Hancock Wraps Up Norton Lecture Series with Performances, Stories of Inspiration


Herbert “Herbie” J. Hancock delivered his final lecture as the 2014 Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry in Sanders Theatre Monday afternoon, discussing the art of telling stories through jazz performance and performing a variety of instruments for the audience.

The lecture was entitled “Once Upon A Time…”, a phrase that Hancock said originated from Miles Davis, who used it as a means of inspiration for creating new music and performing old songs.

“[Davis] would say, ‘Once upon a time. So what? What do you say after ‘once upon a time’?’” Hancock said.

Hancock called this phrase “magic,” saying it has influenced the ways in which his jazz music has been composed and performed.


“Performances come in all shapes and sizes,” he said. “We start out with nothing, a tabula rasa. It begins with a small seed, a flash of an idea.”

When performing jazz, improvisation is important, he said, arguing that an existing song might take on a new form given a different set of circumstances.

Hancock then demonstrated to the audience the ways in which original pieces can be transformed in the moment through the rehearsal of his famous song “Toys.” He played the original piece and then altered it for the audience.

He also said that performances offer more than entertainment, and can convey messages about important topics.

“They can highlight issues, such as civil rights,” he said.

After performing for the bulk of the lecture, Hancock offered the audience some concluding thoughts about his time as Norton Professor, which entailed a series of six lectures, entitled “The Ethics of Jazz.”

He urged the audience to take an open-minded approach to the world and to remember the importance of supporting each other.

“Take into account the many sides to an issue including preconceived notions,” he said. “Be prepared to say ‘yes I can’ more than you say ‘no I cannot.’”

Hancock finished the talk by sharing his hope that his lectures inspired people to be more aware of forming interpersonal connections. He said that he wants the audience to use jazz as a common language.

“We don’t have to like everybody,” he concluded. “But we should love everybody.”

—Staff writer Jill E. Steinman can be reached at Follow her on twitter @jillsteinman.