Herbie, Fully Buddhist

Jazz great Herbie Hancock's journey into Buddhism began in 1972 with a life-altering bass solo.

BY: Interview by Valerie Reiss

 
Herbie Hancock
 Photo credit: Kwaku Alston
As a pop-cultured child of the 1980s, until recently the extent of my Herbie Hancock awareness was sadly limited to his cross-over hit "Rockit." I stand humbled. When I queried one musician friend on what he'd ask Herbie Hancock, he burst out, "What's it like to be a keyboard god?" Another was equally enthusiastic, detailing the ways in which the Grammy-winner's 40-or-so-year career have hugely influenced jazz, pop, soul, hip-hop, and funk--from reinventing jazz as an avante garde, improvisational art with Miles Davis to being one of the first to use turntable "scratching" as an instrument, for starters. He's also worked with virtually every musician you can name—most recently he's released a Joni Mitchell tribute album, "River: The Joni Letters," with guests that include Norah Jones, Tina Turner, and Leonard Cohen.

Through much of his diverse career, Hancock, 67, has practiced Nichiren Buddhism (pronounce nee-chee-ren), a form of the philosophy that focuses on chanting the mantra Nam-myoho-renge-kyo as a path to enlightenement. It's no surprise that the Christian-raised artist would connect with a melody-based religion. Hancock recently talked to Beliefnet about how the Buddhist seed was planted in a smoky nightclub, why Buddhism is like jazz, and how the practice has taught him who he really is.

 Listen to Herbie Speak:

  • The Magic of Buster Williams
  • On Practicing Buddhism
  • Why Jazz Is Like Buddhism
  • Chanting a Buddhist Meditation
  • 'Buddhism Is Inclusive'
  • Sample His Album:  

    What was it like recording Joni Mitchell's songs?
    Before, I almost never paid attention to lyrics. I’m so bad that when I hear a song that’s sung, English is gibberish. I don’t hear it. I mean, I would have to translate it from whatever the thing is that I hear to intelligible English. Because I hear it as a sound.

    You've been practicing Nichiren Buddhism for a long time, right?
    Yeah, 35 years.

    How did that begin?
    Well, back in 1972, my band was playing music that required a very intuitive sense. It was an avant-garde approach to playing jazz. So it was very much in the moment and spontaneous. We had structure, but it was a very loose structure. So we went though a period when we were vegetarians because we would keep trying to find things that would help the flow of the music. I was very open at that time.

    The Magic of Buster Williams
    One night on a certain tour in mid-1972 we played a club in Seattle, Washington. It was a Friday night and the club was packed. We were all exhausted because we had only gotten a couple hours of sleep because we had been hanging out all night before. But we could feel the energy in the air—these people were really into this far out kind of music. They were ready for it. I asked the band to play "Toys," a song that I’d never called to play, which starts with a bass solo—acoustic bass, which is the softest instrument in the band by its very nature. Un-amplified bass.

    So the bassist Buster Williams starts playing this introduction. And what came out of him was something I’d never heard before. And not only had I not heard it from him, I’d never heard it from anybody. It was just pure beauty and ideas and—it was magical. Magical. And people were freaking out, it was so incredible what he was playing.

    I let him play for a long time, maybe 10, 15 minutes. He just came up with idea after idea, so full of inspiration. And then I could feel myself waking up just before we really came in with the melody for the song. And I could tell that the whole band woke up, and there was some energy that was generating from Buster. We played the set and it was like magic. When we finished, many people ran up to the front of the stage and reached up their hands to shake ours. Some of them were crying they were so moved by the music. The music was very spiritual, too.

    I knew that Buster was the catalyst for all of this, so I took him into the musicians’ room, and I said, “Hey, Buster, I heard you were into some new philosophy or something and if it can make you play bass like that, I want to know what it is.”

    Continued on page 2: 'Gravity works whether you believe in it or not...' »

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