A Legendary Jazz Musician Brings Goodwill

Herbie Hancock has no message for Cambodia. From the backseat of the car ferrying him to Phnom Penh International Airport on Friday, the jazz icon glanced at Unesco country representative Anne Lemaistre.

“Was that answer OK?” he asked, alluding to the response he’d given a reporter back at his hotel. “When he asked me as a representative of Unesco, what was my message—no, what am I bringing to Cambodia? I’m here to learn and absorb, not to impose something on a country I’ve never visited before…. I meant what I said. I bring my ears and my eyes to Cambodia.”

One of the most revered figures in jazz, Mr. Hancock has recorded more than 50 albums over five decades and received multiple awards, including 14 Grammy Awards and an Academy Award.

Mr. Hancock’s three-day mission here—his first stop as a newly minted Unesco goodwill ambassador—was rapidly coming to a close.

He had, among a bevy of prearranged transactions in cultural diplomacy, gamely taken part in a session of the International Coordinating Committee for the Safeguarding and Development of the Historic Site of Angkor, dined with Deputy Prime Minister Sok An and listened to King Norodom Sihamoni—a former ballet dancer—recount the dances he had choreographed to Miles Davis records. On his final night, at a dinner hosted by Prince Norodom Sirivudh, Mr. Hancock spontaneously took to the piano, and the musically inclined prince joined in on the guitar.

“He had a real talent for Western music,” said the 71-year-old Mr. Hancock on Friday. “American music, really.”

For the Miles Davis protege turned fusion evangelist turned maestro of turntable pyrotechnics, his latest incarnation as a globetrotting cultural emissary doesn’t feel particularly novel. Like many things he’s done, it’s about being open, he said.

“In 1963, when The Beatles first came to America, I was 23 and I was playing with Miles Davis, and I wasn’t even paying any attention to rock ’n’ roll,” he said. “I had tunnel vision about jazz…’til one day we were in Miles’ home, and I noticed album jackets of Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones. I said, ‘Wow, since Miles Davis is the coolest guy I ever met, if he’s open, then it must be cool to be open.’ I started listening to James Brown.”

Mr. Hancock found himself in Miles Davis’ “second great quintet” just as the band was loosing jazz from its harmonic mores. “Time, no changes” the practice came to be known, or freebop—a way of scatting against chord schemes, or fracturing them altogether.

“‘I pay you to work on stuff,’” Mr. Hancock recalled the bandleader demanding, his voice dropping to a Miles Davis rasp.

“‘On the bandstand. In front of the people. Not just in your dressing room to perfect something and then play it in public.’ Because that’s not what the spirit of jazz is about. The spirit of jazz is to be in the moment, and to be vulnerable—in a way metaphorically naked—in front of the people so that they really get your honest feelings. Because that’s the strongest thing you can get.”

Was it strange promoting a world cultural body in a country where, not long ago, culture had been all but extinguished?

“I don’t know of any situation in human history that’s quite like [Cambodia],” he said. “You almost have to leapfrog over history, because the timeline has been cut.”

And then, without much warning, Mr. Hancock was chanting.

“Nam myoho renge kyo,” he intoned—the words at the heart of the Soka Gakkai school of Nichiren Buddhism, of which the pianist is a decades-long practitioner.

“It’s the sound that connects everything in the universe,” he said. “Like an arrow pointed at the earth, it can’t miss.”

The car was slowing in front of the airport terminal, and Mr. Hancock’s plane was soon leaving for Jakarta, the next leg of his journey. He was veering into the doctrine of Soka Gakkai—riffing on the belief, in particular, that everyone is the Buddha, and slipping a reporter a card lacquered with the words of his mantra—while his wife was giving away a bag of mangosteens she couldn’t bring aboard the plane.

But then, like an arrow, Mr. Hancock was back to the music. In jazz as in Buddhism, he observed, it’s about teasing out the connections, the call and response of sound.

“What you have in your heart is: What can I do to make whatever this other musician did to enhance what they’re doing, what can I do to make it blossom?” he said. “We’re looking for the way things connect.”

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