By Example

By Example

By Example

Thank you Katherine White (one of our new teachers) for this wonderful post….  Recently I watched an interview with 70 year-old jazz musician Herbie Hancock.  In it he reflects back over his amazing career.  Drawing on decades of experience, of traveling the world, of learning from other musicians and cultures, he is now working on an album that he says is an attempt to have music help people think in a new way about globalization.  Here is a man who could be resting in comfortable retirement, yet he is tirelessly sharing his talents and wisdom in an effort to unite, not divide.

What struck me the most in this interview, however, was a story he shared about his mentor Miles Davis.  When Mr. Hancock was in his early twenties he toured Europe playing piano with Mr. Davis’ jazz ensemble.  One evening during the apex of Miles Davis’ solo, Mr. Hancock accidentally struck a disparate piano chord, something totally off-key and wrong.  Here’s what didn’t happen: Miles Davis didn’t stop the show, skip a beat or flinch.  Instead he took that off-sounding moment of music, and worked with it. As Mr. Hancock recalls, “Miles took a breath, and then played some notes, and the notes made my chord right.  Somehow what he chose to play fit my chords into the structure of the music.”

Herbie Hancock says that he learned an important lesson in non-judgment that evening.  What he realized is that Miles Davis didn’t hear his notes as ‘wrong’, he only heard them as something new that happened.  He says, “I learned the importance of being non-judgmental, taking what happens and trying to make it work.”  This is wisdom from which we can all benefit, an illustration of how to interpret and accept life’s everyday crests and troughs.

Taken a step further, though, and perhaps even more importantly, this episode also showcases a teacher and mentor, Miles Davis, leading by example.  Without word or lecture, Davis simply showed Hancock how to improvise, how to transform something that could be interpreted as wrong into something right.  Without judgment or attachment to results, Davis simply showed Hancock that the present moment is all that we have, that the musical note currently in the air is what we’re meant to hear.  Just take a breath and simply continue playing.

Many thanks to PBS for airing that interview with the legendary Herbie Hancock.  And many thanks to all of my teachers for teaching me in the only way possible, by example.


Elizabeth Delaney