On the phone from Los Angeles to promote his recent autobiography, Herbie Hancock, 74, laughs when I bring up the notorious 1989 tell-all by his beloved mentor Miles Davis. “It sounded like Miles talking!” he chuckles, adding, “I didn’t approach [my book] from the standpoint of comparing it to other musicians’ autobiographies.” Still, Davis’ and Hancock’s memoirs succeed by offering conversational and transparent central voices, no matter how different those voices might be.
In the case of Hancock’s Possibilities (with Lisa Dickey; Viking Books), that means a sweet, inquisitive voice, bright but uncomplicated and so devoid of cynicism it borders on naive. And because Hancock is one of the few bona fide superstars in jazz history-and because he never stops working-it’s a voice you’re probably already familiar with, whether giving near-giddy introductions in a concert hall or deployed behind a podium. (From the Thelonious Monk Institute to Harvard to his work with International Jazz Day, Hancock has engaged of late in more public speaking than a career politician.)
But being a swell guy doesn’t guarantee a successful autobiography; rather, it tends to flatten a memoir out. “The goal was not to be selfish and to think that the book is just for me to get things off my chest,” he tells me. Hancock is frank, for example, about the thorny ego he encountered when the young Wynton Marsalis replaced Freddie Hubbard in V.S.O.P. in the early 1980s. But soon enough he feels compelled to praise the jazz magnate that Marsalis eventually became. Without doing so would have been “a disservice to the greater reality,” he says.
Instead, Hancock primarily looks inside himself for the autobio genre’s requisite candor, and he discloses some surprises and at least one handful of genuine dirt. “My book is not supposed to be about, quote, ‘a musician,’ it’s about a human being,” he says, and a great deal of Possibilities takes place off the bandstand. We hear about his loving but frighteningly unpredictable mother, who suffered with bipolar disorder before the disease was defined. We learn about the knotty relationship he shared with his sister, a brilliant woman whose abilities weren’t recognized like her brother’s, and who died tragically in a plane crash. We’re told how a tumor on the keyboardist’s left hand threatened his livelihood in the early 1980s. And we become privy to Hancock’s wide-ranging experiences with drugs, including the acid trips that helped him gain creative insight during the psychedelic era, and the cocaine that threatened to take him out more than once. Snorting it, coke abetted his tendency to procrastinate on the scores and other projects that were always around the bend, until it threw him headlong into exhaustion; smoking it, the drug put tremendous strain on Hancock’s kin and came to control him.