Herbie Hancock, Newest UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, Will Promote Jazz

By , Columnist
At a ceremony at its headquarters in Paris last Friday, UNESCO appointed jazz pianist and 14-time Grammy-winner Herbie Hancock a Goodwill Ambassador.

Hancock responded to Director-General Irina Bokova’s request that he "contribute to UNESCO’s efforts to promote mutual understanding among cultures, with a particular emphasis on fostering the emergence of new and creative ideas amongst youth, to find solutions to global problems, as well as on ensuring equal access to the diversity of artistic expressions,” by pledging to use jazz as his tool.

Furthermore, he called for April 30 to be recognized as “international jazz day” and announced that he will lobby both UNESCO and U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, for UNESCO to cite jazz on its World Heritage List of “936 properties forming part of the cultural and natural heritage which the World Heritage Committee considers as having outstanding universal value.”

“It feels like an answer to some of my biggest dreams,” Hancock told The Associated Press. “UNESCO really cares about working toward the globalized peaceful world that people actually want to live in. One idea that is interesting to me is jazz as a metaphor for targeting literacy. With jazz, you don't just pick up an instrument and start improvising: it's about discipline. Freedom with discipline is the ethos of jazz.”

Like his former employer Miles Davis (1963-1968), Hancock—who just completed a European tour devoted to Davis’ ‘80s oeuvre with Wayne Shorter, electric bassist Marcus Miller, and trumpeter Sean Jones—is a musician who has guided the future and changed paradigms.

The composer of such hits as “Watermelon Man,” “Cantaloupe Island,” “Maiden Voyage,” and “Rockit,” Hancock imparts a novelistic scope to his music. At 71, he remains a virtuoso on his instrument, acknowledged by pianists for his unsurpassed sensitivity of touch and nuance; since his days with Miles Davis he's known how to switch on a dime from the highbrow abstractions to soul brother funk.

Hancock defined the modern Fender Rhodes electric piano sound on albums like Filles de Kilmanjaro and Fat Albert Rotunda, and was a pioneer in establishing a vocabulary from early synthesizers. He led the curve in groove-based experimental music with Mwandishi, in rhythm-and-blues with Headhunters, and in blending hip-hop and Euro-Techno aesthetics, without ceding innovative status in the hardcore jazz pantheon.

“Tell the members of a symphony orchestra, or a jazz musician, or a rapper or R&B guy, ‘You're going to work with Herbie Hancock,’ and they're thrilled,” conductor Robert Sadin, who has worked with Hancock on numerous projects, including the genre-smashing Gershwin’s World, told me a few years ago.

“This is a person who goes into a room and is equally comfortable with the executives and the people who prepare the food. And it's reflected in the scope of his music. He absorbs messages from a wide range of peoples and cultures, and then transforms and develops them into his own language. But not solely in a technical-analytical way, like being able to transcribe the beats and say they're playing on the three or some such thing. He responds deeply to the emotional climate that brought those accents into being. He plays with a conviction and naturalness which is different from someone who studies a musical style and recreates it,” Sadin said.

An active Nichiren Buddhist, Hancock conceived his last release, the multi-kulti Grammy-winning Imagine Project, to collaborate with an international, genre-spanning cohort of musicians (they include The Chieftains, Toumani Diabete, Oumou Sangare, Cèu, Anoushka Shankar, K’Naan, Jeff Beck, Los Lobos, John Legend, Dave Matthews, Susan Tedeschi, and Pink) towards finding “a path to peace.”

For Hancock, it’s all part of a lifelong process of discovery. “To want to put something out there, I need new stuff,” he told me. “Whether the new stuff is old stuff with a new hat, or old stuff treated in a whole new way, or whether it’s actually new material, that’s what I want. I need to feel I’m making a new perspective.”

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Ted Panken writes about jazz and creative music for DownBeat, Jazziz, and many other outlets; he broadcast it from 1985 to 2008 on WKCR. He recently launched a blog called Today Is The Question.

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