The late jazz giant Miles Davis famously embraced the rock music of the psychedelic era during his “electric” period, beginning with the groundbreaking double album Bitches Brew (1969). We spoke with keyboardist Herbie Hancock, fresh off the success of his pop-collaborations album Possibilities, about the lessons and legacy of his former bandleader.
What, in your opinion, is rock & roll about Miles Davis?
Well, coming from his open jazz perspective — I learned about openness from Miles. I wouldn’t have bothered listening to Cream or Jimi Hendrix. I was totally into jazz and classical music — that was it. But I noticed Miles listened to everything. And he was the epitome of cool to me. So if Miles listened to everything, it must be cool to listen to everything. I’m sure he heard Tony Williams’ Lifetime, which had John McLaughlin in it, and that was probably one of the influences on him doing the record Bitches Brew, which is a kind of cornerstone record creating something totally new out of two different genres. You can’t pigeonhole it as jazz or rock — it doesn’t really sound like either one. But it uses elements of both, and it’s also very funky.
If rock & roll is as much an attitude about life as it is a musical form, you’d be hard pressed to think of someone who had that attitude more than Miles.
I wouldn’t say that’s any different than jazz. Jazz musicians had attitudes about the social scene.
I don’t mean socially as much as the way you carry yourself – a brashness.
Cocky? He was that, but a lot of that was show. He was cocky, but he was a very caring individual. That kind of cockiness, that’s the part I don’t like about rock & roll [laughs]. I mean, at the end of the day, we’re all human beings. At the Grammys, you know who the nicest people were? The people who were the biggest stars. Paul McCartney — sweetheart. A kid in Kanye West’s marching-music thing had a trumpet – Paul went up backstage and grabbed the trumpet from him and started playing a tune.
Did you think that about Miles?
Absolutely. At the time I was very young, and, to me, Miles was mysterious, an enigma. But he was never that way with me, see. There were reasons why he did a lot of the things he did onstage. For example, I rarely saw him bow after a solo, when people were applauding. The reason for that is he felt he’d already thanked them with the thing they were applauding him for. I understand that as a philosophical position to take. I don’t take that position, but I understand it.
In his autobiography he wrote that when he first got you and Tony Williams and Ron Carter together in a room at his place, he had you guys rehearsing together, and he was listening to you over the intercom. What was Miles doing — the dishes?
I understand completely what Miles was doing. He knew that if he were downstairs in his rec room with us, we would’ve been so intimidated he wouldn’t have been able to hear what we could really do. He chose to remove himself without making it obvious. He played a few notes and went “Shit!” and threw his horn on the couch. We didn’t see him the rest of the day, but we started going over some tunes with Ron Carter and George Coleman, who had already been in Miles’ band. Miles was upstairs listening on the intercom, knowing that would be the only way we’d be comfortable enough to deliver whatever we delivered. Which I think is genius. It shows an understanding of the human spirit.
Do you remember your first meeting with him, where it was and how it came about?
Donald Byrd, trumpet player. Donald called Miles and said, “I want to come over, and I’d like to bring my new piano player with me.” I was so nervous I played a ballad. I think I played “My Funny Valentine” or
“Stella by Starlight.” And when I finished Miles said, “Nice touch.” I’ll never forget that. I was thrilled. To me, he was like a god.
During those years, did you feel you were doing something in the studio that was a little different from the live performances?
We all pushed each other, live and in the studio. But in the studio, we were playing tunes for the first time. When you’re on the road with the tunes, you play them over and over. They begin to evolve. You don’t usually have that opportunity in the recording studio. Most of the time you walk in and it’s all new music. It’s fresh, which is cool, because you get the musician’s first response to what he’s dealing with. Miles always loved that — the idea of being in the moment.
Do you have a specific favorite memory of playing with him?
One of the most important ones to me — we were playing, I believe, in Stuttgart, Germany. This might’ve been in 1965. It was one of those nights when the band was particularly on. I mean, it started with the first note. We were burning. And during the middle of “So What,” Wayne Shorter played this great solo, Miles built his solo up to this peak, Tony Williams was firing away on drums, and we had the audience in the palm of our hands. Miles blows up to this peak, and all of a sudden I played this chord that was so . . . wrong [laughs] — it just came out of nowhere. I thought I’d destroyed the evening. It was horrible, and I was stuck with it, because I played it. Miles took a breath, and played some notes that made my chord right. It was like alchemy — “How did he do that?”
Did you talk about it later?
I probably did, but he probably gave me some strange answer [laughs]. But after many, many years, I figured out the answer myself. One of the great things about Miles was that when he played, he was not judgmental. If it happens, it was supposed to happen. He tried to figure out a way to make it work. I try to apply that to my music. And when I began practicing Buddhism, it clarified that this concept is not one that’s just relegated to music. This is a great lesson for life — to take circumstances, whatever they are, without judgment, and try to figure out how to make them work.
If you’ve got lemons, make lemonade.
Right! Exactly. That’s the deal. But it takes a lot of wisdom, and a lot of caring to do that.
In the Seventies your own fame and fortune might have surpassed Miles’. At one point he was an opening act for you. How awkward was that?
There was no tension. He was wonderful. He knew I had a really hot record — the Headhunters thing. He never said anything negative about opening for me. To me, it was a dual bill. It’s just that we both couldn’t play at the same time, so he went on first.
Is it possible to imagine what Miles might be doing were he alive today?
Miles would always be cutting edge. There was a rumor that was so strong I feel it was more than a rumor, that during the time I was with Miles, he and Hendrix were going to hook up. And before Miles died, he was already starting to do things with rappers. I have a feeling he’d be doing music that combined a lot of different forces — rap, rock, jazz, but in a very unique, mind-blowing way, with his special touch.