You don’t have to leave campus to find cool stuff to do. But sometimes you want to. And sometimes the coolest stuff off campus is only 5 minutes away.
Last Monday, Harvard (which is incredibly quick and easy to get to from Tufts) launched its 2014 Norton Lecture Series. Every other year, they have a huge figure in the arts deliver a set of talks about their ideas and experiences. The series consists of 6 lectures that span nearly two months, each of which are free for the public to attend (but you do need to get tickets, which go really quickly). This year, the lecturer was legendary jazz composer/keyboardist and recent Kennedy Center Honoree Herbie Hancock.
Professor Hancock started his series, called The Ethics of Jazz, with a reflection on his experience performing with another man who constantly pioneered new sounds and styles: Miles Davis. Under the heading “The Wisdom of Miles Davis,” the lecture took us through Herbie’s tenure in the trumpeter’s band and the life lessons he learned during that time. The talk lasted almost two hours, so it’s impossible to summarize it well in a single post. But I’ll recount a few of the points that stuck out to me.
Miles was wise because he knew how to roll with the punches. It was 1967, and the Quintet was playing a show in Stockholm, Sweden. They were killing it. Everyone was locked into the same groove, everything sounded remarkable, and the musical communication within the group was “almost telepathic.” Then, as one of Miles’ trumpet solos was reaching a climax, Herbie struck a chord that was just completely wrong. It wasn’t what he wanted to play, it didn’t fit, and he felt utterly defeated as soon as it left his fingers. But Miles didn’t take even a fraction of a second to fret over it. Instead, he played a couple of notes that made the chord, which seemed so hideous a moment ago, fit perfectly into the performance. In Herbie’s words, Miles had the capacity to “turn poison into medicine” without hesitation.
He extrapolated from this experience and tied it to what he considers to be the Ethics of Jazz. The idea of turning poison into medicine comes from Buddhism, of which Herbie is a devout follower. Beyond the context of a rescued performance that took place an ocean away, Herbie tied this mantra to the entire African-American musical experience. From blues to jazz to hip-hop, he explained, African-American musicians have been changing the poison of oppression into the medicine of brilliant art.
The Ethics of Jazz also calls for constant dialogue, another core component of Miles’ wisdom. By the time the two teamed up in 1963, Miles was already a massive voice in the jazz world (his most famous album, Kind of Blue, came out in 1959) and Herbie was a kid who just graduated from college. For this reason, playing in the Quintet was an opportunity that was as intimidating as it was exciting. Miles understood that. One day during rehearsal, he left abruptly, without explanation, and told his bassist to take charge of the session. The rest of the band shrugged off the peculiar episode and continued to practice. It wasn’t until much later that Herbie learned that Miles had only left so he could listen to the band play through the intercom he had set up in his bedroom upstairs. Anticipating the stress that would occupy a group of youngsters playing with a respected professional, he left them alone so they could work without being worried about playing for his approval. In doing so, he let their individual voices/styles develop in the songs they were crafting.
By letting their ideas grow independently of his direction, Miles gave his band his confidence to contribute their creativity, not just their technical skills, to the music they produced together. What’s more, he was always open to letting those ideas influence and letting them take root in his own creative process. Rather than simply teach his younger counterparts, he insisted on allowing himself to be taught by them.
In the projects Herbie is tackling right now, this pearl of Miles’ wisdom could not be more evident. He expands Miles’ interest in two-way learning to the international community. He believes the following (I’m paraphrasing a bit): Globalization, with all its social, cultural and economic injustices, is here to stay. So we can either complain about it or turn it into something positive (once again, he sees poison as the raw material for medicine). He chooses the latter. It makes sense, then, that he should be a UNESCO Good Will Ambassador, a position that allows him to use his fame draw attention to the mutual influence between his art and ideas and those of other cultures.
On a comparatively less broad scale, Herbie, at age 73, is still listening to and conversing with the young people on the cutting edge of American music. Flying Lotus and Thundercat, two major musical innovators working at the intersection of jazz, hip-hop, and something completely new, are apparently collaborating with Herbie in the near future. While many older musicians remain identified with the music they made earlier in their lives, Herbie enthusiastically reaches across a four-decade age difference to take part in the art that’s making strides today.
Herbie’s reflections on his rich, decades-long history on music’s frontiers offer more than a few invaluable insights about how the Ethics of Jazz can be translated into the Ethics of Life. But what’s even more striking is how reflections on an illustrious past are only part of what he contributes to the dialogue about politics, art and culture in 2014. Fifty-one years after his initial work with Miles, Herbie continues to look forward and create the future of music and lead the discussions it fuels.
Hear an excerpt from “The Wisdom of Miles Davis” here.