What Miles Davis Taught Herbie Hancock: In Music, as in Life, There Are No Mistakes, Just Chances to Improvise

One of my favorite Brian Eno quotes, or rather one that became an Oblique Strategy, is “Honor Your Mistake as a Hidden Intention.” (Or to be pedantic, the original version was “Honor Thy Error…”).

As a teenager growing up and trying to make art (at that time music and comics) there was no advice more freeing. It was the opposite of what I thought I knew: mistakes were shameful, the sign of an amateur or of the lack of practice. But the more art I made, the more I referenced Eno’s idea, and the more I read and listened, the more I realized it wasn’t just Eno. The Beatles left in an alarm clock meant for the musicians on “A Day in the Life” and the sound of empty booze bottles vibrating on a speaker was left in at the end of “Long Long Long” (along with tons more). The Beastie Boys left in a jumping needle intended for a smooth scratch on “The Sounds of Science.” Radiohead left in Jonny Greenwood’s warm-up chord that became essential to “Creep.” (There’s a whole Reddit thread devoted to these mistakes if you choose to go down the rabbit hole.)

But those examples relate to the recording process of rock music. What about jazz? Surely there’s “wrong” notes when it comes to playing, especially if you’re not the soloist.

In this very short video based around an interview with pianist Herbie Hancock, the master improvisor Miles Davis honored Hancock’s mistake as a hidden intention by playing along with it. It’s both a surprising look into the arcane world of jazz improvisation and a revealing anecdote of Davis, usually known as a difficult collaborator.

“It taught me a very big lesson not only about music,” says Hancock, “but about life.”

h/t Jason W-R

Related Content:

Watch Miles Davis Improvise Music for Elevator to the Gallows, Louis Malle’s New Wave Thriller (1958)

Watch Animated Sheet Music for Miles Davis’ “So What,” Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation” & Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”

Herbie Hancock Presents the Prestigious Norton Lectures at Harvard University: Watch Online

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.


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