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Herbie Hancock’s favourite books of all time

Herbie Hancock is the William Shakespeare of jazz, in the sense that even the uninitiated recognise his name as a measure of quality. Over the course of his career, he has established himself as a beloved master of the art form who has pushed the genre into the future with forward-thinking innovation and the requisite style to pull it off.

Behind his style is a definite notion of self-expression and expansion. As he said himself, “Don’t be afraid to expand yourself, to step out of your comfort zone. That’s where the joy and the adventure lie.” Clearly, that same notion has impacted his literary tastes and no doubt they have in turn fed into his work in a self-perpetuating cycle of inspiration. 

One of the main books that inspired the musician is Barack Obama’s memoir Dreams From My FatherI’ve had the good fortune to meet President Obama,” he told The Week. “I believe he’s a compassionate man, and my impression of him is compatible with how he describes the flow of his life from his early childhood.”

Another of his bookshelf favourites is FootprintsThe Life and Work of Wayne Shorter by Michelle Mercer. As Hancock explains, “Wayne Shorter is a saxophonist, a wonderful composer, a very bright and extremely creative person, and also my best friend.”

No doubt a book about your best friend would indeed be an interesting read, but there is something in it for the neutral too, as Hancock adds, “But I didn’t meet him until about 1963 when I was 23 and he was maybe 29. When I read his biography, I got a chance to learn more about his childhood. He and his brother Alan, also a musician, had a kind of rebelliousness when they were young, choosing not to follow the crowd. They showed a great deal of courage early on, even as kids.”

The jazz master also illuminated a more spiritual side to his life and work. Adding, I’ve been a practising Buddhist for 41 years now — I follow a school called Nichiren Buddhism, founded by a Japanese monk in the 13th century.” For those interested in the subject, he recommends The Buddha in Your Mirror by Woody Hochswender, Greg Martin, and Ted Morino. The title might sound a little bit kitschy, but he ensures it is anything but, “I wrote the foreword to this book, a guide to achieving enlightenment,” he adds. “It’s kind of an easy read for non-Buddhists, to provide an understanding of Nichiren principles.”

Another notable inclusion on Hancock’s list is one that features on many fellow musicians bookshelves – Quincy Jones’s Q. While lauded by other musicians for its honesty and wisdom, Hancock has a rather more personal connection to it. “Quincy Jones is also a dear friend of mine and has been for 50 years,” he explains. “Yet I really enjoyed reading about his life and career in his 2002 autobiography. It was Quincy, back in the ’90s, who told me, ‘Herbie, you better start writing your book.’ I hadn’t thought of it, but over the years, I started to think he was right. He made suggestions on how to do it, and he would remind me periodically, ‘Start writing that book!’”

You can check out all of his recommended reading list below. 

Herbie Hancock’s recommended reads:

  • Q by Quincy Jones
  • Dreams From my Father by Barack Obama
  • A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
  • The Theory of Everything by Stephen Hawking
  • Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter by Michelle Mercer
  • The Buddha in Your Mirror by Woody Hochswender, Greg Martin, and Ted Morino

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