Herbie Hancock Explains the Big Lesson He Learned From Miles Davis: Every Mistake in Music, as in Life, Is an Opportunity

One thing they don’t teach you in par­ent­ing school is how to guide a young child into mak­ing few­er mis­takes in her home­work, while also com­mu­ni­cat­ing to her that mis­takes are not “bad” but often “good” in that they can be con­duits for cre­ative think­ing and intu­itive path­ways to progress. This les­son presents even more prob­lems if your child has per­fec­tion­ist ten­den­cies. (If you have sound ped­a­gog­i­cal meth­ods, I’m all ears.)

The prob­lem isn’t just that adults con­stant­ly tele­graph bina­ry “yes/no,” “good/bad” mes­sages to every­one and every­thing around them, but that most adults are deeply uncom­fort­able with ambi­gu­i­ty, and thus deeply afraid of mis­takes, as a result of imbib­ing so many bina­ry mes­sages them­selves. Impro­vi­sa­tion fright­ens trained and untrained musi­cians alike, for exam­ple, for this very rea­son. Who wants to screw up pub­licly and look like… well, a screw up?

We think that doing some­thing well, and even “per­fect­ly,” will win us the pat on the head/gold star/good report card we have been taught to crave all our lives. Sure­ly there are excel­lent rea­sons to strive for excel­lence. But accord­ing to one who should know—the most excel­lent Miles Davis—excellence by nature obvi­ates the idea of mis­takes. How’s that, you ask? Let us attend to one of Davis’ for­mer side­men, Her­bie Han­cock, who tells one of his favorite sto­ries about the man above.

Loose impro­vi­sa­tion is inte­gral to jazz, but we all know Miles Davis as a very exact­ing char­ac­ter. He could be mean, demand­ing, abra­sive, cranky, hyper­crit­i­cal, and we might con­clude, giv­en these per­son­al qual­i­ties, and the con­sis­tent excel­lence of his play­ing, that he was a per­fec­tion­ist who couldn’t tol­er­ate screw ups. Han­cock gives us a very dif­fer­ent impres­sion, telling the tale of a “hot night” in Stuttgart, when the music was “tight, it was pow­er­ful, it was inno­v­a­tive, and fun.”

Mak­ing what any­one would rea­son­ably call a mis­take in the mid­dle of one of Davis’ solos—hitting a notice­ably wrong chord—Hancock react­ed as most of us would, with dis­may. “Miles paused for a sec­ond,” he says, “and then he played some notes that made my chord right… Miles was able to turn some­thing that was wrong into some­thing that was right.” Still, Han­cock was so upset, he couldn’t play for about a minute, par­a­lyzed by his own ideas about “right” and “wrong” notes.

What I real­ize now is that Miles didn’t hear it as a mis­take. He heard it as some­thing that hap­pened. As an event. And so that was part of the real­i­ty of what was hap­pen­ing at that moment. And he dealt with it…. Since he didn’t hear it as a mis­take, he thought it was his respon­si­bil­i­ty to find some­thing that fit.

Han­cock drew a musi­cal les­son from the moment, yes, and he also drew a larg­er life les­son about growth, which requires, he says, “a mind that’s open enough… to be able to expe­ri­ence sit­u­a­tions as they are and turn them into med­i­cine… take what­ev­er sit­u­a­tion you have and make some­thing con­struc­tive hap­pen with it.”

This bit of wis­dom reminds me not only of my favorite Radio­head lyric (“Be con­struc­tive with your blues”), but also of a sto­ry about a Japan­ese monk who vis­it­ed a monastery in the U.S. and promised to give a demon­stra­tion in the fine art of Zen archery. After much solemn prepa­ra­tion and breath­less antic­i­pa­tion, the monk led his hosts on a hike up the moun­tain, where he then blind­ly fired an arrow off a cliff and walked away, leav­ing the stunned spec­ta­tors to con­clude the tar­get must be wher­ev­er the arrow hap­pened to land.

What mat­ters, Davis is quot­ed as say­ing, is how we respond to what’s hap­pen­ing around us: “When you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note that you play that deter­mines if it’s good or bad.” Or, as he put it more sim­ply and non-dual­is­ti­cal­ly, “Do not fear mis­takes. There are none.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear a 65-Hour, Chrono­log­i­cal Playlist of Miles Davis’ Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Jazz Albums

Miles Davis Dish­es Dirt on His Fel­low Jazz Musi­cians: “The Trom­bone Play­er Should be Shot”; That Ornette is “F‑ing Up the Trum­pet”

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

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

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  • Christian says:

    THERE it is: the too often miss­ing piece of knowl­edge, of feel­ing, of emo­tion, that we can — and should — use in any sit­u­a­tion we “think”, we made a mis­take and want to “dis­solve into the floor”.
    GREAT LEARNING SESSION — Thanks a thou­sand­fold for shar­ing this video and state­ment! THANKS and thanks again :))

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