day which is April 30. Even though the world is inundated with this problem we have now which is Covid-19, jazz day is still gonna continue in a different way than what we expected. From the outpouring of musicians around the world, they are excited at being able to do something to give back to humanity, to bring us all together. That’s what International Jazz Day is about, it’s about the ethics of jazz.
KS: On your trips to the continent how have you experienced the umbilical relations that Africans share across the diaspora, particularly across the Atlantic, and how do you think that jazz diplomacy affects those relationships?
HH: I know that our culture was taken away from us when we were brought as slaves to America and through our paths throughout the diaspora. That history still managed to reside within the lives of the slaves, but manifested itself in different ways. Part of it was gospel music that developed here in America. That and the blues together were the foundations of jazz. The blues call and response and many of those kinds of elements were a direct connection to our past on the continent of Africa. That changed the culture of America. People know that, they recognise that. Rock ’n roll groups talk about the influence of blues in particular. The roots of the blues came from our past and our native continent. But if we think about America, America is all full of immigrants, whether they were brought in as slaves or whether they were brought here voluntarily.
KS: As widely as you collaborate, is there an instinct that draws you to a situation? What constitutes a “yes” or a “no” in terms of sharing your skills with others?
HH: I don’t have negative feelings about sharing. If there’s something a musician wants to get from me, I am free to give it. First of all, I’m the only person in this body. What comes out of me is not gonna be something that someone else can easily duplicate. They can borrow things to make them sound like me, but I don’t think that is something that is easy for somebody to do. But that doesn’t just apply to me, but every musician that is trying to find their sound. It’s their sound. It wouldn’t make sense to me to teach somebody my sound, it’s my sound. It would be an implication that there is something missing from their sound or perhaps they haven’t found their sound yet. For them to explore what I do is fine but the goal is to find your own voice.
KS: I’ve got five names that I want you to speak to regarding the idea of touch on their instrument … Robert Glasper
HH: Oh yeah. He’s got a dynamic touch.
KS: Abdullah Ibrahim
HH: His is… there’s an inherent rawness in his touch that is … it’s fundamental.
KS: Alice Coltrane
HH: Flow … there’s a flow to her touch.
KS: A little curveball … Flying Lotus
HH: It’s definitely electronic … exploratory.
KS: Nduduzo Makhathini?
HH: I don’t know who that is.
BS: I don’t think you have had the pleasure of hearing him play yet …
HH: I know the name but I don’t really know the music.
BS: We are going to make sure we share the music with you … things happen in a very particular way because Nduduzo, the very gentleman that you are talking about, he’s just been signed by Blue Note and he’s just got on the line. When I spoke to Nduduzo earlier, I asked him to help me speak with you because he is a piano player. He is on the line right now, isn’t that fascinating?
NM: Thank you so much for having me, it’s just an honour.
BS: Nduduzo can you share a little bit about how you approach your work as an artist and how you work and all the questions that you had for him.
NM: I have so many questions, except I am a little nervous. Two weeks ago, I was on Instagram and I found an interview by Wynton Marsalis, talking about your humility and how you supported his journey and he also spoke about how you were so welcoming to one of my teachers, the pianist Bheki Mseleku. It was just humbling to hear about that and, even without meeting you, I have always felt this sense of warmth and humility in your sound.
Something that I picked up from listening is this sense of a recurring bridging time and a way of seeing the future at a sonic level — and given the choice of musicians you have worked with as collaborators — but also in the prophetic nature of your approach to improvisation. It seems to be seeking to reach this utopian place, a place that we have not gotten to yet.
I’m also thinking of the themes that you have put forward in the past like Future Shock, Future 2 Future, Possibilities, The Imagined Project, especially in the way that they seek to reach a kind of universality and plurality that is embedded in the sonics. So then the question becomes, how does this question of time connect with the ideas in your music and what do you think about the future of the art form?
HH: When the astronauts took a picture of the Earth from space they didn’t see any borders because frankly there aren’t any borders. There are just people on the planet. We are all one species … The planet can take care of itself by itself, it don’t need us, but we need it. The sooner we can think, not just nationally but globally, and grow, we can connect to others and embrace the similarities rather than the differences. The languages may be different and the cultures may be different but those are beautiful. Every day we don’t put on the same clothes, not necessarily … and those may symbolise different costumes or different customs. If you turn the word costumes around, at its base is customs. All those are expressions of variety in human beings.
So we are like a garden. A garden that only has green plants doesn’t look very interesting. But a typical garden has a lot of different colours and a lot of different shapes and a lot of different leaves and the trees are tall and some of the flowers are small and that’s what humanity is, in essence.
Jazz has all of those things and it comes from the people. It’s not just people of one class and one culture. It began out of a culture that grew out of the US, but because we are an immigrant country, there are elements and splashes in jazz that are connected to every other country. New things develop through mixing one culture with another culture and new directions are defined.
NM: I’m someone who is involved in spirituality as well in music. I get a sense with regard to your work and Wayne Shorter’s, that music is not the backdrop but it forms the framework of how you merge with sound. How is it important to have those frames to think about sound ?
HH: I think it’s important to re-examine what someone has done in the past and not get caught in stagnation. I’ve tried to find different ways to use the elements I’ve used in the past and develop things in a different way. As human beings we have the capacity to be flexible and get in our own way and become inflexible, because we don’t recognise that we’re not looking at all the elements of what we may have done.
Life itself is infinite. We are born and we die on the planet, but the whole of the universe is infinite, it functions as a great metaphor for possibilities. Sometimes we have to step back and learn something new. And it’s not always through music that we learn new things. Learning to do something you have never done before is an exercise for the mind. It’s important to massage the mind and apply it to the way that we make music. That’s the beauty of life and at the same time, to continue to help other people.