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Chick Corea 1941–2021

A rare form of cancer claims a paragon of modern jazz

Chick Corea
Chick Corea (photo courtesy of Chick Corea Productions)

Chick Corea, a pianist, keyboardist, and composer who was among the most popular and successful jazz musicians of all time, died February 9. He was 79.

His death was announced in a post on his Facebook page, which stated that Corea had died of “a rare form of cancer which was only discovered very recently.” No further details about his death have thus far been released.

A giant of the jazz world, Corea became a superstar in the mid-1970s as the leader of the fusion ensemble Return to Forever. Corea was instrumental in developing the fusion subgenre, working with Miles Davis on several seminal recordings before forming his own band; he was among the foremost voices of electric piano in jazz. However, his career cut a far wider swath. Nicknamed “The Chameleon,” Corea was associated with bebop, avant-garde, classical, big-band, and Latin jazz. He had a special affinity for the lattermost, extending its reach to include the rhythms and harmonic inflections of Spain. Indeed, that country gave its name to Corea’s best-known composition. “Spain,” along with “Armando’s Rhumba,” “Captain Marvel,” “500 Miles High,” and “Windows,” would enter the jazz standard repertory.

Corea was also known for his collaborative efforts. A member of Miles Davis’ “lost” quintet of 1969–70, he enjoyed a long-term creative partnership with vibraphonist Gary Burton, with whom he recorded the 1972 classic Crystal Silence (and its 2008 sequel The New Crystal Silence), among many others. He also took part in a lengthy series of duet performances with Herbie Hancock.

A devoted Scientologist, Corea cited the religion as a substantial influence on his creative vision. As such, its tenets became central themes in much of his work, including two albums—2004’s To the Stars and 2006’s The Ultimate Adventure—that were wholly dedicated to the life and work of L. Ron Hubbard. The association was a source of minor controversy but did little to diminish either his profile or acclaim. Among other laudations, Corea was a perennial Grammy nominee, collecting more than 60 nods over his career and winning 23 awards.

“My mission has always been to bring the joy of creating anywhere I could,” Corea said, as quoted in the social media post that announcd his passing. “And to have done so with all the artists that I admire so dearly—this has been the richness of my life.”

Armando Arthur Corea was born June 12, 1941 in Chelsea, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, to Armando J. Corea and Anna Zaccone Corea. He received both his nickname and his first musical influences in childhood: the former from an aunt who loved to pinch his cheek and call him “cheeky” and the latter from his father, a Dixieland trumpeter in bands around Boston. Chick was four when his father got him started on the piano; the elder Armando soon began writing simple arrangements of popular tunes for his son to work out. At eight, the boy started lessons with Boston concert pianist Salvatore Sullo, from whom he learned the classical repertoire as well as the precise articulation that would become his calling card.

As a teenager, Corea played professionally at parties, weddings, and other social events around the Boston area. After graduating from Everett High School in 1959, he enrolled at Columbia University in New York, but dropped out after only one month in frustration with the limited musical curriculum. Intrigued by the city’s Juilliard School, Corea spent the next 10 months practicing to audition for the school’s fall 1960 semester; he won the seat, yet lasted scarcely longer there than he had at Columbia.

Instead, Corea hit the jazz scene. He soon found work with Latin-jazz artists Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo; then followed gigs behind bebop saxophonist Sonny Stitt, flutists Herbie Mann and Hubert Laws, a brief stint with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and, most prominently, saxophone star Stan Getz. He made his own debut recording in 1966 with Tones for Joan’s Bones; his next album, the 1968 trio recording Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, became a jazz classic.

That same year, Corea joined Miles Davis’ quintet, arriving just in time to help develop the new “electric” jazz sound that the trumpet legend was pioneering. Corea appeared on Davis’ albums Filles de Kilimanjaro, In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, and Jack Johnson, subsequently joining the band that has become known as Davis’s “lost” quintet because it was never (officially) recorded. His next project was a free-jazz collective called Circle that also featured saxophonist Anthony Braxton, bassist Dave Holland (Corea’s colleague from the “lost” quintet), and drummer Barry Altschul.

In 1972, however, Corea became a Scientologist, and felt that it was his mission to find a more accessible vehicle for his creative message. Drawing on the electric experiments with Davis, Corea formed a new ensemble that brought Latin and Brazilian elements to the head of that context. Return to Forever, the new band, was Corea’s breakthrough success; over three incarnations, it was able to fill large-capacity theaters and even some arenas and had four consecutive records crack the Top 40 on the Billboard 200.

Even as he found fame and fortune with Return to Forever, though, Corea continued following his muse in whatever direction it led. Circle remained together; Corea also initiated his duo projects with both Burton and Hancock during the mid-’70s, and recorded several albums under his own name—including My Spanish Heart, the Latin-infused 1976 album that became one of his most acclaimed and enduring.

After Return to Forever’s disbanding in 1978, he remained as active as ever. The 1980s found him returning to progressive acoustic jazz, both under his own name and with a trio he called the Akoustic Band. That ensemble had a companion Elektric Band, enabling Corea to continue in his fusion vein as well. He also pursued his love of classical music, composing a number of concerti and string quartets in the early and mid-1990s.

The late ’90s found Corea initiating a collaborative relationship with bassist Christian McBride. The two would work together frequently over the next 25 years in various configurations, including Corea’s “SuperTrio” with drummer Steve Gadd and his Five Peace Band with John McLaughlin, Kenny Garrett, and Vinnie Colaiuta. McBride and Corea also joined with drummer Brian Blade on the pianist’s project Trilogy, whose album Trilogy (2013) won a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Jazz Album. (The follow-up, 2020’s Trilogy 2, is nominated for a 2021 Grammy Award.) In 2006, Corea was named an NEA Jazz Master.

Corea is survived by his wife of 49 years, the former Gayle Moran, a vocalist who often collaborated with her husband; a son, Thaddeus, and a daughter, Liana, both professional musicians; and an unknown number of grandchildren.

Read Tom Moon’s January/February 2020 JazzTimes interview with Chick Corea and check out a 23-song Corea playlist.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.