Herbie Hancock radiated coolness — from his hip, all-black attire, to his trademark, slightly tinted glasses, to his deep soulful voice, to his calm, measured delivery. And as unmistakable as his aura of cool was his sincerity.
Both qualities and more were on display Friday (Feb. 29) in the junior common room in Kirkland House where the noted musician sat and talked about his career and his thoughts on music and life with about 50 students including members of the Harvard Jazz Band and other musicians.
The event was part of a two-day celebration in conjunction with the 2008 Artist of the Year award bestowed on Hancock by the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations.
Hancock was happy to share his insight with the group, many of whom arrived with instruments in tow. They came eager to perform for and with the celebrated composer and pianist in the august hall full of dark-wood-paneled walls briefly transformed into a mini-music studio full of vibrant jazz riffs.
The artist, who studied music and electrical engineering at Grinnell College in Iowa, alluded to the years he spent as a member of the Miles Davis Quintet in the ’60s, and some of the lessons the great trumpeter taught him.
“One of the first things I learned from Miles was the value of listening. That’s not solely applicable to music, is it?” he asked the group.
Listening, Hancock continued, “shows your respect for other people.”
Hancock, who took up the piano at age 7 and by 11 was performing a Mozart piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, first sat and listened as members of the group of students performed for him. His head kept time with the music and he was the first to clap his appreciation as the students took turns with brief solos.
Later he joined in on the piano in a jam session where he gave each performer the spotlight before he took the lead with a short display of his inspiring talent.
He counseled the young players to explore their own musical style and creativity.
“You have to develop your own personality,” he said, “that transcends the instrument. … It’s all about being in the moment, compassion, caring, passion for excellence, and having the courage to explore.”