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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