How Music Unites Us All: Herbie Hancock & Kamasi Washington in Conversation

For the indef­i­nite time being, we live with fear atop anx­i­ety, anx­ious­ly look­ing for order in the past and in the future. But some peo­ple with new­found leisure in their coro­n­avirus iso­la­tion have returned to what mat­ters to them most here and now, and start­ed to imag­ine a world no pol­i­cy pro­pos­al can describe. The inter­net has giv­en us greater and greater access to peo­ple who have been doing this all along. Even before the cur­rent pan­dem­ic, artists like Her­bie Han­cock and Kamasi Wash­ing­ton were expand­ing our notions of the pos­si­ble in music and in life.

After leav­ing Miles Davis and going solo, Han­cock was some­times unfair­ly derid­ed as a pop­u­lar­iz­er. In 1974, after his first gold record Head Hunters came out, crit­ic Lee Under­wood gave him the back­hand­ed nick­name “Mr. Com­mu­ni­cate-With-A-Wider-Audi­ence.” But as an ear­ly adopter of syn­the­siz­er tech­nol­o­gy, he was instru­men­tal in keep­ing jazz in the spot­light through­out the 70s and inte­gral to its influ­ence on 80s pop. Like­wise, Wash­ing­ton has been on the van­guard of a resur­gent jazz as con­ver­sant with hip hop as it is with its fore­bears.

Part of a “bilin­gual gen­er­a­tion,” as John Lewis writes at The Guardian, flu­ent in the old and new, Wash­ing­ton built cul­tur­al bridges as the musi­cal direc­tor for Kendrick Lamar’s ground­break­ing To Pimp a But­ter­fly. And both Han­cock and Wash­ing­ton have worked with pro­duc­er Fly­ing Lotus, the grand-nephew of Alice Coltrane and grand­son of singer-song­writer Mar­i­lyn McLeod. In their col­lab­o­ra­tions with oth­er artists and their career-span­ning world tours, they know their sub­ject inti­mate­ly when they talk about music as a unit­ing force, a fact we’ve all remarked on as peo­ple in infect­ed areas emerge from win­dows to ser­e­nade their neigh­bors.

Maybe music is even more pow­er­ful than we allow in our com­mu­nal­ly joy­ful appre­ci­a­tion of Ital­ian opera singers on bal­conies. Not only does it unite gen­er­a­tions and gen­res, as Wash­ing­ton says in his short, ani­mat­ed con­ver­sa­tion with Han­cock above, it shuts down big­otry. When racists hear James Brown, he jokes, they become tem­porar­i­ly embar­rassed out of their hate. (“I’ll go back to being a big­ot when the song is over.”) Han­cock replies that “music has a job to do,” and it’s to keep peo­ple togeth­er. How does it do this? Not only through mutu­al appre­ci­a­tion but also mutu­al cre­ation.

“Music, and the arts in gen­er­al,” says Han­cock, can com­bine cul­tures, reli­gions, and oth­er dif­fer­ences unique­ly such that “what comes out is some­thing that nei­ther one can take cred­it for. What comes out is a third thing. So it’s like one plus one equals three. That’s a new kind of math,” he says, and laughs. Han­cock and Wash­ing­ton both draw from sources of spir­i­tu­al wis­dom that inform their music and broad­er views. Hancock’s Bud­dhist prac­tice con­sti­tutes for him, he said in his Har­vard Nor­ton Lec­tures in 2014, a way of “being open to the myr­i­ad oppor­tu­ni­ties that are avail­able on the oth­er side of the fortress.”

Wash­ing­ton, whom The Fad­er hyper­bol­i­cal­ly calls “the wis­est man on earth,” casu­al­ly shared his phi­los­o­phy of pos­si­bil­i­ty in a recent inter­view. Tran­scend­ing prej­u­dice requires more than dig­ging James Brown togeth­er. Maybe we need to read­just our whole per­spec­tive, he sug­gests:

I’m kind of a sci­ence-fic­tion guy and was think­ing, “One day we’re going to trav­el to all these places and see the uni­verse.” So there’s a side of myself that’s real­ly infat­u­at­ed with all the amaz­ing things that I will do and the world can do — the idea of our end­less poten­tial. And the oth­er side sees the strug­gle and is always prob­lem-solv­ing and pok­ing holes, because I think of myself as being able to plug those holes. I imag­ine the world as a place of nev­er-end­ing strug­gle because I have end­less poten­tial.

It’s a quote that calls to mind the Bodhisattva’s vows. And what do we do? we might demand of this vision­ary vague­ness. What do we do with the spec­ta­cles of gross neg­li­gence, cor­rup­tion, and crim­i­nal mis­man­age­ment all around us? His answer involves accep­tance as much as action.

We don’t live in the whole world so we have a whole lot of con­trol — ulti­mate con­trol — over our lit­tle pock­et. The peo­ple who seem to have a lot of pow­er don’t actu­al­ly have a lot of pow­er; some­one like Trump only has the pow­er peo­ple give him and at any point we can take that back.

We might imag­ine the larg­er con­ver­sa­tion between Han­cock and Wash­ing­ton, who began a tour togeth­er last year, elab­o­rat­ing on ways to act local­ly but think with lim­it­less poten­tial, to emerge from fortress­es of prej­u­dice and exer­cise col­lec­tive pow­er. We would do well to pay atten­tion to artists now, espe­cial­ly those like Han­cock and Wash­ing­ton who have been sound­track­ing the future for decades, and who seem to think that it still has a chance.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

John Coltrane Talks About the Sacred Mean­ing of Music in the Human Expe­ri­ence: Lis­ten to One of His Final Inter­views (1966)

The His­to­ry of Spir­i­tu­al Jazz: Hear a Tran­scen­dent 12-Hour Mix Fea­tur­ing John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Her­bie Han­cock & More

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

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