Buddhism Wins and Crack Loses in ‘Herbie Hancock: Possibilities’

Herbie Hancock's memoir shows us how possibilities in and of themselves can be fleeting, but their ripple effects can go on nearly forever.

Possibilities sounds like a generic name for a memoir. For legendary jazz chameleon Herbie Hancock’s story, however, it’s a good fit. His autobiography broadly traces the many musical opportunities that fell into his lap and the ingenuity he used to turn them into career milestones. Hancock treats every one of these Possibilities as a chance to further himself musically, personally, business-wise, or sometimes all of the above.

Hancock has been a practicing Buddhist for almost all of his adult life. He uses this spiritual angle again and again as a gentle reminder that he likes to turn obstacles into opportunities. If there’s an album running behind schedule, great! He figures out a way to use it to his advantage. If he can’t learn the classical piece “Er Huang” by Chinese composer Qigang Chen thoroughly enough in time for a one-off performance, he uses it as an excuse to chant some more. If a gig falls through, money is lost, a member quits a band, or if he ushers Miles Davis’s quintet into the boss’s solo to “So What” with a wrong chord, it’s all a chance for growth. Hancock sees just about anything life throws at him as an opportunity for growth, even a late ’90s crack addiction that he tried to hide from his family.

As he quickly takes you back to his childhood on the south side of Chicago by the third page, two things become clear: Hancock is both an optimist and highly analytical. These are his default modes, and it is through these filters that he tells his story. He admits that he can’t help but remember all the positive aspects of his old neighborhood while his late sister recalled things very differently. Her voice is heard in excerpts of essays she wrote for classes, which are included in the book, providing insights that the author admits to not having.

This rosy outlook is a practical one. Hancock saw friends, family and neighbors struggle with the mid-century color barrier. In plain terms, he states that be refused to be a victim. This practice of skirting negativity probably explains the lack of racial tension in Possibilities. It was likely occurring all around him, but Hancock sees it as regressive to acknowledge it. When it comes to his childhood interests, it’s fuzzy to tell if the mechanics of music drew him to engineering or if the prospects of technology drew him to music. Hancock walked a line between the two through his teenage years.

When he arrived at Grinnell for his college education, he had to make a choice: music or engineering? In the long run, he didn’t make the choice so much as the choice was made for him. He entered into the engineering department to assure his mother that he would be gainfully employed after graduation. Faltering grades and an obsessive dedication to curating a big band performance that no one in the middle of Iowa necessarily asked for but gladly attended convinced Hancock that music was his ticket to life.

Whether in childhood or adulthood, Hancock strove to be an overachiever in music and technology. As a child, he won a competition to perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He was supposed to learn Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.18 in B-flat Major, K. 456, which he did diligently. Shortly before the performance, he and his teacher were informed that the orchestra’s copies of the score were lost and that he had to learn another Mozart piano concerto instead. Hancock suspected it was a likely an attempt to get him to cancel his own performance, a rare moment when he acknowledges some racial profiling. Rather than back down, Hancock buckled down and learned the new piece in time to perform it with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Towards the end of the book, Hancock is looking down the barrel of a similar situation, where he has to learn Gerswhin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” for a duet with Lang Lang at a Grammy ceremony. In his musical laboratory, he was never content to settle with what hardware was available on the market. Through the late ’70s and early ’80s, Hancock and ex-Mahavinshu Orchestra soundman Bryan Bell were a wiz-kid team. If Hancock wanted the perfect sound to come out of a Moog crossed with something else, Bell would oblige. Bell would drill holes into the Moogs, potentially voiding their warranty.

His rarely slowed down in his chasing of sounds, cranking out record after record with an early ’80s digital interface. Time and again, I wished I could tell Hancock to slow down already, to enjoy the sounds he has rather than bending existing hardware and software to his every whim. But that’s how new frontiers are explored, and Hancock knew it. These days, the marriage between music and modern technology is a given, but over 30 years ago it was tricky business, one that Hancock threw himself into over and over again.

Hancock’s musical trajectory is plotted out rather swiftly, likely because that’s how it seemed to him at the time. One moment he’s done with high school and off to college. By page 30, he’s been recruited by Coleman Hawkins. All of this certainly warrants a double-take. His tenure in New York, playing in Donald Byrd’s band and eventually being invited to join Miles Davis’s second “classic” quintet, reads like the easy life. If Hancock was up against any adversity at this point in time, he doesn’t show it. He keeps his head down, plays the piano, and learns all he can form those around him.

When he first came up with the idea for “Watermelon Man”, he seems remarkably calm about the thought process that went into naming the tune. He realized that he was walking a racial high wire with an illusion to a man on a wagon selling watermelons, but he reasonably decided that he wanted to make the image/memory of this “Watermelon Man” his own. His weighing of the pros and cons of each situation is remarkably businesslike.

It’s during Hancock’s time in the Miles Davis quintet that things get pretty interesting pretty quickly. You get the feeling that Hancock could probably fill a 300 page book full of Davis musings alone. He famously cryptic with his advice, telling Hancock “don’t play the butter notes”. After Hancock takes it upon himself to figure out what the hell that means, we’re told that a later rumor translated it to “don’t play the bottom notes”. In addition to having a guy like Miles Davis as a boss, one who wouldn’t even tell you if you “passed” his audition or not, the quintet had plenty of other characters. Drummer Tony Williams wasn’t old enough to drink, let alone play live music in a bar. This did not stop Williams from wanting to butt heads with everyone, Davis included. Hancock credits the young drummer’s stubbornness to Williams bettering himself musically until the day he died.

Wayne Shorter had a bookish sense of humor that put the band at ease and they all thought of him as a consistently good composer. Through Hancock’s time in the Davis quintet he becomes acquainted with the Fender Rhodes electric piano while they were recording Miles In the Sky. As Hancock tells it, he enters the studio, looks around and sees no piano. He asks Miles Davis what he’s supposed to play. “Play that” says Davis, pointing to the instrument.

Hancock’s departure from the Davis quintet coincides with his marriage to his girlfriend Gigi Meixner and his decision to start a new band with his Fender Rhodes. After some minor lineup changes and a helping hand from fan a fan named Bill Cosby, the new Mwandishi band make their mark with the Fat Albert theme. After constant gigging, Mwandishi’s sound begins to grow by leaps and bounds, leaving the realm of commerciality. David Rubison, Hancock’s manager at the time, had difficulty selling the band’s spaced-out grooves to label executives and gigs are attended by only the most open-minded listeners. Before internal tensions took Mwandishi apart, Hancock struck up a professional relationship with synthesizer advocate Patrick Gleason.

With a new child at home, a move from New York City to Los Angeles and negative cashflow from his Mwandishi tenure, Hancock had to get back on track commercially. He nails big league success twice in his career, and you can probably guess when those instances were. The first one was 1973 record Head Hunters, a successful blend of funk and jazz that yielded the song “Chameleon”. Hancock’s electronic savvy gives the song its distinct punch. The next time Hancock snagged big-time success is when he teamed up with Bill Laswell and Michael Beinhorn to make Future Shock. The single “Rockit” helped MTV burst wide open with the Godley & Creme’s iconic robotic video, which Hancock admits that, upon seeing it, he was unsure if he liked it or not. The lineup of musicians that made Future Shock, including D.J. D.S.T. (now knows as D.X.T.) had to be rigged up for a string of live days. These live dates culminated in an energetic live performance at the 1984 Grammys. And it is with all of this that Hancock’s body decides to dispatch out signals that he’s ingested too much cocaine.

Hancock concludes some of his chapters with cliffhangers. “And then I found some inspiration from a very surprising source: the Pointer Sisters” (163). “But before that dinner was finished, all our lives would be turned upside down” (page 263). “And before I was even halfway to the ground, I realized that I had made a huge, terrible mistake” (page 288). It’s probably not surprising to learn that last one is drug related. Hancock is not shy about his drinking and drug use, which is refreshing since he appears to be so professional in his work ethic. But it was through this work ethic Hancock came to rely on cocaine.

Whenever a film producer would propose a chance for Hancock to score something, Hancock would take it. Projects like these helped Hancock grow as a composer and one in particular even landed him an Oscar (Round Midnight, starring Dexter Gordon). But deadlines loom large in the world of cinema, and many musicians harnessed the power of the powder to help them meet their deadlines. And as Hancock tells it, cocaine was alarmingly available during the ’70s and ’80s, and this only contributed to the hectic nature of everything. In his New York days, Hancock pragmatically uses his second LSD trip to overcome his fear of bees. On cocaine though, no such revelations came about. He’s not especially proud of the cocaine use and he’s even less proud of his crack addiction. Coming clean about it for the first time in Possibilities, Hancock gives the Cliff’s Notes version of his crack use but spares no detail in how it affected his family, like when he misses his only daughter’s 30th birthday. One thing that Hancock does appear to be proud of is his prevailing practice of Buddhism.

Nam Myoho Renge Kyo is the chant that Mwandishi bassist Buster Williams passes on to Hancock in 1972 after Hancock witnesses a Zen-like performance of Williams on his instrument after a night of little-to-no-sleep. From that point forward, Hancock used the Nam Myoho Renge Kyo chant to address every situation that came his way. The death of his sister in a plane crash, the fact that The Imagine Project was running behind schedule, the deadline for a film score approaches, a tumor is discovered in his pinky finger, Hancock faced each situation with a chant. To him, it genuinely goes beyond avoiding life’s little inconveniences. Of one group meditation, he says this: “A couple of weeks went by, and I kept practicing [Buddhism]. Then one day something changed. Rather than feeling outside of what people were saying at the meetings, I was feeling their joy, as if I were sharing their experiences with them” (171).

Like many artists coming of age in the ’60 and ’70s, Hancock’s sense of spirituality can’t be easily pinned. “From the time I was young I considered myself to be somewhat spiritual”, he broadly states on page 154. “Even though my experiences in the churches of South Side Chicago hadn’t turned me into a churchgoer, I was always interested in different religions.” He was careful to distance himself from the civil rights rage surrounding him, even when all of the members of Mwandishi were adopting Swahili names. A young friend name Mtume was the one who talked the band into it, and of him Hancock says this: “Mtume was an angry man, but unlike him, I didn’t come from that place of anger. I wasn’t militant and had never been that kind of person. I just realized that because I believed in human rights, and this was the big issue of the day, and it happened to pertain to my own ethnicity, then I needed to be involved in it” (120).

As the 20th century gives way to the 21st, Hancock decides that he’s had enough of drugs and alcohol. His album output slows considerably and Hancock emphasizing several times that he still chants every day. He earns a Grammy for his Joni Mitchell covers album River: The Joni Letters, and his musical projects morph into great big tributes involving numerous artists. Many a music critic and Hancock fan will tell you that this is a less-than-inspired phase of his career, but he imparts the reader with more Buddhist maxims than music biz anecdotes towards the end of Possibilities. In a way, it feels like the focus of his life has shifted from a microscopic view of music and technology to a macroscopic view of peace and humanity.

Despite the fact that there is a picture of him playing his keyboards in front of at least two computer monitors in his home studio, it feels as if that adventurous artistic spirit has now moved on to the next person. But that all matters little when you are so at peace with your life that you have no problem spilling your guts in a book while smiling on the front cover. Possibilities in and of themselves can be fleeting, but their ripple effects can go on nearly forever.

RATING 6 / 10