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
|Photo credit: Kwaku Alston|
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.
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|
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.”