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

There may be no more dis­tin­guished lec­ture series in the arts than Harvard’s Nor­ton lec­tures, named for cel­e­brat­ed pro­fes­sor, pres­i­dent, and edi­tor of the Har­vard Clas­sics, Charles Eliot Nor­ton. Since 1925, the Nor­ton Pro­fes­sor­ship in Poetry—taken broad­ly to mean “poet­ic expres­sion in lan­guage, music, or fine arts”—has gone to one respect­ed artist per year, who then deliv­ers a series of six talks dur­ing their tenure. We’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured Nor­ton lec­tures from 1967–68 by Jorge Luis Borges and 1972–73 by Leonard Bern­stein. Today we bring you the first three lec­tures from this year’s Nor­ton Pro­fes­sor of Poet­ry, Her­bie Han­cock. Han­cock deliv­ers his fifth lec­ture today (per­haps even as you read this) and his sixth and final on Mon­day, March 31. The glo­ries of Youtube mean we don’t have to wait around for tran­script pub­li­ca­tion or DVDs, though per­haps they’re on the way as well.

The choice of Her­bie Han­cock as this year’s Nor­ton Pro­fes­sor of Poet­ry seems an over­due affir­ma­tion of one of the country’s great­est artis­tic inno­va­tors of its most unique of cul­tur­al forms. The first jazz com­pos­er and musician—and the first African American—to hold the pro­fes­sor­ship, Han­cock brings an eclec­tic per­spec­tive to the post. His top­ic: “The Ethics of Jazz.” Giv­en his emer­gence on the world stage as part of Miles Davis’ 1964–68 Sec­ond Great Quar­tet, his first lec­ture (top) is apt­ly titled “The Wis­dom of Miles Davis.” Giv­en his swerve into jazz fusion, synth-jazz and elec­tro in the 70s and 80s, fol­low­ing Davis’ Bitch­es Brew rev­o­lu­tion, his sec­ond (below) is called “Break­ing the Rules.”

Noto­ri­ous­ly wordy cul­tur­al crit­ic Homi Bhab­ha, a Nor­ton com­mit­tee mem­ber, intro­duces Han­cock in the first lec­ture. If you’d rather skip his speech, Han­cock begins at 9:10 with his own intro­duc­tion of him­self, as a “musi­cian, spouse, father, teacher, friend, Bud­dhist, Amer­i­can, World Cit­i­zen, Peace Advo­cate, UNESCO Good­will Ambas­sador, Chair­man of the Thelo­nious Monk Insti­tute of Jazz” and, cen­tral­ly, “a human being.” Hancock’s men­tion of his glob­al peace advo­ca­cy is sig­nif­i­cant, giv­en the sub­ject of his third talk, “Cul­tur­al Diplo­ma­cy and the Voice of Free­dom” (below). His men­tion of the role of teacher is time­ly, since he joined UCLA’s music depart­ment as a pro­fes­sor in jazz last year (along with fel­low Davis Quin­tet alum­nus Wayne Short­er). Always an ear­ly adopter, push­ing music in new direc­tions, Han­cock calls his fourth talk “Inno­va­tion and New Tech­nolo­gies” (who can for­get his embrace of the key­tar?). His iden­ti­ty as a Bud­dhist is cen­tral to his talk today, “Bud­dhism and Cre­ativ­i­ty,” and his final talk is enig­mat­i­cal­ly titled “Once Upon a Time….” Find all of the lec­tures on this page.

Hancock’s last iden­ti­fi­ca­tion in his intro—“human being”—“may seem obvi­ous,” he says, but it’s “all-encom­pass­ing.” He invokes his own mul­ti­ple iden­ti­ties to begin a dis­cus­sion on the “one-dimen­sion­al” self-pre­sen­ta­tions we’re each encour­aged to adopt—defining our­selves in one or two restric­tive ways and not “being open to the myr­i­ad oppor­tu­ni­ties that are avail­able on the oth­er side of the fortress.” Han­cock, a warm, friend­ly com­mu­ni­ca­tor and a pro­po­nent of “mul­ti­di­men­sion­al think­ing,” frames his “ethics of jazz” as spilling over the fortress walls of his iden­ti­ty as a musi­cian and becom­ing part of his broad­ly human­ist views on uni­ver­sal prob­lems of vio­lence, apa­thy, cru­el­ty, and envi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion. He calls each of his lec­tures a “set,” and his first two are care­ful­ly pre­pared talks in which his life in jazz pro­vides a back­drop for his wide-rang­ing phi­los­o­phy. So far, there’s nary a key­tar in sight.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Her­bie Han­cock: All That’s Jazz!

Miles Davis and His ‘Sec­ond Great Quin­tet,’ Filmed Live in Europe, 1967

Jorge Luis Borges’ 1967–8 Nor­ton Lec­tures On Poet­ry (And Every­thing Else Lit­er­ary)

Leonard Bernstein’s Mas­ter­ful Lec­tures on Music (11+ Hours of Video Record­ed in 1973)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Bob Lang says:

    At the end of each lec­ture Her­bie Han­cock refers to a ques­tion and answer peri­od. Were these record­ed and will they be made avail­able? I would think they would be of inter­est to any­one watch­ing the lec­tures.

  • AdamP says:

    That should say ‘Sec­ond Great Quin­tet’ in the sec­ond para­graph.

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