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Friday, Dec. 15, 2006
Building a new jazz generation
Herbie Hancock gives his time to young musicians in Tokyo
By JEFF HAMMOND
Special to The Japan Times
There are plenty of things you might expect to find a jazz legend such as Herbie Hancock doing with his time -- flying to concerts in Europe perhaps, or preparing for a jazz festival in North America, composing new songs, maybe even catching a break from his hectic schedule.
Playing piano with hopeful young musicians at a senior high school in Tokyo is perhaps not one of them.
But that is exactly what he was doing one afternoon early this month when he shared a stage with musically minded students at the American School in Japan. As they worked their way through jazz classics in an hourlong workshop, the students, some looking a little nervous, a few of them tackling their parts with confidence, were clearly enjoying this rare opportunity.
As was Hancock.
"It was a great pleasure for me," he said in an interview after the workshop, "they are very talented. I was blown away, really."
Though there may seem to be no need for someone of Hancock's stature to take part in such events, to him there definitely is.
"It's so important to continue to grow a new jazz audience. As father time catches up with us, you have to constantly attract a fresh, new audience," he says. "This is where you can start nurturing new fans for jazz, in high schools, in elementary schools. You can introduce them to the music and interact with them."
It's not the first time Hancock has taken part in such a program. He is chairman of the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz, a nonprofit educational organization with programs in schools in various American cities.
"One of the programs we have is called 'From Be-Bop to Hip-Hop,' and we do that in conjunction with some of the Los Angeles school systems," Hancock says. "I have had a chance to interact with some of the groups they put together for that program. They combine jazz with turntablists and rappers.
"I know from my own experience, when I had the opportunity when I was growing up to interact with a professional musician, it was an experience I never forgot."
When Duke Ellington's band was playing concerts in the town where he was studying, Hancock managed to persuade two musicians from the group to play with him at his school. The two were drummer Sam Woodyard and bassist Jimmy Woode.
"We told Sam we had drums, but we discovered we had no cymbals! But there were metal ashtrays," Hancock remembers. "It was so incredible. We turned them upside down, put them on the cymbal stands and he used them for cymbals. And we played, and he made it work. We played for about 40 to 45 minutes. I mean, how can I forget that?"
Hancock's encounter with the Ellington band members happened when he was a student at the liberal arts school Grinnell College in Iowa in the late 1950s. "There wasn't much jazz in Iowa," he said with a laugh, so he supplemented his classical music training by listening to jazz records in his free time.
His first solo album, 1962's "Takin' Off," featured the much-covered hit "Watermelon Man." The album caught the ear of Miles Davis, and Hancock was quickly drafted into Davis' band. Working with the jazz titan opened him up to a new world of possibilities, including that of going electric.
Since then, Hancock has become one of the most adventurous and groundbreaking of jazz musicians, working in elements of rock, funk, pop, hip-hop and electronic music into his compositions -- and at times incorporating synthesizers and turntables, too. He has worked solo and in collaborations and with bands he has put together, such as The Headhunters. He has also worked with controversial producer Bill Laswell on a number of albums, a collaboration that spawned 1983's seminal electrofunk track "Rokkit."
One piece of advice he offered to the aspiring musicians in the American School workshop was for them not to be afraid of taking chances, for this is how new discoveries arise. Although widely regarded as a jazz icon, Hancock's adventurous spirit hasn't always paid off when it comes to jazz traditionalists and the critics, but he stands by the work he has done.
"When I push the envelope, I push the envelope because I sincerely want to do whatever it is that I am doing, so I am being honest with myself." he says. "And of course some things work better than others. That's the chance you take when you are taking chances!"
Hancock isn't fazed by adverse criticism.
"One thing I know, the people who have been the shakers and movers in any field are the ones who broke the rules, the ones who got criticized, who didn't do what was expected," he says. "They are the heroes who changed the world, who gave us the opportunity to see things in a new way."
No matter what direction he is pursuing at any time, one place that he can always rely on is Japan.
"For a small island they sure do have a lot of jazz fans here, and the fans are very loyal, very supportive," he says. "Even some of the older fans who have a more conservative taste from a jazz standpoint, if I go ahead and do an electric album, they will still support that. Even though it's not really their taste, they will still come to the concerts."
It's something he, like many jazz musicians who tour here, is grateful for.
"You don't find that happening as much in the States, or even in Europe. But in Japan they do -- once they latch onto you they stay with you through thick and thin. I can depend upon having an audience in Japan, which is comforting."