Herbie Hancock Honored by UNESCO

The jazz legend was in town last night to perform for politicians and guests in his role as a goodwill ambassador.

By: Amanda Yeager

For a few peaceful moments last night, Herbie Hancock united Democrats and Republicans, staffers and lobbyists, with music. The renowned jazz musician, who became a UNESCO goodwill ambassador last summer, was in Washington for an event at the Rayburn House office building that recognized his busy first year of service.

In his position, Hancock has been tasked with using music to reach out to citizens of other countries in order to encourage mutual understanding. UNESCO—the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization—works globally to promote peace and intercultural dialogue. Only a few months after being named a goodwill ambassador, Hancock managed to coordinate the first International Jazz Day, a celebration of a musical genre that’s firmly rooted in American tradition but has universal appeal. The festival, which took place April 30, comprised hundreds of concerts in 42 countries. Hancock also took a trip to Southeast Asia last December, touring Cambodia and Indonesia to observe UNESCO’s projects there.

High-profile speakers at the event, sponsored by the Better World Campaign, L’OrĂ©al Paris, and National Geographic, praised him for his talent and dedication. Representatives John Conyers (Democrat) and Fred Upton (Republican), both from Michigan, came to show their bipartisan support. UNESCO’s head of US external relations, George Papagiannis, called Hancock “a man whose seemingly limitless talent is only matched by his generosity.” Esther Brimmer, assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, said he was “one of the world’s great musicians” and the “driving force behind International Jazz Day.”

“Tonight we’ll have a chance to celebrate the fact that the world honors and loves American jazz,” she announced to the audience of about 100 people. “International Jazz Day is a gift to the world—so thank you.”

The event comes at a critical time for UNESCO, which lost its funding from the United States, a major benefactor of the organization, for allowing representatives from Palestine to join last year. Kathy Calvin, CEO of the UN Foundation—an independent organization that advocates for the United Nations*—called on the US “to find a way as soon as possible to reengage.”

“The fact that Herbie Hancock is ambassador is critical [to this mission],” she said, “because we are always looking for an opportunity to remind Americans that we do work that is in the country’s best strategic interest.”

But the evening overall was low on politics. Instead, attendees focused on the music. The crowd gathered around a shining black Yamaha grand piano in one corner of the room to watch Hancock run his fingers up and down the keys. At 72, the jazz great looked youthful and energetic as he played. His facial expressions registered every feeling: He bit his lower lip in concentration before breaking out into a smile, which soon morphed into a look of tangible emotion.

Hancock has spent a lifetime playing classical-infused jazz that has won him scores of fans, 14 Grammys, an Oscar, and the respect of many other jazz legends since the 1960s, from Miles Davis to Chick Corea to Wynton Marsalis. Next up, he plans on working with UNESCO to develop teaching methods that use music to engage children in math and science.

He is keenly aware of the power of jazz. “It was born from the African-American experience,” he said, “but jazz was an answer that came from the human spirit; an answer from the great challenge to the survival of human beings. Challenge is a part of human life, and people can respond to the essence of what that’s really about.”

*This post has been updated from a previous version.