Jazz artist Herbie Hancock is one of this year's five Kennedy Center honorees. (Douglas Kirkland)
Herbie Hancock says he’s always been curious.
“That’s part of who I am,” says the award-winning pianist and bandleader by phone from Los Angeles. “And it’s demonstrated by different types of music directions I’ve gone in that grew out of my curiosity, you know?”
Hancock has always had a love for both science and music.
But the choice he made is clear, and it’s one that has earned the Chicago-born jazz musician 14 Grammy awards. Come December, the 73-year-old will be one of five Kennedy Center honorees, alongside Carlos Santana, Billy Joel, Shirley MacLaine and Martina Arroyo. The designation is given to those credited with “elevating the cultural vibrancy of our nation and the world.”
This designation is evidenced by not only his music but also some of his affiliations: He’s ceative chair for jazz with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a founder of the International Committee of Artists for Peace and institute chairman of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, the foremost international organization devoted to the development of jazz performance and education worldwide. France’s Prime Minister Francois Fillon recently named Hancock commandeur des arts et des lettres, and he is an honorary UNESCO goodwill ambassador, named so by UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova.
Indeed Hancock has dedicated his life to improving the world through music. At age 7, he began playing classical piano; by 11, he was performing a Mozart piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
He recalls his introduction to the piano fondly. His then-6-year-old best friend, whom he visited daily, got a piano from his parents. “Suppose his parents had bought him a flute?” Hancock laughs.
Hancock’s parents saw his interest in the instrument and bought a piano for their home.
“The great thing about a piano is you have an orchestra under your fingers,” he says. “You can play the melody and the harmony and the bass all at the same time. You can’t do that with a flute.”
Hancock’s foray from classical music into jazz happened in high school. “My folks were into jazz, but it didn’t really resonate with me until I was about 14,” he says.
At a high school variety show, he saw a jazz trio perform. “The pianist was in my class,” he says. “He was improvising on the piano … something I was clueless about, right? But I guess ’cause he was my age, I listened.”
Mesmerized by the performance, Hancock asked about his performance.
“ ‘What would I do to start?’ I asked him.” The kid recommended listening to records and copying what he heard.
“And I said, ‘Who do you like?’ And he said, ‘Well I like George Shearing. Maybe you should get some George Shearing records.’ ” Turned out George Shearing music was already in the Hancock household, so he took full advantage of the opportunity.
“Then I graduated to Oscar Peterson records and Bill Evans. And the more I heard, the more I wanted to hear. The more I started to learn, the more I wanted to learn.”
But Hancock wasn’t monogamous; he also loved science. Again, his curiosity got the best of him.
“I knew I liked science before I knew I liked music, ’cause when I was 5 I used to take apart clocks and watches. ‘What would happen if you put this with that?’ Now, that’s a typical Herbie Hancock question,” he says.
While a second-year electrical engineering major at Grinnell College in Iowa, Hancock fully committed himself to produce a jazz concert. The commitment was so time consuming, he found himself cramming for exams. He passed, he says.
“But I went back to my dorm and I looked in the mirror and said, ‘Look man, who you trying to kid?’ And it was at that moment that I committed 100 percent to being a musician, without a plan B.” Hancock switched majors from engineering to music composition.
“I think I made the right choice,” he says.
Discovered by jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd in 1960, the jazzman joined the Miles Davis Trio in 1963. After five years, he struck out on his own, to great success. His 1972 album “Head Hunters” was the first jazz album to go platinum.
Hancock is credited with composing some of the most groundbreaking music ever heard. He is a master at infusing his jazz stylings with soul, funk, R&B and rock, and is known for creative collaborations. In 1983, he crossed over into the dance/R&B world with “Rockit,” a collaboration with Bill Laswell and Material that introduced him to scratching music.
Furthering his collaborative nature, Hancock enlisted Sting, Annie Lennox, John Mayer, Christina Aguilera, Paul Simon, Carlos Santana, Joss Stone and Damien Rice for his 2005 album “Possibilities.”
But Hancock hasn’t been bound to playing “American” music. Back in the 1980s, he partnered with Gambian griot and kora player Foday Musa Suso, and he recently performed with tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain.
Hancock’s 2010 “Imagine Project,” which he says is “like a full-blown kind of global approach to making a record” offers up songs in seven different languages with artists from 11 different countries. For this, he won two Grammy Awards, for Best Pop Collaboration and Best Improvised Jazz Solo.
The Chicago-born artist, whose “Herbie Hancock: The Complete Columbia Album Collection 1972-1988” soon will be released, brings evidence of his musical wonderment to the Sound Board at MotorCity Casino Hotel tonight.
Andrea Daniel is a freelance writer.