Herbie Hancock takes a bow

Herbie Hancock

Herbie Hancock makes remarks at the 2013 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition at The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, DC. (Paul Morigi / Getty Images for Thelonious Monk / September 16, 2013)

These are remarkable times for Herbie Hancock.

Come December, he will receive one of the country's most prestigious arts accolades, a Kennedy Center Honor, alongside actor Shirley MacLaine, singer-songwriter Billy Joel, guitarist Carlos Santana and operatic soprano Martina Arroyo.

Next month, Legacy Recordings will release an opulently produced boxed set of 34 CDs documenting his work in the 1970s and '80s.

And next week, Hancock will lead his quartet plus tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain in concert for the first time, kicking off the jazz season at Symphony Center.

If Hancock – who was born in Chicago and came of age as a musician here – ever wondered about his place in American culture, he clearly needn't anymore.

Even so, the man seems a bit taken aback by it all.

When he received the phone call informing him about the Kennedy Center Honor, "I was speechless at first," he says. "And then I started to get kind of teary-eyed, thinking about what the Kennedy Center Honors mean to me. I place it on a very, very high pedestal."

Considering that the award previously has gone to such jazz icons as Sonny Rollins, Dave Brubeck, Lionel Hampton and Ella Fitzgerald, that's understandable. Moreover, with precious few jazz musicians having been saluted since the Kennedy Center launched the awards in 1978, the pianist-composer enters rarefied company.

And there's the rub: Hancock, at 73, symbolizes a music that has practically vanished from TV, free radio and other arenas of our popular culture, even as it thrives in clubs, concert halls, high schools and colleges across the country. So when CBS broadcasts the Kennedy Center's tribute to Hancock and the others on Dec. 29, it will be a rare moment for jazz to reach a national television audience.

Hancock's honor, in other words, ironically crystallizes the marginalization of the music that has been at the center of even his most pop-oriented projects.

"I feel as though I'm a representative of people like Sonny Stitt and Miles (Davis) and John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk and so many musicians that never got the opportunity to be awardees," says Hancock.

"The interesting thing is (that) in spite of the almost-disappearing act from radio as we knew it … a growing number of young people are interested not in just listening to jazz but playing it.

"The existence of the (Thelonious) Monk Institute," which Hancock serves as chairman, "and Jazz at Lincoln Center and all the international work that jazz musicians have done not only as performers but also as educators, has filtered down into the minds and hearts of young people.

"I think it shows the strength and the importance of the music, that you can't keep it down. You can't kill it! It's going to be there regardless."

But why is that so? Why does a recently newly released National Endowment for the Arts study show that while public participation in the performing arts has dropped since 2008, the figure has increased in jazz? Why does jazz continue to gain momentum despite benign neglect from the culture that produced it?

Hancock believes the appeal of the music reaches beyond everyday realities of media in America.

"I really do feel that it is vital for the evolution of the human spirit," says Hancock. "If you want to call it 'the ethics of jazz,' it's an important ethic for living. You know, as jazz musicians, we play in the moment, we improvise in the moment -- living like that is very important. ... Jazz encourages you to have a desire to explore the unknown.

"So it exercises fearlessness."

It certainly does in Hancock's case, his work spanning a vast range of musical languages, often to the chagrin of some jazz devotees. Yet you don't have to be smitten with all of Hancock's far-flung efforts to value the intelligence and musical voraciousness at the center of all of it.

Or, as the Kennedy Center announcement says, "Hancock has found a way to fuse Miles Davis and Maurice Ravel, zigzagging between classical music and pop, funk, gospel, soul and the blues – not so much ignoring as redefining the frontiers of jazz. ... Freedom is at the very heart of that constantly changing, most American of all art forms, and few, if any, jazz masters have made as much of that freedom as Herbie Hancock."

The sheer audacity of Hancock's work is apparent in the forthcoming boxed set, "Herbie Hancock: The Complete Columbia Album Collection 1972-1988," to be released on Nov. 11. Featuring 28 albums and 3 double albums (8 never before issued in the U.S.), the box includes work from his Mwandishi band, which explored African idioms; his Head Hunters unit, with its currents of soul, funk and R&B; the V.S.O.P. quintet, which returned to certain jazz concepts; plus solo music, rock-driven fare and other eclectic music.

The very fact that Hancock released 31 albums in 16 years, four of them in 1977 alone – and during that time won an Academy Award for original score to the classic film "'Round Midnight" – tells you something about the tempo of his work.

Dipping into the recordings as the boxed set was being produced, "My reaction was: 'Damn, I sure did a lot of different kinds of stuff,'" he says.

But why?

"Because one of my characteristics is that I'm curious, and I like the idea of wondering what would happen if you put this with that, or what does this do?" says Hancock.

"It's like bugs in a computer program. I'm so used to that," adds Hancock, who majored in electrical engineering at Grinnell College before, inevitably, switching to music.

"Some people get freaked out. They don't even want to try a beta version of a program or even when a program is new. They want to try version two or three.

"I want it before it comes out."

That risk-everything approach can yield important results, as in Hancock's aforementioned discography, but less successful work, as well. When Hancock played a rare solo show two years ago at North Central College's Wentz Concert Hall, in Naperville, he shared the stage with a Fazioli grand piano and a small mountain of electronic equipment.

The attempt to riff alongside the latest in high-tech gadgetry ultimately proved unsatisfying, yet you had to admire Hancock's courage in attempting it. Few artists of his stature, at his point in life, would take that kind of chance.

Which leads to next week's performance at Symphony Center.Though Hancock recently performed in South America with tabla virtuoso Hussain (who was stepping in for guitarist Lionel Loueke), this concert will mark the first time the full quartet will perform with Hussain, says the pianist. It's also the only time these five musicians will appear together in its U.S. tour.

As always, Hancock is searching for new sounds, ideas and possibilities.

Not that his foray into world music is anything new for him: In the 1980s, he partnered with the Gambian griot and kora player Foday Musa Suso.

"What that has evolved to, especially today, is my realization that global collaboration can have tremendous repercussions in anything – not just music, not just the arts, but in architecture, in craftsmanship, so many areas," says Hancock, who sees exchange of information via various apps on the Internet as the new norm.

"It's really gone beyond taking root – it's flowering. It's becoming the default."

And that's precisely the wide-open environment in which Hancock can flourish.

The Herbie Hancock Quartet with Zakir Hussain plays at 8 p.m. Oct. 11 at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; $38-$60; 312-294-3000 or cso.org.

To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

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