President Brown Interviews Herbie Hancock

Berklee president Roger H. Brown interviews jazz pianist Herbie Hancock as part of the Boston Book Festival.

October 31, 2014

Who would imagine that butter would be the theme of the conversation between Berklee president Roger H. Brown and the legendary jazz pianist Herbie Hancock last week at the Boston Book Festival. In the festival’s keynote address before a full house at Old South Sanctuary, Brown asked Hancock about his new memoir, Possibilities, out in October. They discussed Hancock’s brilliant career spanning more than five decades, his long practice of Buddhism, his Grammys, his work for film scores, and his experimentation in many genres of jazz.

But the pivotal question—one that set the tone of the hour-long, free-ranging, and skillfully-led conversation—was early in the session. Talking about Hancock’s mentor the late Miles Davis, Brown posed a question: “You asked Miles, ‘How can I play better?’ And Miles Davis answered: “Don’t play the butter notes.”

“What did that mean?”   

Hancock, lean and elegant in a dark shirt, jacket, and tie, chuckled. “The way Miles talked,” he said, recalling the legend’s raspy voice, “I wasn’t sure that was exactly what he said.” But Hancock figured it must mean something “because Miles said it.” So he puzzled over “butter notes,” finally deciding that Davis was telling him to lose the obvious, allowing for more freedom. “I tried to avoid playing the 3rd and the 7th notes. I struggled with it all night,” he said, The result freed up the rest of the band and garnered “the biggest applause.”

Brown brought out the essence of the experience, saying that Hancock’s exploration to free up the music pointed to the essence of jazz. “I choose to believe he (Davis) said 'butter notes.'”

Discussing innovation in jazz, Brown puzzled over how Hancock’s forays into funk fusion, electronic music, and other genres often met with criticism. “It’s strange that jazz is re-invention,” Brown said, “but some want jazz to be what it was in the ’30s.”

Hancock just shrugged. “My mother was still mad at me that I wasn’t playing in the symphony,” he said. His background in classical music was an advantage, said Hancock, who played with the Chicago Symphony at age 11. Brown agreed, adding that it was a myth that jazz musicians don’t have a founding in classical music, or that they just spring up without training. Discipline allows jazz its freedom, they agreed. Brown quoted a saying: “Jazz is thousands of chords for three people; rock is three chords for thousands of people.”

During the conversation, Brown played a few short clips of Hancock’s music, starting with “Watermelon Man,” the rhythmic tune that catapulted him into wide popularity in the 1960s. Covered by scores of artists, the proceeds helped him buy an AC Cobra sports car, which he still owns. In the easy way Hancock has with storytelling, he related the day that he walked into the Manhattan showroom and was ignored by the salesman. Angered at the response, Hancock forgot about the station wagon he’d planned on and bought the sports car, which is “worth a lot of money now. If he had been nice to me, I wouldn’t have that car.”

But Brown drew out Hancock’s easy nature, talking about the jazzman’s almost lifelong practice of Buddhism. Hancock, who said he begins each day with chanting, tries to remember that the “destination’s not as important as the journey.“

The artist’s fascination with singer Joni Mitchell’s gorgeous voice and the resulting River: The Joni Letters—Hancock’s tribute album to Mitchell that earned him a Grammy for Album of the Year—led to a discussion about the difficulty of doing that album. “I must have done 20 takes” on the song, “Amelia” that Brown played for the audience. This, Brown said, was “a lot of chords with no butter.”

Hancock’s life view was most apparent when several young people in the audience from Berklee asked questions about how he practices, his favorite music, and how to get noticed in the business.  “Keeping my eyes and ears open and hoping that as the days and years go by, I get better at being a human being” was his answer to a query.

In other words, embrace the freedom of jazz, and don’t worry about playing the butter notes.