When music legend Herbie Hancock returns to Orchestra Hall this fall, chances are he’ll be far less nervous than he was there as a young boy in 1952 — 65 years and a jam-packed lifetime ago.
At age 77, the piano virtuoso and Chicago native has earned 14 Grammys, NEA Jazz Master status and a Kennedy Center honor, among numerous other accolades, during a career that has produced nearly 60 albums (including studio, live performances and several movie soundtracks) since 1962 and taken him around the world. His latest tour brings him to Orchestra Hall for an SCP Special Concert on Oct. 21.
Despite all he has seen and done, though, Hancock’s memories of his 1952 CSO debut, at age 11, are surprisingly clear. It was, he recalled during a recent conversation from Los Angeles, “a major factor” in spurring him on to study and perform music.
After just four years of piano studies, the 11-year-old Hancock already was a phenomenon. His performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat at the CSO Youth Auditions in 1951 earned him the opportunity to perform that same piece with the CSO at Orchestra Hall. A few months before his big debut, however, he was told the orchestral parts had gone missing (hmm) and therefore he would have to learn something else or forfeit his spot.
Forfeiting wasn’t an option, so he jettisoned a year’s worth of hard work, learned Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 26 in D Major (Coronation) and made his debut as scheduled under the baton of CSO assistant conductor George Schick.
“The orchestra played some things before [I went on], and when it was my time to play, up comes this big nine-foot concert grand,” Hancock recalls of a piano that rose on a hydraulic lift from beneath the stage. “I was wearing short pants back then and some long socks, and I was scared to death.”
A week after his performance, Hancock’s music instructor took him to see British pianist Myra Hess play with the CSO. Part of her repertoire: Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 — his concerto. He laughs now, but “it wasn’t funny at the time,” Hancock says. “And my teacher was livid.”
The CSO has long held special significance for Hancock because of the confidence that early experience imparted. “As a kid, you don’t really understand any of it,” he says, “but it must have played a part in my subconscious mind.”
As his career progressed, Hancock was driven by a deep and lifelong curiosity — an almost compulsive need, he says, to do something different with each project he undertook. Potential commerciality, he claims, was never a factor — though it was sometimes a byproduct. In 1983, for instance, Hancock’s electro-funk composition “Rockit,” from his album “Future Shock” (1983), was a huge crossover hit.
To this day, Hancock’s curiosity — “my basic nature” — remains a guiding principal and continues to inspire him at a point when he is secure both financially and artistically.
Then again, he says, “I never felt like I had to prove anything. That never crossed my mind. It was always that something came in front of my face that was new and different, or it was a challenge, or it was something other people said [couldn’t] be done.”
When it comes to propelling him forward, the latter of those factors might be even more powerful than his relentlessly inquisitive mind. “The way you get me motivated is to say, ‘Oh, you can’t do this,’” Hancock says. “And then I have to go ahead and do it.”
He’s a long way from that scared 11-year-old on the Orchestra Hall stage, but some things never change.
Mike Thomas, a Chicago-based writer, is the author of the books You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman and Second City Unscripted: Revolution and Revelation at the World-Famous Comedy Theater.