Creativity, collaboration, and the power of silence, from Herbie Hancock.

The Miles Davis Quintet was in Stockholm performing in a huge arena. As Herbie Hancock tells it, “The night was magical, the audience was rapt, the band was hot, communicating telepathically, like a dream. The kind of night every jazz musician dreams of.”

Playing Miles’s composition So What,  all the musicians had done their solos and now it was Miles Davis’s turn. But just as Miles was about to reach the peak of his performance, Herbie Hancock played the wrong chord. Really wrong. Embarrassingly wrong.

Only Miles Davis did something incredible. He made it the right chord. By interpreting it not as a mistake but just as something he wasn’t expecting. Miraculously, while Hancock thought he had ruined the best performance the Quintet ever put on, Miles played a phrase in his solo that made Hancock’s mistake right. That is the art of listening, of collaboration, of doing what jazz musicians all hope to do. Make what happens work. He turned poison into medicine.

What a lesson for all of us. But especially those of us who strive to make something new and creative and so often have it potentially derailed by changes in strategy, crazy creative directors, clients who throw a wrench in the works. Learn to take something potentially disruptive and turn it into something positive. With talent, with attitude, with a willingness to change perspective.

There are so many wonderful stories and lessons in this talk from jazz great Herbie Hancock in his first lecture as this year’s Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard. The full 70 minutes are filled with inspiration from the musician, teacher, Buddhist, peace advocate, and human being as he likes to refer to himself.

Above, I’ve grabbed another Miles Davis anecdote that’s relevant to those of us in advertising and creative fields. It was in the early 70s when Hancock played with the Miles Davis Quintet. Hancock, in a creative rut during a gig at Lennie’s on the Turnpike (I loved that place along with Paul’s Mall and the Jazz Workshop in Boston). Hancock couldn’t seem to break out of the ordinary, playing the same thing over and over again. Miles leaned over and told him, “Don’t play the butter notes.”

Huh? Hancock had no idea what Miles meant but figured butter meant fat and fat meant obvious, so don’t play the third and seventh notes of the chords and what remains is, well more interesting. Watch the video above and hear for yourself.

The lesson? Don’t fall into the familiar. Don’t repeat the same concept, approach, technique over and over. Take something away. Eliminate anything from the process to the brief, the regular team, even the place you go to have ideas. Eschew the tried and true. What’s left might let you find something fresh, original, and better.

As Hancock says, it was that experience that taught him courage, creativity and the confidence to experiment. Major lessons for us all. Whether we know our chords or not.

Herbie Hancock at Norton Lecture Series. Photo by Tia Chapman

Herbie Hancock at Norton Lecture Series. Photo by Tia Chapman

I snipped the above video from the online content, which you can see in its entirely here. Hoping it’s OK since the lectures are free and that the full talks are online. Photo, on front and repeated here, by Tia Chapman, Harvard.  If either complains I’ll take them down. 


Learn more about Hancock:Hancock is a 2008 American superhero comedy-drama film directed by Peter Berg and starring Will Smith, Charlize Theron, Jason Bateman and Eddie Marsan. It tells the story of a vigilante superhero, John Hancock (Smith) from Los Angeles whose reckless actions routinely cost the city millions of dollars. Eventually one person he saves, Ray Embrey (Bateman), makes it his mission to change Hancock's public image for the better.

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