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The brainy, eclectic, multifarious pianism of the Chicago-born jazzman Herbie Hancock (born 1940) has been much honoured. In 2014 he served as Harvard University’s Norton Professor of Poetry, a post previously held by Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein. Like Stravinsky, Hancock uses an amanuensis to write books and the as-told-to tone of this memoir is a trifle off-putting, rendering repeated discussions of drug abuse with LSD and crack cocaine numbly distanced instead of visceral. Still, there are treasurable descriptions of how, at age 11, he won a competition to play with the Chicago Symphony, only to have the orchestra change the concerto he would play from Mozart’s 18th to his 26th. This was because the eminent Dame Myra Hess was scheduled to play Mozart’s 18th with the orchestra that season. Rather than seeing this programming switch as routine deference to a distinguished English pianist, Hancock unreasonably terms it a ‘small act of racism’ and a ‘racial slight’. (As target of this persistent grudge, Dame Myra is even omitted from this book’s index.) Listening to records by George Shearing, Erroll Garner and Oscar Peterson, the young Hancock later honed his artistry playing with Miles Davis, whose sphinx-like pronouncements are quoted abundantly. When Hancock confesses that he sometimes doesn’t know what to play, Davis advises: ‘Then don’t play nothin’.’ On another occasion, Davis tells him, ‘Herbie, stop using your left hand,’ with admirably pared-down effects resulting. Jazz piano lovers will devour this memoir while eagerly awaiting Hancock’s to-be-published Norton Lectures.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica


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