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Jazz Artist Herbie Hancock Sees Boundless ‘Possibilities’

Multi Grammy-winning jazz pianist bares all in new autobiography

Jazz Painist Herbie Hancock credit
Francis Wolff/Mosaic Images

As multi-taskers go, Herbie Hancock is in a league of his own. The most decorated artist in jazz history, Hancock — a youngish 74 — could easily rest on his laurels, but he’s always active on several fronts.

Even when he was a member of Miles Davis’ second great quintet in the mid-’60s, issuing some of the most virtuosic, challenging recordings in Columbia Records’ catalog, he was simultaneously heading his own groups for Blue Note, and the output during this period — including the LPs “Inventions and Dimensions,” “Empyrean Isles” and “Maiden Voyage” — all rate as desert island discs.

Recent conversations with this reporter occurred while the pianist was in the midst, and in the aftermath of, a Far East tour with a band that includes Lionel Loueke, James Genus and Vinnie Colaiuta. (U.S. dates continue through the spring.) Hancock, who is the L.A. Philharmonic’s Creative Chair for Jazz and a Kennedy Center honoree, is also acting as a consultant on Don Cheadle’s Davis movie, “Miles Ahead”; was recently seen in Bel-Air drumming up support for a documentary about his oldest and closest friend, Wayne Shorter; and just wrote an autobiography, titled “Possibilities” (Viking), co-written with Lisa Dickey.

And yet, at a time when most entertainers are being stage-managed by handlers when they’re not hypnotized by their smart phones, Hancock makes time to practice Buddhist meditation for an hour a day. As opposed to cramping his style, this bit of “Nam myoho renge kyo” actually gives him more time.

Hancock accepts his Grammy for “Rockit,” the 1983 jazz/hip-hop hit. photo credit: Sam Emerson

“It makes me more efficient,” Hancock tells Variety. “I feel more confident, more energized and refreshed. There definitely is a clarity as a result of doing this practice. It’s comparable to the time I first put on glasses as a kid at maybe 7 years of age. I used to think the world looked a certain way and then I put on glasses and it was like, ‘wow, I’ve been missing all these details?’ ”

The chanting and meditation, which he’s practiced for 40-plus years, have no doubt kept him eternally youthful through many phases of his career, which ranges from his early years as a sideman for Donald Byrd — who coached him, successfully, to negotiate with Blue Note to keep the publishing rights to his own music — to his ’60s solo albums; the epochal stint with Miles; soundtrack work on movies like “Blow Up” and “’Round Midnight”; groundbreaking fusion efforts by his groups Mwandishi and the Head Hunters; his MTV phase signified by the hip-hop hit “Rockit”; and his tribute to Joni Mitchell, “River: The Joni Letters” (2007), only the second jazz recording to win the Grammy for album of the year (after the bossa nova-flavored classic, “Getz/Gilberto,” from 1964).

But for all of Hancock’s accomplishments, nothing really prepared him to write a book about himself, which, in the process, unlocked all kinds of repressed memories. “There’s stuff in there that I never revealed to anybody,” says Hancock, including bouts of cocaine abuse that devolved into wrestling with the crack pipe. “Even though it’s a battle I won, it’s something I’ve always been trying to push out of my memory and make it disappear.”

The revelations are a bit surprising, given Hancock’s lifelong, almost religious discipline, and the kind of preternatural success that allowed him to buy an AC Cobra in his early 20s (a passage in the book has him dusting Miles’ Maserati in a drag race up New York’s Sixth Avenue), and clean up on royalties when most jazz musicians were barely getting by.

If securing the publishing rights to his own music was so easy, why didn’t everybody do it? “There’s two things,” Hancock explains: “One is they didn’t have Donald Byrd (as a mentor). The second thing is they didn’t write ‘Watermelon Man.’ I suspect (Blue Note) heard possible dollar signs in that and they thought, ‘Oh maybe there’s more stuff there.’”