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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:

<b>Q: I see you're in D.C. right now for the Thelonious Monk Institute jazz competition. You'll be back in December as a Kennedy Center honoree. What does that mean to you?</b>

A: First of all, I'm blown away that I was accepted for such a great award. For me, it means that hopefully I have an opportunity to encourage other young people to strive to do their best.

<b>Q: Much in the same way previous honorees inspired you?</b>

A: Absolutely. And not just other musicians. Like Gregory Peck — he's not even in the music field, but that certainly bolsters your creative spirit. Shirley MacLaine, Carlos Santana — it's a combination of how they've excelled in their field and also their humanity.

<b>Q: Have there been moments when you found yourself bored with the piano as an instrument?</b>

A: No. But I've found myself totally boring as an instrument.

<b>Q: There's a difference, isn't there?</b>

A: The piano doesn't do anything without you doing something to it.

<b>Q: Your concert at the Green Center is described as "A Night of Solo Explorations." How will that take shape?</b>

A: It's just me with acoustic piano, with a couple of synthesizers, some of them I'm physically playing and some of them are being controlled by something else I'm physically playing. I'll also have a keytar (keyboard-guitar) and a vocoder (voice synthesizer).

<b>Q: And you'll have 10 arms?</b>

A: It's a very involving process because I have to use more of my brain than when I'm playing with a band. I have to think of it all in advance.

<b>Q: You have no supporting cast. But you must like that challenge?</b>

A: I do. Because it forces me to take on another practice. I have to be able to do two things at once — to not use thinking and to use thinking. I figure the more I do it, the better I'll get at it.

<i>Bay Area freelancer John Beck writes about entertainment for The Press Democrat. You can reach him at 280-8014, john@sideshowvideo.com and follow on Twitter @becksay.</i>