The Wisdom of Miles Davis / Herbie Hancock

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One of my traits that I am proud of: openly appreciating what really great content can do to the human mind and from then on, how it functions.

I recently had the privilege of seeing the 2014 Wisdom of Miles Davis / The Ethics of Jazz series of lectures delivered by legendary Jazz pianist, Herbie Hancock, at Harvard University. Held as part of the prestigious (Charles Eliot) Norton Lectures at the Mahindra Humanities Centre — it was an eye-opener. What I took away after the first talk was mind-blowing and quite frankly, healthy mental and soul food.

Take in the following lessons, practice them in tandem with how you want to design your life and notice the vast difference and growth you will achieve:

1. First, you’re human

Herbie, a Jazz legend, is beyond being a musician, he stressed this point. He is a father, a spouse, a world citizen, a (music) professor and among other exciting things. “It took me two decades before I really knew and became comfortable with that I am human first and foremost.”

Oftentimes, people are more confident to identify themselves by the sort of work they do, their professions — the material stuff they possess. Their educational qualifications and titles they come with. But so much more lies at the heart of being simply a human being before anything else. It seems like an obvious thing to know, but not quite!

It’s a beautiful thing. Think about it, a human being can do anything they set their mind on. You can change gears and venture into public speaking after having pursued football all your life.

2. Be open to possibilities

Be limitless. This means never shutting down any opportunity of something that exists outside of your comfort zone.

Hancock understood this lesson when he was frustrated in his career because he was stagnating. All the music he was playing sounded the same, no progression and thus, devoid of any feeling. It was Miles Davis who sensed his frustration and nudged him to consider playing other types of sounds and explore the unknown. Be open to the risk of sounding different.

After that, Herbie grew musically, it affected his mood and self-esteem which translated into the mesmerising Jazz melodies he produced.

The way we’re taught to live from a young age — especially at school — is to be safe, sane and exist to pursue the familiar. Consider how society, even your family and friends, dismiss you when you set out to do and achieve anything outside of what they deem safe.

So, you want to go and start a business straight out of high school instead of getting a job at a grocery or clothing store? Enjoy the discouragement you’ll get because that seems a surefire way to failure than working at a job for more than 2 decades and earning almost the same amount of money.

Be open to possibilities that aren’t within your percieved flawless and safe way of living life.

3. You have infinite potential!

This seems like yet another point that occurs to be painfully obvious but isn’t. If it was, so many people would be manifesting the true innate potential that exists in them.

Hancock realised from observing legends such as Davis that potential is something you can stretch to do the impossible.

Consequently, he stretched himself to the legendary status he enjoys today.

Hancock is known to fuse diverse sounds and genres and mesh them with Jazz. One of my favourite records is when he featured Pop musician, Christina Aguilera, to prodcuce A Song For You. After listening to that song for the 3rd time, I remember asking friends why Christina didn’t just do Jazz vocals with her talent.

Mr. Hancock had tapped into his infinite musical potential.

Bonus lesson…

There are no wrong notes

When he was given a golden opportunity by Miles Davis to play as part of a band to a grand audience at a prestigious event, he was elated. The performance was going very well when, in a career-defining moment that could potentially thrust him into great heights and give him growth, he played the wrong notes!

All hell broke loose! (Only in his own head, though.) Hancock went in a state of panic, worried that his mistake had derailed the band, when Miles Davis, in what sounded like pure magic, altered the sounds and played to accomodate Hancock. About that occurence, he said: “I discovered years later that Miles didn’t judge me. I had judged myself. He didn’t hear what I played as a wrong note, he simply heard what I played as something that sounded different”.

And that’s when he learnt that in life and indeed in Jazz music, there are no wrong notes.

I am glad to have watched the lecture — it enriched my level of wisdom and my life. Herbie Hancock shared so much more than could be covered in a single blog article. Stories from his personal life, illustrious career and ultimately, he gladly imparted the wisdom of Miles Davis.

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THEMBA JAY,

Communicate Your Genius