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Herbie Hancock: Still Seeking 'Possibilities'

The jazz icon is intent on capturing 'the full human orchestra of life'

Interview with Herbie Hancock

Bret Hartman/The Washington Post/Getty Images

"I want to continue making records that capture the full human orchestra of life," says jazz icon Herbie Hancock.

En español | World-renowned jazz pianist, keyboardist and composer Herbie Hancock has made youthful curiosity a lifetime pursuit. As the 74-year-old icon explains in his memoir out this week, Possibilities, he came by that inquisitiveness honestly: His mentor Miles Davis taught him to use it to stay vibrant. Possibilities exposes a dark chapter in Hancock's life, too. We asked him about all of it.

Q: What was the inspiration for Possibilities?

A: Quincy Jones encouraged me to write a book. "Herbie," he told me, "you better start writing your book before you start forgetting all these incidents and names." [Laughs]

Q: What's all this about "the wisdom of curiosity"?

A: I've always been curious — even as a toddler. You can have the natural curiosity beaten out of you by disappointment or external forces, but I've never let that happen. Curiosity is just an intrinsic characteristic. I've always had it.

Q: You devote a lot of real estate to the importance of having a mentor.

A: It's because I got such strong encouragement from mentors like Miles Davis. My life would have been very different if I hadn't played with Miles or some other guys who urged me to try new things.

One time I asked him, "Suppose the stuff we're trying doesn't work?" Miles said, "Don't worry about that. Leave that to me." He didn't care if it didn't work or not — he just wanted us to constantly keep exploring. That's some amazing leeway.

Q: Davis is often made out to be a prickly person, but your book reveals his gentler side.

A: Miles always treated his band members with respect. He was always concerned when one of us got sick. I remember one time I had a fever and he called me every few hours to see how I was doing. And we were out on the road at that time.

Q: Are there other things people get wrong about him?

A: Miles was accused of racism for some of his remarks, but [arranger] Gil Evans was his best friend and [pianist] Bill Evans was key to his band. Miles was definitely not a racist.

Q: What hand do you have in Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle's upcoming film about Davis?

A: The movie is not a chronological biopic of his life — it's a story using elements from Miles' life. Don Cheadle's idea was to use those elements to model the way Miles approached music — it's very enigmatic. I haven't seen the movie; I have a script. I'm involved in the music, though, and so is [pianist] Robert Glasper. We want to make sure the film is respectful.

Q: Your memoir explores a crucial dark episode — your bout with crack cocaine. How did you come to share that?

A: I was ashamed of being that person who did those things, so I tried to suppress it. I tried to make it go away as if it never existed. But I've since realized I can use the book to turn that horror into something that serves a positive purpose. Maybe I can help other people by showing that overcoming this type of thing can be done. I talked with my family about it, and they encouraged me to include it in the book.

Q: What's your next move?

A: I've been thinking about making a new record. On my last disc, I tried to use music to bring people from other nationalities together, because I want to show the value of a global perspective.

To solve what threatens to destroy all life — climate change — we're going to have to learn to live together. It will require the world coming together, and us ending these stupid wars. So I want to continue making records that capture the full human orchestra of life.

John Murph is a music and arts writer for The Root, National Public Radio, JazzTimes, DownBeat and Atlantic Monthly.

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