Herbie Hancock still remembers how “frightening” it was walking out as an 11-year-old piano prodigy to play a Mozart concierto in the 1951 annual Young People's Concert Series competition at the Chicago Symphony Center.
“You look up and there are five tiers of balconies looking down on you,” he says.
At the time, he was more interested in classical music and the current rhythm-and-blues sound of the 1950s than jazz. After taking the prize, what he remembered the most was, “I signed my first autograph after that show,” he says. “A little girl came up and asked for my autograph.”
From there, he never looked back. From his early Miles Davis collaborations to his 1980s MTV explosion with the piece called “Rockit” and on to his solo explorations in “Watermelon Man” and “Cantaloupe Island,” Hancock remains one of the most boundless jazz musicians alive today.
So what would he tell that 11-year-old kid today?
“Go for it,” he says. “Give it everything you've got.”
Not that he needed the advice. He's racked up more than a dozen Grammys — including only the second jazz album to win “Album of the Year” with “River: The Joni Letters” in 2007.
His most recent project, “Imagine,” is a globe-spanning reimagining that connects unlikely collaborators as diverse as Pink, The Chieftains, Jeff Beck and African kora player Toumani Diabate. (A kora is a 21-string bridge harp.)
Now, at 73, Hancock is set to play elder statesman of jazz as he prepares for his fete as Kennedy Center honoree later this year, having earned the recognition for his “significant contributions to American culture through the performing arts.”
Before he plays at the Green Music Center this weekend, he took time to chat about giving back, Gregory Peck and the art of thinking and not thinking at the same time: