Watch & Learn: Herbie Hancock — The Wisdom of Miles Davis

The classroom of Miles Davis was potent, intoxicating, electrifying and stimulating.

The Wisdom of Miles Davis is the first of a six-part lecture series, titled The Ethics of Jazz, delivered by composer, pianist, keyboardist, UNESCO goodwill ambassador and luminary Herbie Hancock at Harvard University’s Mahindra Humanities Center.

What is this lecture about?

Intertwining motifs from personal experience, jazz, philosophy and religion, politics and history, Herbie Hancock inspires his audience to live up to their full potential, musically and otherwise. This talk provides valuable insight into his approach and worldview.

The lecture centers on composer and trumpet player Miles Davis — Herbie Hancock’s musical mentor — with examples of how, with some humour and minimal fuss, Miles was constantly able to encourage and guide other musicians towards reaching their highest potential. Also included is a series of personal anecdotes from Herbie Hancock’s life, involving his family, teachers and contemporaries, giving the audience a memorable glimpse into the world of jazz during the pianist’s early days as a performing musician.

Herbie emphasizes the importance of being open to possibilities, cautioning against dismissing them as one might when they don’t directly match one’s pre-existing goals or aspirations. He encourages his audience to investigate opportunities that lie outside of their comfort zones, and to develop “the wisdom to foster creativity in every aspect of life”. He touches upon his faith, Nichiren Buddhism, and on how the idea of infinite potential deeply inspires his life, and of course, his music.

What are the “ethics of jazz”?

Herbie Hancock recognized that the values he was imbibing from his Buddhist practice matched the essential values in jazz, and that they seemed to apply to life on every level — a sign that he was on the right track. He speaks about how Miles Davis constantly guided him to find these ethics, enabling him to grow, while helping others.

In an interview, Herbie has stated that “in jazz we share, we listen to each other, we respect each other, we are creating in the moment. At our best we’re non-judgmental…we take whatever happens and try to make it work. We try to make it fit. We try to enhance it.” These are the ethics of jazz.

What are some of the things in this talk that stand out?

There are quite a few notable parts of this talk, from Herbie Hancock’s recount of his very first interaction with Miles to the lessons he ascribes to both “the classroom of Miles Davis” and his faith — the importance of learning to listen, the importance of silence in all its forms, and the idea that happiness is “a transformation in your heart that you have to fight for”, “turning poison into medicine” and “your demons into allies”.

Why watch it?

This lecture is a window into what jazz is all about, at heart and on the bandstand — both apart from and alongside its obsession with perfection, mathematics, concepts, and music theory. The Ethics of Jazz provides audiences a personal account of a jazz performance in terms of human endeavours like listening and communication, and delves into how and why the idea of achieving one’s highest potential is important to a jazz performer and to all human beings, all in the words of a master, through his own eyes.

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