In his new memoir, “Possibilities,” Herbie Hancock describes the single most illuminating moment in his jazz career. It came when he was very young, playing keyboard with Miles Davis. During the show, Hancock suddenly played a chord he called, “so wrong” that he was stunned into momentary silence. “But Miles didn’t judge it,” he said in an interview with Jared Bowen. “He paused and played a few notes that suddenly made it work.”
It took years for Hancock to integrate that moment into his personal musicianship—to learn not to judge the work—but it changed everything he did. The concept of going into the unfamiliar in art has fascinated me for a while—I even wrote an awkward analysis of Neil Young’s forays in a post called, The Unexpected Note, when I had even less knowledge of music. But I think the arts are all connected, and we will get to the answers sooner if we take multiple routes.
Hancock later discovered Buddhism as a way to break boundaries in his own thinking that opened up the possibilities of his music—and here, later in his career, he seems to have coalesced his thinking in ways that he can pass on to me people like you and me.
I haven’t read his new memoir, Possibilities, but it goes on my reading list today.
In a series of lectures he gave recently at Harvard on the Ethics of Jazz, Hancock discussed the nature of creativity in the context of his extraordinary career. He has a lot to say verbally as well as musically, so it can take a while to take him in. But it’s extremely articulate and it’s well worth it. Here’s an especially interesting talk he gave on Buddhism and Creativity.
“Buddhism is uncovering and leading a creative life, and in the process, establishing your own story. A common viewpoint holds that one’s destiny is determined by external forces; however, the practice of Buddhism can break through that notion and carve out the kind of life where you’re the author of your book—and not the coauthor, or a character in someone else’s story.”
It all ties in nicely with the explorations I’ve been doing on the nature of creativity. What is creative? Where is the line and why are we always looking for it? Herbie seems to have gone further and may have small pieces of the big answers. You have to find ways past the predictable, and it doesn’t come from practice. It comes in the little moments where you let go. The mistakes that most of us try to erase or do over may be the most glorious moments in our creative lives.
I’m just entering the world of jazz and beginning to learn all of the emotional/intellectual levels it accesses. So, an afternoon of Herbie Hancock seems like a great way to spend a Sunday.
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