Saturday, March 15, 2014

Miles Davis at Harvard: “the shit sounded good as a mother-fucker”

Miles Davis didn’t speak those words at Harvard. To my knowledge, he never set foot on the Harvard campus; though it is of course possible that he did so on some occasion. It was Homi Bhabha who uttered those words, quoting a statement Davis had used in describing Herbie Hancock’s piano playing. Bhaba was introducing Hancock as the 2014 Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry.

But Hancock’s not a poet, you might say. No, he’s not. The word is used with poetic license.

As Bhabha said at the beginning of his introduction, the Norton Lectures, which it is the duty of the Norton Professor to deliver, are “Harvard’s singular tribute to the most creative minds in the arts and humanities.” The Norton Professorship has previously been held by such luminaries as T.S. Eliot (1932-33), Igor Stravinsky (1939-40), Ben Shahn (1956-57), Leonard Bernstein (1972-73), Frank Stella (1982-84), John Cage (1988-89), and Luciano Berio (1992-93), only one of whom was a poet. But all of them were some variety of white. Hancock is the first African-American to hold that distinguished post.

Thereby hangs a tale, no, many tales, tales crossing over a half millennium in time and half the globe in space.

For the socio-cultural forces that gave birth to Harvard in the New World in 1636 for the purpose of educating young men in the ministry are the same forces that engaged in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Without those forces, no Norton Lectureship and no Herbie Hancock. Without those forces, no Homi Bhabha, for those same forces extended the British Empire to India. Bhabha was born in Mumbai and educated at Oxford. Mumbai to Oxford to Cambridge, Massachusetts–that’s quite a journey, one spanning the East-West extent of the old British Empire, which gave up its hold on India only in 1947, two years before Bhabha was born.

So, we have one son of the British Empire, Homi Bhabha, introducing another son of the British Empire, Herbie Hancock, to a diverse audience in Cambridge. Bhabha and Hancock, of course, count lands and cultures other than Britain in their ancestry. And the point of this particular occasion is to put Africa, as transmuted in North America, on the Harvard stage.

I would guess that most of the audience members were also sons and daughters of the British Empire, though it’s likely that a few were British citizens, and there were no doubt some whose ancestry was outside the British Empire. The occasion is an educational one – Harvard, after all, is a place of learning, of instruction and research – but also a ceremonial one. The Norton Lectures are one of the occasions on which Harvard presents itself to the world at large; they are free and open to the general public. This is an occasion on which Harvard says:
This is what we know. This is what we ARE. These are the limits of the world. But also, beyond these limits there be dragons.
And what happens? On this august occasion the Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities and the director of the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard University, Homhi K. Bhabha, utters two of the most vile words in the English language – shit and mother-fucker – and he does so, not once, but twice.


Let me repeat:


Remember, this is a ceremonial occasion. Ceremonial occasions are strange. Things that are taboo in ordinary occasions are permissible in ceremonies. If you follow the rules.

In this case, Bhabha did not utter those words in his own person, or rather, in the person of the Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities and Director of the Mahindra Humanities Center. He uttered those words in a quotation. It wasn’t the Rothenberg Professor who was speaking; it was the late Miles Dewey Davis, one of the world’s great musicians. The Director of the Mahindra Humanities Center is allowed to present the words of a Miles Davis; one might even say such a personage is required to present such words.

All those fancy titles stand between the mere person, Homi Bhaba, the many people in the audience, and the juju in those vile words. Those titles work magic. They provide cover, protection.

Let’s take a closer look. Bhabha delivers those words at the end of his introduction of Hancock. First I’ll present those words without comment and then repeat them with commentary interspersed. To get the full effect, you should watch the video. You’ll see Bhabha in his elegant double-breasted chalk-stripe suit and hear him speak his elegant, refined English, Mumbai by way of Oxford – which is not at all how Davis talked. This passage begins about 8 minutes in:
... in his autobiography Miles Davis wrote of Herbie Hancock’s playing, with his characteristic expressive phrasing, which might offend some of you, but I don’t mess with Miles, of Herbie, Miles wrote, “the shit sounded good as a mother-fucker”. Since that is possibly the most popular phrase of my entire introduction, I should say it again: “the shit sounded good as a mother-fucker. See, Herbie was the step after Bud Powell and Thelonius Monk, and I haven’t heard anybody yet who has come after him.” Ladies and gentlemen, Herbie Hancock.
Let’s unpack it:
... in his autobiography Miles Davis wrote of Herbie Hancock’s playing, with his characteristic expressive phrasing,
For those familiar with Miles Davis, the phrase “characteristic expressive phrasing” telegraphs what’s coming next. We know that Davis liked using those words; many people do. But we also know that Bhabha is building to a climax, that he’s setting us up for something. The phrase “which might offend some of you” confirms our suspicions. Bhabha’s going to say the F-word.

But first he throws a feint: “but I don’t mess with Miles.” He’s dropped into the vernacular, “mess with”, and the familiar “Miles.” I doubt that Bhabha ever met Davis much less was on a first-name basis with him. But fans often refer to Davis simply as Miles, as they refer to Edward Kennedy Ellington as Duke, Sonny Rollins as Sonny, and Louis Armstrong as Louis, Pops, or Satch – but then, Charles Mingus is almost always Mingus. The conventions are tricky. But no mind. Miles Davis is almost always Miles. While Ludwig van Beethoven is always Beethoven, not Ludwig; Frederic Chopin is also Chopin, not Frederic, much less Fred; and Leonard Bernstein is most often Bernstein, but sometimes Lenny. Those conventions are different.

In dropping into the vernacular and the familiar Bhabha sets the stage for the shock we know is coming. Mentally, culturally, we’re now far from the august Harvard hall in which this event takes place. We’re on the streets, or at least in a room in Davis’s home. Bhabha delivers the words: “of Herbie, Miles wrote, ‘the shit sounded good as a mother-fucker’” and those words are greeted with laughter and applause.

Here we are at Harvard, with the best and brightest, getting down and dirty with Miles Davis, ex-junky and jazz musician extraordinaire. We are cool. Hip.

Something like that. There’s nothing special or peculiar about Davis’s usage here. It’s quite common, in certain worlds and contexts, to use taboo words as terms of praise and approbation. That’s what Davis is doing. And Homi Bhaba too.

The applause was expected. While some people might indeed have been offended by those words, Bhabha knew that most of his audience would not be. He knew that they would be pleased and amused, that they would applaud his cleverness and – who knows? – they might even have experienced a frisson of daring-do in those words.

But, while enjoying it, remember the history – the British Empire, the slave trade, a school to crank out clergy. All of that’s on the stage in those moments: the stage itself, the cut of Bhabha’s suit, his accent, Herbie Hancock sitting on stage to Bhabha’s left, casually dressed in slacks, shirt, sport jacket, no tie. In that moment, with all that history casually deployed, Bhabha repeats:
Since that is possibly the most popular phrase of my entire introduction, I should say it again: “the shit sounded good as a mother-fucker. See, Herbie was the step after Bud Powell and Thelonius Monk, and I haven’t heard anybody yet who has come after him.”
Was that first phrase part of Bhabha’s written script – for he was reading his introduction – or was it improvised on the spot? I don’t really know, but Bhabha clearly expected audience reaction after “mother-fucker” and allowed for it. Yet that was not the end of the quote from Davis, for he still had to quote the part where Davis set Hancock in the history of jazz piano. I’m guessing that Bhabha was prepared to utter those taboo words twice, the first time as a lead-in to the audience response, and the second time as a lead-in to Davis’s bit of history.

And then Homi K. Bhabha, world citizen, brought things to a close with a formula – ladies and gentlemen – and a name – Herbie Hancock.

* * * * *

Hancock has already delivered four of his six lectures: The Wisdom of Miles Davis, Breaking the Rules, Cultural Diplomacy and the Voice of Freedom, and Innovation and New Technologies. Videos of those are online HERE. Two more lectures are scheduled:
Buddhism And Creativity
Monday, March 24

Once Upon a Time…
Monday, March 31

* * Addendum * *

In case it may not have occurred to you, yes, it is a good thing that Harvard invited Herbie Hancock to deliver the 2014 Norton Lectures. It would have been a far better, and more intriguing, thing if they had invited Miles Davis or Duke Ellington in 1964. Who should they be inviting now, but might not get to for another 50 years? Is Harvard constitutionally constrained to be ever behind the times in such matters?

* * Addendum 2 * *

It seems to me that this was Harvard being too self-congratulatory. Yes, it was a good thing that Harvard, at long last, appointed an African-American to the lectureship that, in Bhabha's words, is “Harvard’s singular tribute to the most creative minds in the arts and humanities.” But I think he should also have apologized for Harvard's lateness and named at least a half-dozen or a dozen African Americans Harvard could have appointed to the Norton Professorship in the past, but didn't because, well, you know, Harvard's institutional racism. That would have set a different tone for the introduction.

But we still have to get at what was wrong with Bhabha's quoting Miles's vulgarity in THAT context for THAT purpose. That struck me as being a cheap stunt. Though I haven't worked it out, I think that Bhabha was, in effect, cooning, and thereby reproducing the socio-cultural mechanisms of racial oppression. It's as though he wasn't quite sure that Hancock should have been there and so had to make excuses. On some level he's uneasy about Hancock's music.


  1. I recall a smattering of admiring applause throughout as Miles Davis played a live concert in Harvard Stadium, fronted by Meatball. I was there.