Music legend Herbie Hancock received the 2008 Cultural Artist of the Year Award from the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations at the organization’s 23rd annual Cultural Rhythms celebration, an afternoon and evening of performances from a diverse cultural mix of 29 student groups.
Hancock was feted at the first of two shows (March 1) at Sanders Theatre where it was hard to tell who was having more fun, the performers or the jazz great himself.
Clearly at home in front of a crowd, Hancock took the microphone as emcee and laughed, clapped, danced, and even drummed his way through the show, reveling in the students’ talent and ethnic traditions.
“Wasn’t that great? … Wasn’t that gorgeous? … Didn’t you love that?” he asked the audience after each performance.
In February, Hancock won the coveted album of the year Grammy for “River: The Joni Letter.” The win was another landmark in a career that includes numerous Grammy awards, an Academy Award, work in TV and film, and a wide range of musical styles including jazz, R&B, and electronic funk.
Established in 1981, the Harvard Foundation works to improve intercultural relations through scholarly programs and cultural celebrations. Each year its Cultural Rhythms event pays tribute to an acclaimed performing artist.
Hancock was honored for both his music and his humanitarian efforts. In 1996, he co-founded the Rhythm of Life Organization, which employs youth with the help of technology, and he is the institute chairman for the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, which helps train young jazz musicians. He is also a supporter of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, and the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.
The performance began with a tribute to Hancock’s classic “Cantaloupe Island” off his 1964 “Empyrean Isles” album by the student band The Marcus Miller Sextet, with a smooth mix of three saxophones, bass, drums, and keyboard. Later, its front man Miller, a senior math concentrator, dressed in a dark suit with cascading dreadlocks, said he was thrilled to play for one of his heroes.
Hancock, a Chicago native, watched the night unfold at the side of the stage in an armless chair, clapping along and flashing his megawatt smile. He quizzed a representative from each group after their performance about their varied instruments, dances, and songs, and he frequently took part in brief demonstrations. When Candela Salsa dance troupe member Nicole Gandia ’09 offered an impromptu lesson he good-naturedly agreed, after consulting his adult daughter Jessica, in the audience.
“She knows I can’t dance, look at her, she’s cringing,” he told the crowd.
More than 300 students performed and more than 1,000 took part in the day and evening events that included performances by Expressions Dance Company, Harvard Wushu, Harvard Bhangra, C-Sharp, and Gumboots.
Foundation Director S. Allen Counter applauded Hancock for his artistic achievements and his efforts to give back, noting the piano and keyboard player and composer represented the true humanitarian nature of the organization.
“He has been a great source of inspiration to many not just for his music but for all he does,” Counter said.
To help present Hancock with his honorary plaque, Counter called on Harvard President Drew Faust.
Faust lauded the work of the students and called Hancock an icon.
“I know he has been named artist of the year but in my book he’s artist of the generation, maybe the century,” she said to wild applause from the near-capacity crowd.
Hancock was gracious in his acceptance speech.
“Humanity is what it’s all about,” he said. “The best of what a human being has to offer is astounding, and you’ve seen some of that tonight. … It pleases me so much to know that Harvard University is at the forefront of recognizing the importance of cultural diversity, the heart of what the United States of America is really about.”
The performances and award rounded out two days of events for the musician that included a breakfast with the Harvard Foundation interns, a master class with members of the Harvard Jazz Band (see sidebar), and the signing of the guest book at the University Marshal’s office.
At a small press conference after the show, his daughter Jessica and wife of nearly 40 years Gigi at his side, Hancock marveled at the two-day celebration and his newfound appreciation for the nation’s oldest academic institution.
“The whole phenomenon of all the [awards] different events is something I’ve never experienced” he said, adding, “Harvard sets the bar for academics. What I didn’t know … is that Harvard’s heart is even bigger than that.”