Photograph by Ethan Levitas
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Double exposure photograph of Herbie Hancock, in front with glasses, and Wayne Shorter.

Photograph by Ethan Levitas

A Physicist and Two Musicians Riff on the Science of Jazz

Jazz greats Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter join StarTalk’s Neil deGrasse Tyson to talk about the languages of their crafts.

This story appears in the March 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Herbie Hancock on piano and Wayne Shorter on saxophone. They first paired up in the ’60s, playing with the Miles Davis Quintet. Their pioneering musicianship endures, spanning two centuries. During a syncopated chat with Neil deGrasse Tyson, they drew connections between music and other matters: science, education, inspiration.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: I’ve got to start by saying that between the two of you there’s almost 160 years of life. Wayne, you’re …

Wayne Shorter: I’m 82.

NT: And Herbie?

Herbie Hancock: I’m 76.

Feel the Photon Jazz legend Wayne Shorter converts an astrophysical concept into a musical expression.

NT: I don’t know what’s going on with the two of you. You look the same as when I bought your albums in the 1970s. Both of you have been at this since you were young, right?

WS: I started playing the clarinet when I was 15, taking lessons every Saturday, and then I went to the saxophone at 16. In the old days we had record gramophone players, and I would play alongside, like, Dvořák’s New World Symphony and try to jump in where it was conducive, try to add something.

I also was listening to Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk—and playing hooky from my high school classes. When they caught me, the vice-principal had my mother and father come in and asked where I had been going. I told them, to the theater around the corner where they showed musical films with Gillespie, Parker, Lionel Hampton. So the vice-principal called the music director and put me in music class.

NT: Something like that happened to me in sixth grade. I was a little bit disruptive in class—occasionally, a lot disruptive—and all of my book reports were on astronomy. The teacher saw that and told me that the Hayden Planetarium in New York offered advanced classes in physics and math and the universe. I started taking them, and this became an outlet for my energy, a way of harnessing curiosity completely.

Herbie, at age 11 you won a piano competition?

HH: Right. It was a young people’s concert series in Chicago, and if you win the contest, you get to play the concerto that you used for the audition, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

There were a couple of reasons I got into music. One of them is that my mother saw that every time I would go to my best friend’s apartment, the first thing I’d say is, “Hey, can I play your piano?” So she told my father, “We got to get this boy a piano.” My brother and sister and I started lessons. After about three years they got interested in sports and dropped piano, but I continued because I was too little, my hands were too small—I wasn’t as good at sports as others. But on the piano I was as good as anybody.

NT: When I bring my expertise to the public, I figure out a way to package it and what words to use. Then I stand up in front of an audience and deliver my astrophysics lecture. And if I succeed, people will hear it, they’ll learn—and ideally they’ll be enlightened by it and make it part of themselves. So that’s my conduit of communication. Your conduit of communication is music.

HH: The conduit is being human and manifesting that humanity in everything that you do. Not just the thing that you’re famous for, the thing that you’re known for being good at. We both share having played with Miles Davis [in a quintet that included bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams].

WS: And when Tony Williams was asked, “What do you think about when you’re playing the drums?” he said, “If I could tell you what I was thinking about, I wouldn’t have to play the drums.”

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Shorter’s work with Hancock, right, and other artists is the subject of a forthcoming documentary, Wayne Shorter: Zero Gravity. Shorter, left, says he gave the film that name to express “a buoyancy, a state of being which is untethered, transitory.”

NT: What you’re saying is that music brings vocabulary to you that doesn’t otherwise exist.

WS: Mm-hmm.

HH: Right. And people still continue to create new avenues within the music.

NT: I’m intrigued by the referencing that goes on in your music, both of you, to scientific themes. To the universe in particular. What role has science played in your lives?

HH: Let me just say that when I was a little kid, even before I got the piano, I was already taking watches and clocks apart and trying to put them back together, because I was always curious. That was all well and good until I tried to take apart my Lionel electric train. I got a spanking for that.

NT: It’s been suggested that the next generation, their curiosity is not fostered in that way because nothing can be taken apart. You don’t take apart your computer to meddle with its parts. So this whole world of the tinkerer, learning how things work, might be a lost era.

HH: There is tinkering, in music. And all kids love music. We have a new initiative that I presented formally to UNESCO called Math, Science & Music. It’s using musical elements to teach math and science.

NT: We know the concept of STEM education—science, technology, engineering, and math. There’s been a movement to add an A in there: STEAM, for science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics. I was wondering if you can reflect on the value of an arts education in our life, in our society, in our personal growth.

HH: We’ve been told that a lot of young people are not interested in math and science, but they’re interested in music. Let’s use what they’re interested in to teach math and science—that’s a win-win for the arts community, and for humanity, really.

NT: Yes.

HH: There are so many connections between music and people we revere in the scientific community. Einstein played violin.

NT: I read that John Coltrane was influenced by Einstein.

WS: And Dr. Albert Schweitzer played the organ.

HH: The scientific community created this technological age—but where did that impetus come from? If you ask many people—like Larry Page, one of the co-founders of Google—they say music was a big influence. I’ve privately asked many scientists if they’ve had a connection with music or other arts, and the answer was yes from maybe 85 percent of them.

So, if these people who have this attachment to the arts created this technological age that we’re living in, then in order for it to thrive we need the arts the same way they needed the arts.

This interview, drawn from a May 2016 StarTalk taping, was edited for length and clarity.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is the host of StarTalk, airing Mondays at 11/10c on National Geographic. His new book StarTalk: Everything You Ever Need to Know About Space Travel, Sci-Fi, the Human Race, the Universe, and Beyond is available wherever books are sold and at