In the 1970s, Hancock's use of electronic keyboard instruments helped pioneer the development of jazz-rock and other fusion styles. Since then, as a creative innovator and explorer of new directions in music, he has continued to break new ground in jazz as well as recording a number of popular hits. His 1974 album, Headhunters, is one of the largest-selling jazz albums of all time. In 1986 he won an Oscar for his score for the film 'Round Midnight, in which he also had an acting role.
Hancock began practicing Buddhism and joined the SGI in 1972.
The SGI Quarterly interviewed Hancock about his experience of living a creative life.
SGI Quarterly: Can you talk about what it means to live a creative life?
Herbie Hancock: At this point in my life, my primary focus is not on the art form that my career has been built around to date. What I focus on primarily is the real source--or the purpose--that my art form, music, is about. That is, life itself.
At the foundation of artistic expression is the very core of life. So what I'm finding is that the more I attempt to expand and develop my life, the greater the impact is on my music. Music becomes a tool for that expression. My focus is to practice this particular art form with the hope that ultimately it will be a catalyst in the listeners' appreciation of their own lives. My hope is not particularly that the audience will be inspired by my music and put me on a pedestal. That's not what it's about. I hope that somehow it triggers something within themselves where they feel that their life has more meaning, substance and inspiration. That they become more aware of something that is already in them.
That's the hope. And I think that where one is "coming from" is extremely important. Your vision for that pathway, your intention, is very important.
SGIQ: There seems to be a big distance between what you are saying and the general understanding of creative talent, or genius.
HH: There is a tendency for people to be very forgiving about the attitude of the artist, as long as the artistic expression pleases them. They almost expect an artist to be a little weird and a little egotistical, rude. But I'm very much against that. One very strong realization that I have at this point is that the most important art is one everyone is involved in, the art of living. And that is the most difficult one, the most important one to master and develop. And so everyone is an artist in that sense. This really helps me in my own appreciation of the lives of others.
SGIQ: What did you learn working with great masters like Miles Davis?
HH: I've been speaking pretty generally, but to be specific, there are certain characteristics that I strive to be aware of as being very important, and one of them is risk-taking. But, I have to add, with a sense of responsibility. Without a sense of responsibility you can get yourself in a lot of trouble taking risks.
|Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock by Dave McKean|
Miles very much supported the idea of taking risks with the music. That's what he wanted us to do. He wanted us to constantly try to work on things, and constantly try to find new ways of expressing ourselves. So he very much encouraged risk-taking. As a matter of fact, he wasn't concerned at all about our mistakes. He was much more concerned about the courage that it takes to make mistakes. When you're on the edge, then you will make "mistakes"; if you're reaching for something, there will be "mistakes"--it's not going to sound so perfect. But it's the search and the honesty and the integrity that people can feel. They can hear it and they can feel it in their hearts. And that is what touches and moves them.
It is my Buddhist practice that is at the core of these realizations that I've had. It has really opened my eyes to things that I have observed and heard from my musical mentors. And I've been able to see how the things I have learned about creating music can be applied to life.
I've learned that any situation can be viewed from an infinite number of vantage points. With Miles I got that through music. I learned that a composition, a tune, a piece of music written by someone, is one example, one expression, of an idea. A jazz musician can take that song and, through the realization that it is an example, can create other examples by looking for other ways to view the piece of music.
That concept can also be applied to daily life. There is a natural tendency for us as human beings to see the situations that happen to us from one vantage point. But what Buddhism teaches us, and what life teaches us, is that a situation can be looked at in many, many different ways. And the way we look at that situation, and how we deal with it as a result of seeing it from other vantage points, can determine whether that life situation is going to have a negative or a positive effect on our future.
There are many things we get exposed to that at the outset appear to be negative, appear to be an obstacle or a problem. "Why did this happen to me?" That kind of reaction. But it is through those challenges that one can develop a strong foundation, deeper roots and an appreciation of one's own ability to overcome obstacles and to grow from them. This gives one a sense of self-worth. We can actually come to appreciate the obstacles themselves, and we can develop a deeper appreciation for our own life. So challenges are really an opportunity to get us closer to freedom. Real freedom is when you're not afraid of any situation that might happen to you in the future.
SGIQ: Can you talk about the relationship between creativity and suffering?
HH: There is a tendency for people to feel that an artist has to suffer, or pay his dues, in order to have a message that can translate as feeling through his art form. I don't deny the importance of having things to deal with in one's life, or how these can be instrumental in stimulating the creative juices. But what I realize at this point is that if you're striving hard to challenge yourself, whether it is through your art form, or whatever kind of job you may have, or with your family, or just the daily life that you live, there is no way you can avoid experiencing suffering to some degree. And it is through these sufferings and challenges that you can not only stimulate the creative juices but also develop a sense of self-sufficiency or autonomy. If you are not confronting such situations, it means either that you're not challenging your life or your art or that you're asleep, sleeping on the job, so to speak.
There is no one who can escape from suffering. Because materialism is so rampant and out of balance today, there's a tendency to think that if you're rich and you have the "right car," the "right job," a spouse or a mate, all those trappings, then you can be happy. When in fact it doesn't work that way. The most valuable qualities of life are priceless; they cannot be bought or sold. And they have more to do with recognizing that you can overcome situations in your life, recognizing that obstacles are the means for growth in your life, with developing compassion and appreciation for the people in your life, for the environment that we live in. Developing courage. There are so many important qualities that give life meaning and beauty and that dwarf that kind of materialistic viewpoint. Of course we all do need to be able to survive in life, but I think things have gone just too far in the materialistic direction.
SGIQ: Technology is often seen as a dehumanizing force in society. Do you think it also has creative possibilities to offer?
HH: As far as I can tell, there haven't been any real attempts to start a movement to explore the possible uses of technology to address the real issues of everyday life, the real problems. Like problems with peer pressure, man's inhumanity toward man, social problems, problems with sexism, problems with drugs, situations to do with sexual identity. All of the real things that people have to deal with in everyday life. I haven't seen anybody really attempt to explore the use of technology for those things. People in the world of technology have a tendency to be dazzled by it. And they think it is really helping the world--"Look how fast things are moving!" But look at the newspapers. Look at the front page, look at the first five pages. How many situations do you see in those first five pages where technology is being used? Generally, the answer is "none" because those possibilities haven't really been explored.
I've been noticing that quite often today you see the word "knowledge" or the word "information," especially in this new technological age. The word that seems to have disappeared from the vocabulary is the word "wisdom." You never see that anymore.
What most concerns me is that the human being is no longer the fulcrum, or the focus of life. It's somewhere low down on the list of priorities. If human happiness is not at the top of our concerns, then none of the other elements will have any meaning. What purpose is there for technology unless it somehow serves the human spirit and our relationship to the environment in which we live?
One of the initiatives that I've started is to explore the use of technology to address these human issues and concerns. I've started a foundation called the Rhythm of Life Foundation that will collect money for individuals and organizations that are doing this. I started to realize, once I embarked on that project, that I needed a means to develop some examples. So we formed the Rhythm of Life Organization (ROLO). Our first project is one we are conducting in the San Francisco Bay Area with the acronym BAYCAT, Bay View-Hunter's Point Center for the Arts and Technology. The idea for this school that we want to build is not only to be able to give young people access to high-end computers but also to teach them programming with the hope of encouraging them to develop software that deals with the issues that they face in everyday life. We want to encourage them to come up with new visions for the use of technology.
If you think about it, the people who built the technological age are now in the process of adapting to the age that they themselves built, whereas people who were born into it don't have to adapt. It comes naturally to them.
SGIQ: Why do you think it is important to work with young people?
HH: In the 1960s, a lot of major changes were instigated by people in their early teens. What they did really changed the world in many ways. I think that in the not-too-distant future, if we are lucky, a very similar kind of revolution can happen globally through the efforts of people in their teens. I am afraid that if something like this does not happen, not only is the future going to be rocky, but it will become more and more dangerous.
One of the things that I have realized is that so many of the problems that people have to face day-to-day are not problems created by the "have-nots." They've been primarily created by the "haves." Because, unlike the have-nots, the haves have been in the position to have that kind of global impact.
To be honest, I consider myself one of the haves. I'm one of the fortunate ones in life, on the planet. But there is a tendency for people who might be considered the haves to think that the have-nots have nothing to bring to the table of life. The haves, with all of their philanthropic intentions, are often coming from a position of arrogance, thinking that they are the only ones who have the capacity to bring anything to the table. There is a tendency for the haves to feel inherently superior to the have-nots, thinking that the have-nots are stupid, not bright enough. But what they don't realize is that it is not the have-nots who have created the problems for the world
What we need is to create a table of life where everyone is encouraged to bring whatever it is that they may have to offer. You can never tell where the next great concepts can come from. It may be from any place on the planet, including those places that are ignored, forgotten or even looked down upon. Unless we provide a means so that everyone may come to the table of life to bring what they have to offer, we can never experience the advantage of their impact in helping move life forward.
Very often the have-nots, in order to survive and overcome, have had to learn certain lessons in life. The haves may need that kind of creativity, wisdom and vision. Part of the undercurrent of ideas for the Rhythm of Life Organization comes from this kind of realization. The fact that on this planet we all need each other. And we need to help put each other in the position to provide the things we all need to move forward together.
Source: SGI Quarterly (April 2001)