Herbie Hancock on the Enigma Known as Miles Davis

The Jazz Legend on his Mentor, Boss & “Master Teacher”

Rare is the chance to talk to a genius, and even rarer when that genius is not the troubled kind but one with great focus and inner peace.  That is Herbie Hancock, a gentle genius of music, a living link to the revolutionary jazz of Miles Davis. Miles was both Herbie’s mentor and boss, teaching him, mostly by example, the meaning of space and silence in music, and the unlimited potential inherent within the limitations of music. He also shared key wisdom he learned by being in Miles’s band about the delicate art of communicating musical ideas to musicians.

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With the possible exception of that guy named Dylan, few figures in modern music have been both as impactful and enigmatic as Miles. (Even to the extent of recording the best “Enigma” ever, included below.)

Both expanded the shape of the music, expanding the form while inspiring and even employing the brightest stars in their respective musical galaxies. John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderly, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams,  Jack DeJohnette, and, of course, Herbie Hancock, all started with Miles.

But getting to know the real Miles from the outside, like getting to know the real Dylan, was nearly impossible. As was trying to ascribe any usual motivations for their actions, as they were never usual in any way. 

But on the inside, it’s a different story. So given the chance to interview Herbie about his own music and history afforded us the opportunity to ask about Miles. And being a generous and patient soul, and one who radiated a joyous calm he attributed to daily Buddhist chanting, Herbie answered with candor and much laughter. 

AMERICAN SONGWRITER: Seeing films of you in the Miles Davis Quintet is amazing. There’s so much freedom and yet also precision. How did Miles achieve that? Would he talk to you about the music and give you any  guidance?

HERBIE HANCOCK: No. He never talked about music. [Laughs]

Herbie Hancock with The Miles Davis Quintet, featuring Tony Williams on drums, Ron Carter on bass, Wayne Shorter on saxophone, Herbie on piano, and Miles on trumpet.

He didn’t seem like a very talkative kind of guy–

No, he was talkative. He would tell us stories about him and Bird, or about his relationship with Dizzy [Gillespie.] Or the scene back in those days. Funny stories. Miles was always funny. Or something that he saw on the street. 

But when we were working on a record, if there was some idea that he wanted to transfer to us, he wouldn’t tell us what to play; he would find some metaphor. Which really is the heart of what he wanted. ‘Cause with a metaphor, then you, the  musician, has to translate it into your own terms, and figure out how to describe that metaphor in musical terms.

Because even if he had a single idea – and this is something that I came to believe long after those first experiences with Miles – the musical idea is only one example of the metaphor. [Laughs

And so the metaphor carries the heart of what that idea is really about. It can express itself in many different ways

But if you tell a person what to play, first of all, it’s you telling him, and you’re not playing that instrument. [Miles] is a trumpet player. He’s not going to play piano. He is not playing drums, or the bass. So he wanted each of us to create our own parts and create our own avenue, or our own character, within the performance. 

So the metaphor would give us a chance to ponder the spirit of the idea he had and come up with an expression of it that we create. See, that’s what a master teacher does: he doesn’t give you the answers; he tells you a way to find the answers for yourself.

That dynamic was reflected in the music, that it was a journey of discovery for each musician. Also he chose astounding players, so that the level of musicianship was extremely elevated.

Yeah. Miles was like that. He was a master at being able to do that. And I had the great fortune of working with the best musicians around. [Laughs] To have Ron Carter on bass, Tony Williams on drums, Wayne Shorter on saxophone – you know?  And Wayne not only on saxophone but the great composer that he was and continues to be.

Would Miles ever tell you after a gig if he didn’t like something you did?

No. [Laughs]  He never told us if he liked something, either. [Laughs] 

But, you know,  the fact that we still had a gig – I had that gig for about five and a half years – that means he must have liked it. [Laughs

I could just tell that Miles loved for us to create with a lot of question marks. That he would have to maneuver through, To create music. He lived in that. If he knew what we were going to play, he would be bored to tears. If we threw a curve at him, he loved that. That’s what he could do. He could turn lemons into lemonade every time

And he had genius for understanding the limits of each instrument and player, yet always challenging you to transcend those in new ways. He knew that limitations can create new possibilities.

Right. Exactly. Exactly. Buddhism really promotes the truth, and the fact that the human being really has limitless possibilities, and that the core of what we are is not that thing that we normally define ourselves as. The core of what we are is a human being. And when we define ourselves as a human being, it changes everything. So music now, I look at it from the standpoint of being a human being and use that as the foundation. 

Then I use what I do to translate what initiates from my humanity into musical terms. That’s why I’m able to make every record be different from every other record.

Herbie Hancock at Home. “Miles loved for us to create with a lot of question marks.”
Photo by Paul Zollo/American Songwriter.
Miles Davis. ” What I saw in Miles fundamentally,” said Herbie Hancock, “was this person who sought the truth, and tried to express the truth in everything that he did.” 

Doing that requires humility, and getting past your own ego. Many said Miles’ ego got in his way. Is that true?

Well, I never perceived of Miles as having a big ego. I know that his reputation was that. If his ego were that big, why is it that his ego was not big enough to overcome his demons? 

Miles was wrestling with a lot of things. He was tormented by his demons. But what I saw in Miles fundamentally was this person who sought the truth, and tried to express the truth in everything that he did. 

He was arguably successful at that. The reason I say that is because I know some people – one, in particular – who had a horrible experience with Miles. But in my opinion, Miles wasn’t himself then. His demons came out in various ways. We all have our demons. It’s part of life.

You seem fairly demon-free. 

[Laughs] No. I had a bunch of them attack me for this record I’m doing.

But I’m really fortunate that I was able to discover Buddhism; it helped me develop a clearer idea of my relationship with the environment. It really helps you to understand what that is, and in doing so, you stand a fighting chance of dealing in a more positive way if something blindsides you, and you don’t see it coming. Because you can be knocked over and defeated. 

So I continue to chant. That is where I went this morning. I went and chanted for an hour at a center that’s near here. In Buddhism we practice each and every day. 

Sure seems to be working for you. You’re 70 now, and you don’t seem to age.

[Laughs] Thank you. Well, you know, 70 is the new 40. [Laughs]

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