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Herbie Hancock in N.O. for International Jazz Day, Jazz Fest

30th April 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
Contributing Writer

When legendary, multiple-Grammy winning pianist Herbie Hancock performs with high school students as part of the April 30 International Jazz Day sunrise celebration at Congo Square, they’ll play his classic “Watermelon Man.” It’s a tune that stands as a “must know” for young pupils of jazz.

When asked what the essential song was for jazz musicians when he was coming up in Chicago, Hancock, 72, answered rather surprisingly.

“You know what popped into my head? – ‘When the Saints Go Marching In.,’” says Hancock, who initiated the Jazz Day project as UNESCO’s Goodwill Ambassador. “Everybody played that at one time or another. I knew the song before I knew I’d play it. It’s part of the cultural fiber of America.”

Herbie Hancock

Essentially, the establishment of Jazz Day, which kicks off at the free, 7 a.m., star-studded jazz concert at historic Congo Square, is to acknowledge jazz’s propensity to unite the people of the world and unite the people of the world and remind them of the humanity we all share.

“I really think that jazz in particular is adept at bringing people together,” Hancock says earnestly. “Jazz is a true representative of freedom and creativity because it’s in the moment, it’s improvised and there’s teamwork involved in that process. It’s about sharing rather than competition.”

In his travels, Hancock, who will perform at a Jazz Day concert later that evening in New York City, has experienced the power of the music.

“When I toured Bulgaria, I met a lot of people who said that jazz really saved them from going batty,” Hancock says of those who lived behind the Iron Curtain but listened to the music on Voice of America. “It kept them sane and with a sense of hope for the future. Because of their circumstances, people in other parts of the world already know jazz’s importance because they’ve experienced it. It’s been the voice of freedom for them. Here in America, we take things for granted that we have right in front of our eyes and don’t recognize jazz’s deep importance.”

“I remember going to one of the North African countries – Tunisia, Morocco – as a guest performer with students from the Thelonious Monk Institute,” he continues, “and the saxophonist was from Israel. When we got there, we weren’t sure if we were going to be able to perform (or get into the country). “They had a work-around,” Hancock says with a laugh. “There was a guy who met us at the airport who was from the local government. As long he (the musician from Israel) was with this government guy, they considered that the student had not actually set foot on the soil and their laws were honored. The cool thing is that when we got up to play, the audience, they didn’t care. They were having a good time and enjoying the music.

The celebration, which is presented by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz that is chaired by Hancock, officially began at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris, and will also include some two dozen countries.

On Monday morning in Congo Square, the dynamic rhythm section of drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts and bassist Roland Guerin will back a host of local and national luminaries including Hancock, trumpeters Terence Blanchard and Kermit Ruffins, pianist Ellis Marsalis, vocalist Dianne Reeves, percussionist Bill Summers and clarinetist Dr. Michael White. Drumming from the Congo Square Preservation Society will appropriately open up the free celebration at 7 a.m. and an hour later the Tremé Brass Band takes it out leading a second line.

Hancock’s incredible career dates back a remarkable six decades and boasts a huge spectrum of awards as a leader and performing and recording with the likes of trumpet great Miles Davis (think In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew). The pianist does a U-turn back to New Orleans less than a week after Jazz Day to head his own group at Jazz Fest on Saturday, May 5. Two of his talented sideman for the date, bassist James Genus and guitarist Lionel Loueke, have some New Orleans connections. Back in 1996, Genus was a regular with saxophonist Branford Marsalis’s band while many will remember Loueke performing and recording with Terence Blanchard. On drums is Vinnie Colaiuta, who spent years with wizard Frank Zappa and was heard on Hancock’s 2007 CD, River — The Joni Letters, a tribute to Joni Mitchell that won a Grammy for Album of the Year. The versatile, ever inventive Hancock, who was a pioneer in the jazz fusion movement and funked it up leading the Headhunters, says he will perform both acoustic and electric material. “The set will be songs from different periods of my career.”

Hancock never spent much time in New Orleans only performing here at Jazz Fests. (Photographer Michael P. Smith captured the pianist at the Fest sporting a full Afro back in 1974.) The pianist chose New Orleans to begin “the very first, historic annual International Jazz Day” because, he acknowledges, it is the birthplace of the music.

“Jazz grew out of the African-American experience,” Hancock notes. “However the importance of jazz is not so much that it has some descriptive elements of the African-American experience. It’s more about the fact that it demonstrates human beings’ ability to take the worst of circumstances – slavery, intolerance and discrimination – and rather than turn that into conflict and violence, make it into something that is creative and uplifting. The human spirit has the capacity to do that. I think that’s why people throughout the world people respond to jazz. That’s the freedom that is theirs. The freedom of the human experience transcends race. It comes from the human spirit that we all have. It’s African Americans’ gift to the world.”

This article was originally published in the April 30, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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