Touring the world with his quartet; consulting with the Los Angeles Philharmonic as the Carolyn and Bill Powers creative chair for jazz; serving as chairman of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz; and producing major project albums such as The Imagine Project and River: The Joni Letters, the latter of which won the GRAMMY for Album Of The Year in 2007 (one of his 14 GRAMMYs) — it's not as if Herbie Hancock needed something else on his résumé.
But when the opportunity arose for the 72-year-old pianist to become a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, there was no way he could turn it down. His first major initiative after accepting the post last July was the establishment of International Jazz Day, which will take place on April 30 each year. Coinciding with the designation of April as Jazz Appreciation Month in the United States, International Jazz Day seeks to utilize jazz as an educational and diplomatic tool throughout the world.
Joined by a bevy of jazz luminaries, Hancock will kick off the inaugural International Jazz Day festivities on April 27 with a daylong series of educational programs and concerts at UNESCO's headquarters in Paris. On April 30 the celebration will move to New Orleans, and that evening to the United Nations General Assembly Hall in New York, where Hancock will preside over a constellation of jazz and world music stars. The list includes vocalists Dee Dee Bridgewater and Dianne Reeves; bassists Marcus Miller and Esperanza Spalding; drummer Jack DeJohnette; trumpeters Wynton Marsalis and Hugh Masekela (of South Africa); saxophonist Wayne Shorter; pianists Danilo Perez (Panama) and Hiromi Uehara (Japan); percussionist Zakir Hussain (India); vocalist Angelique Kidjo (Republic of Benin); blues couple Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi; and classical pianist Lang Lang (China).
In advance of the festivities, the legendary artist discussed his appointment as goodwill ambassador and the goals for International Jazz Day.
How did your UNESCO appointment come about in the first place?
I first connected with UNESCO about eight years ago, when the Monk Institute was asked to put together a performance for an annual event at UNESCO's headquarters. We did that for three or four years, and during that time I got to know [UNESCO Senior Advisor] Mika Shino at UNESCO, and whenever we talked it was like a brainstorming session. Somehow the idea came up of me being appointed goodwill ambassador — and just the fact that she would come up with that blew me away. It took another four or five years for the whole thing to transpire.
What do you hope the International Jazz Day activities will accomplish?
I'm not really bound by anything, but when I signed on I had to give a short phrase that would kind of capture my intentions. And I said then, "I hope to use dialogue and culture as a means of bringing people of various cultures together, and using that as a way to resolve conflict."
That sounds like the inspiration behind your 2010 album, The Imagine Project, which brought together musicians from five continents. You said then that you wanted to express the global unity of all peoples.
Actually, The Imagine Project and my UNESCO appointment [are] all part of my life evolving toward that goal. It's all bound together; it's part of what I view as a direction toward making a contribution in service to humanity. The music is part of that, and also however else I might be able to be of service — through speeches, programs and encouragement.
Among the goals set in the International Jazz Day announcement are to "encourage exchange and understanding between cultures" and to "recognize jazz as a universal language of freedom." Can you give me an idea of what specific form these might take?
One of the most important functions of jazz has been to encourage a hope for freedom, for people living in situations of intolerance or struggle. In World War II, jazz absolutely was the music of freedom, and then in the Cold War, behind the Iron Curtain, same thing. It was all underground, but they needed the food of freedom that jazz offered. Even the very idea of an International Jazz Day calls attention to the fact [that] jazz, for many years, has had a diplomatic function.
You mean the way that such artists as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, and Dizzy Gillespie traveled on behalf of the U.S. government to share their music with people around the world?
Yes. And actually, I didn't want to limit my activities to music because that's not the only thing I'm capable of doing. One thing I had been thinking about from the start is having panel discussions or symposiums, say in a university, where students from countries that are involved in conflict, such as the Middle East, can just talk — because very often it's a misunderstanding or misinformation about a culture outside of one's own that is at the root of intolerance. This can start with music, but certainly I don't have to be stuck there.
Another goal set by UNESCO is to use jazz to "promote intercultural dialogue toward the eradication of racial tensions and gender inequality." Specifically, how might that take shape?
The simplest idea that comes to mind is a band that has girls in it. That's not something you or I might look at as an example, because jazz has already transcended that in a sense. People attending the concerts are not even aware of it; they're enjoying the music and then they look around and see it's not just guys on the stage. So then it becomes obvious that great value has been created by emphasizing equality.
Now that you're an official appointee of the U.N., do I need to address you as "Mr. Ambassador"?
You know, I went to some functions in Cambodia and Indonesia as a representative of UNESCO, and officially I was addressed as "Your Excellency." I was shocked. That's only at certain functions — it's a courtesy thing among ambassadors. And I'm not an actual ambassador in the sense of coming from a specific country. In fact, all the other ambassadors from UNESCO represent their own countries, but a goodwill ambassador represents the world.
The International Jazz Day events will feature a slew of your fellow multiple GRAMMY winners, among them Dee Dee Bridgewater, Marcus Miller, Dianne Reeves, Wayne Shorter, Terence Blanchard, Wynton Marsalis, and George Duke. Is there a role for The Recording Academy in International Jazz Day?
I think it really shows that [The Recording Academy] recognizes and encourages great creativity. And actually, this is creativity toward world peace. We want to bring the peoples of the world together, because we have some serious stuff we have to deal with — in terms of the survival of humanity. World peace is no longer some pie-in-the-sky thing, because no single person or country is going to solve it on their own.
(Neil Tesser has broadcast, written about and helped program jazz in Chicago for more than 35 years. His work has appeared in Jazziz, USA Today, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times, and now online at Examiner.com. Tesser received a GRAMMY nomination in 1985 for Best Album Notes for The Girl From Ipanema — The Bossa Nova Years.)