How to Respond to the Challenges of Our Time?: Jazz Legends Herbie Hancock & Wayne Shorter Give 10 Pieces of Advice to Young Artists, and Everyone Else

Some moments in his­to­ry strike us as dra­mat­ic rup­tures. Cer­tain­ties are super­seded, thrown into chaos by a seis­mic event, and we find our­selves adrift and anx­ious. What are artists to do? Gripped by the same fears as every­one else, the same sense of urgency, writ­ers, musi­cians, film­mak­ers, painters, etc. may find them­selves unable to “breathe with uncon­di­tion­al breath / the uncon­di­tioned air,” as Wen­dell Berry once described the cre­ative process.

We might remem­ber the rad­i­cal break with tra­di­tion when the shock­ing car­nage of World War I sent poets and painters into fright­en­ing places they had pre­vi­ous­ly left unex­plored. Vir­ginia Woolf summed up the sit­u­a­tion in her essay The Lean­ing Tow­er: “sud­den­ly like a chasm in a smooth road, the [Great] war came.” Shat­tered as they were, her gen­er­a­tion over­came their paral­y­sis. Mod­ernists of the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry were able to speak to their bro­ken age in ways that con­tin­ue to speak to ours.

But we should tem­per our belief that bad times make good art by not­ing that the most vision­ary cre­ative minds are not sim­ply reac­tive, respond­ing to tragedy like reporters on a crime scene. As Wayne Short­er and Her­bie Han­cock— two of the 20th century’s most con­sis­tent­ly inno­v­a­tive musicians—suggest, artists at all times need a set of guid­ing prin­ci­ples. (See the two play “Mem­o­ry of Enchant­ment” above in 2002.) There is always a lot of per­son­al work to do. And in “tur­bu­lent and unpre­dictable times,” the two jazz greats advise, “the answer to peace is sim­ple; it begins with you.”

A plat­i­tude, per­haps, but one they illus­trat­ed near­ly a year ago in an open let­ter at Nest HQ with some pro­found, if chal­leng­ing, pre­scrip­tions for our present cul­tur­al ill­ness­es. Short­er and Hancock’s coun­sel is not a reac­tion to the rup­ture of the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, but a response to the events that pre­ced­ed it, “the hor­ror at the Bat­a­clan… the upheaval in Syr­ia and the sense­less blood­shed in San Bernardi­no.” Not pas­sive­ly wait­ing to find out where the past few years’ vio­lence and unrest would lead, the two have made eth­i­cal, philo­soph­i­cal, and spir­i­tu­al inter­ven­tions, pre­sent­ing their phi­los­o­phy and ethics through jazz, Bud­dhism, sci­ence, art, and lit­er­a­ture.

Below, you can read their ten pieces of advice “to the next gen­er­a­tion of artists,” or at least excerpts there­of. They begin with a reas­sur­ing pref­ace: “As an artist, cre­ator and dream­er of this world, we ask you not to be dis­cour­aged by what you see but to use your own lives, and by exten­sion your art, as vehi­cles for the con­struc­tion of peace…. You mat­ter, your actions mat­ter, your art mat­ters.” That said, they also want to assure read­ers that “these thoughts tran­scend pro­fes­sion­al bound­aries and apply to all peo­ple, regard­less of pro­fes­sion.”

First, awak­en to your human­i­ty

You can­not hide behind a pro­fes­sion or instru­ment; you have to be human. Focus your ener­gy on becom­ing the best human you can be. Focus on devel­op­ing empa­thy and com­pas­sion. Through the process you’ll tap into a wealth of inspi­ra­tion root­ed in the com­plex­i­ty and curios­i­ty of what it means to sim­ply exist on this plan­et.

Embrace and con­quer the road less trav­eled

Don’t allow your­self to be hijacked by com­mon rhetoric, or false beliefs and illu­sions about how life should be lived. It’s up to you to be the pio­neers.

Wel­come to the Unknown

Every rela­tion­ship, obsta­cle, inter­ac­tion, etc. is a rehearsal for the next adven­ture in life. Every­thing is con­nect­ed. Every­thing builds. Noth­ing is ever wast­ed. This type of think­ing requires courage. Be coura­geous and do not lose your sense of exhil­a­ra­tion and rev­er­ence for this won­der­ful world around you.

Under­stand the True Nature of Obsta­cles

We have this idea of fail­ure, but it’s not real; it’s an illu­sion. There is no such thing as fail­ure. What you per­ceive as fail­ure is real­ly a new oppor­tu­ni­ty, a new hand of cards, or a new can­vas to cre­ate upon.

Don’t Be Afraid to Inter­act with Those Who Are Dif­fer­ent from You

The world needs more one-on-one inter­ac­tion among peo­ple of diverse ori­gins with a greater empha­sis on art, cul­ture and edu­ca­tion. Our dif­fer­ences are what we have in com­mon…. We need to be con­nect­ing with one anoth­er, learn­ing about one anoth­er, and expe­ri­enc­ing life with one anoth­er. We can nev­er have peace if we can­not under­stand the pain in each other’s hearts.

Strive to Cre­ate Agen­da-Free Dia­logue

Art in any form is a medi­um for dia­logue, which is a pow­er­ful tool… we’re talk­ing about reflect­ing and chal­leng­ing the fears, which pre­vent us from dis­cov­er­ing our unlim­it­ed access to the courage inher­ent in us all.

Be Wary of Ego

Cre­ativ­i­ty can­not flow when only the ego is served.

Work Towards a Busi­ness with­out Bor­ders

The med­ical field has an orga­ni­za­tion called Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders. This lofty effort can serve as a mod­el for tran­scend­ing the lim­i­ta­tions and strate­gies of old busi­ness for­mu­las which are designed to per­pet­u­ate old sys­tems in the guise of new ones.

Appre­ci­ate the Gen­er­a­tion that Walked Before You

Your elders can help you. They are a source of wealth in the form of wis­dom…. Don’t waste time repeat­ing their mis­takes.

Last­ly, We Hope that You Live in a State of Con­stant Won­der

As we accu­mu­late years, parts of our imag­i­na­tion tend to dull. Whether from sad­ness, pro­longed strug­gle, or social con­di­tion­ing, some­where along the way peo­ple for­get how to tap into the inher­ent mag­ic that exists with­in our minds. Don’t let that part of your imag­i­na­tion fade away.

Whether you’re a jazz fan, musi­cian, artist, writer, accoun­tant, cashier, truck­er, teacher, or what­ev­er, I can’t think of a wis­er set of guide­lines with which to con­front the suf­fo­cat­ing epi­dem­ic of cyn­i­cism, delu­sion­al think­ing, ram­pant big­otry, hatred, and self-absorp­tion of our time. Read Short­er and Hancock’s full open let­ter at Nest HQ.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Philoso­pher Jacques Der­ri­da Inter­views Jazz Leg­end Ornette Cole­man: Talk Impro­vi­sa­tion, Lan­guage & Racism (1997)

Jean-Paul Sartre on How Amer­i­can Jazz Lets You Expe­ri­ence Exis­ten­tial­ist Free­dom & Tran­scen­dence

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

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Comments (6)
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  • larry hoffman says:

    Han­cock and Short­er: both enr­mous­ly talented–brilliant– musi­cians of the very first and high­est order.…it was so sad to see them sell out to fusion instead of pick­ing up the man­tle of their icon­ic men­tors, at the time when jazz had recent­ly lost its two great­est lights in the per­sons of John Coltrane and Eric Dol­phy, leav­ing the music with­out a leader, while pre­sent­ing an oppor­tu­ni­ty for those who would cre­ate false idols in the name of Jazz… the final nail in the cof­fin. RIP

  • larry hoffman says:

    not so open a cul­ture that edits respons­es not in line with the arti­cle! :)
    where’s my ini­tal reply>?

  • sergei celligoi says:

    I want to say
    Thank you
    Mr Her­bie Han­cock and Mr Wayne Short­er
    Very beau­ti­ful way to be conect in this life and to under­s­tend how we must to behave as human being
    I wish all the best to Mis­ter Her­bie Han­cock and Mis­ter Wayne Short­er
    genius of music and life
    Sergei Cel­ligoi

  • Paul Sullivan says:

    What dif­fer­ence does it make which move­ments these artists embraced? Show us how many time you’ve turned down suc­cess and then com­plain about “fusion”. Besides, Her­bie sound­ed bet­ter in that than any­one, and very worth­while I would say. These artists are just try­ing to give a few point­ers about how to be some­one dif­fer­ent, more like your own DNA, than try­ing to become the same old, same old that you can find in every­thing nowa­days.

  • I thank you both for this very impor­tant and beau­ti­ful mes­sage of Hope. It has changed my heart pain into a sure­ness of doing and cre­at­ing a Lov­ing open door for Human­i­ty. It takes me back to the Cen­ter .God is Love.It is my heart I give in Love inmu­sic!!!

  • I just want­ed to thank you for your expe­ri­ence I was born in Cameroon Africa and I grew up in Paris. I’m going trough through a hor­ri­ble pain at this moment I just lost my only daugh­ter… I’ve chant­i­ng for 30 years I’m hav­ing surgery next week thanks again.

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