The 70th anniversary of a milestone: pianist Herbie Hancock makes his debut

Herbie Hancock waves to the audience during a Symphony Center Presents concert Sept. 2, 2021.

Todd Rosenberg Photography

Chicago native and jazz icon Herbie Hancock marks another milestone this month: the 70th anniversary of his debut at Orchestra Hall on Feb. 5, 1952.

At age 11, he won a CSO Youth Auditions and appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under assistant conductor George Schick, on a Young People’s Concert at Orchestra Hall. In an interview published last August by Newcity, Hancock recalled that formative event.

That 1952 appearance with the CSO, in which Hancock performed the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 26 (Coronation), “pretty much solidified my desire and aspiration to be a musician,” he recalled in the Newcity interview. “But I thought I would be a concert pianist, a classical musician. I wasn’t attracted to jazz at that time. I heard it, but I thought it was for older people. At the time, I only listened to classical music and rhythm and blues. That was it.”

Once he entered Hyde Park High School (now Hyde Park Academy), he had a life-altering experience while watching a student variety show. "Folks from various classes would participate. And there was a jazz trio that performed, and the pianist was in my sophomore class. That was what really did it for me with jazz because he was improvising on my instrument! I didn’t know how to do that. So that’s when I decided I wanted to learn how to improvise. I want to learn how to play jazz.”

Since that debut, Hancock has returned to Orchestra Hall many times, most recently for a Symphony Center Presents concert Sept. 2, over his six-decade career. “It's time for me to get back out there and do what I love to do,” said Hancock at the concert. “We will be safe and we will be careful, but it’s time to reconnect with our fans, play live music and have some fun after a long period of isolation. It’s time to spread a little joy.”