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."

CHICAGO

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