March 29, 2018 - Non-Fiction, Reviews
Author: Herbie Hancock
Author: Lisa Dickey
Publisher: Penguin Books

Before going any further, stop and say ‘Hey, watermelon man!’, now lengthen the syllables and sing it. This is the general idea of one of Herbie Hancock’s famous pieces, Watermelon Man. Herbie Hancock is a jazz pianist who is most well-known for this piece and his work with the The Miles Davis Band, as part of the Second Great Quintet. In his autobiography, Possibilities, he goes through all the different experiences he has had throughout his career and how they affected him as a musician/person. When discussing jazz, it is often through the lens of music, gender, and race; because these were the topics that allowed jazz to become a genre in itself. However, in Possibilities, Hancock often ignores race and gender, and focuses on music.
One of the main reasons I say Herbie Hancock ignored race as a factor in his music making, was based in particular around the first couple chapters. These chapter discuss much of Herbie’s early life and his start as a musician. There were several instances where racism against him can clearly be found, but Herbie acknowledges that he did not see it at the time and only realized deeper implications later in his life. The most prominent one I found was when Herbie competed in an annual competition held by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. After he had won the competition, they asked him to prepare a completely different piece to be played in the concert. The reasoning that they gave for this change, was that they had been unable to find orchestral pieces for his original piece, Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 18 in B-flat Major. Had this been everything, then there would be no racist implications. However, not two weeks later, the orchestra played that piece with Dame Myra Hess. Herbie’s stance on these occurrences can be summed up in one quote, “But even at age eleven, I tended to ignore possible racial slights rather than give them any weight. It was just my nature” (12).

Throughout Possibilities, Herbie Hancock puts more stock in the music aspect of jazz by sharing stories of different experiences throughout his career. Each one often describes a way in which the people he has worked with affected his own style of playing and his outlook on the world. The very first story he tells foreshadows how he has progressed as a musician, learning from the people around him and taking everything in stride. In the short story he talks about how he had played a ‘wrong’ chord during one of their sets and thought he had messed everything up. Yet, Miles Davis took the chord in stride and managed to blend it into the band’s sound without missing a beat. This passage from that story does a great job of describing how Hancock sees Jazz as a genre and likely what makes him so successful. “We all have a natural human tendency to take the safe route- to do the thing we know will work- rather than taking a chance. But that’s the antithesis of jazz, which is all about being in the present” (2).

I believe this aspect of Herbie Hancock’s writing makes him an unreliable narrator, if not for his own situation but the situations going on around him. Another instance of racism that Herbie describes was the death of Eric Dolphy. Eric Dolphy was a flute/saxophone player that Herbie worked with in 1962, two years before his death. Dolphy had collapsed on stage in Berlin and when taken to the hospital the staff assumed he was on drugs and left him to detox. What they didn’t know was that he was actually diabetic and just needed a shot of insulin. The fact that things like this were happening all around Herbie and he said that this did not affect him and his playing is particularly odd considering the basis and reason behind Jazz as a genre. Although, it is worth noting that Herbie had a co-writer, Lisa Dickey, who is a New York Times best-selling author/ghost-writer. In this case she would be considered a book collaborator, because she mainly put into writing what Herbie Hancock told her about. It is interesting to think of how her influence in the writing may have affected exactly what and how Herbie would tell his stories. As Lisa Dickey is a white woman, who is married to another white woman. What viewpoints could she have brought to Herbie in the midst of the collaboration?

The title of Herbie Hancock’s book relates very closely to what we can assume his thesis is. Possibilities is truly that, it shows all the different choices that Herbie made throughout his life to create his lifestyle and music. The thesis gained from the book as a whole is his view of what jazz is and how he allowed it to affect him both in terms of music making and life choices. Early on he claims that jazz is taking chances and living in the moment, which can be witnessed throughout the book. Learning from the people he met: fellow musicians, his wife Gigi, and even in friends who showed him Buddhism. The fact that Herbie Hancock decides to view jazz in terms of just music, without the constraints of gender and race is interesting and makes for a great book.

All in all, I think Possibilities was very well written and put a different light on Jazz and musicianship than what we are often shown in academic research. Often jazz is depicted through the lens of race, gender, and sexuality. Herbie took race into minimal consideration when he spoke of Jazz, but mainly he wanted to view it as the music that it was. When I first picked up this book, I did not expect such an outward/unbiased approach to jazz as a genre. I enjoyed to book immensely because of this fact, I got to see what Herbie Hancock thought of jazz and all of the experiences he has gained in his over 70 years of playing.


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