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Jazz Artists Remember Chick Corea

Lenny White, Renee Rosnes, John Patitucci, and Béla Fleck, among others, pay their respects to one of jazz’s all-time greats

Chick Corea at the Newport Jazz Festival, July 2016 (Photo: Alan Nahigian)
Chick Corea at the Newport Jazz Festival, July 2016 (Photo: Alan Nahigian)

On February 9, 2021, the world of music lost one of its most indefatigable forces. For nearly 60 years as a professional, Chick Corea had delighted listeners with his startling command of the keyboard, his enviable compositional gifts, his melodic invention, his rhythmic verve, and his seemingly boundless vitality. And then, suddenly, it was all gone.

Except that it really wasn’t. The thousands of audio and video recordings; the countless notes scrawled on countless piles of music manuscript paper; and, of course, the memories of family, friends, and fans all attest to that.

Just about everyone who plays jazz today owes something to Corea, whether they know it or not (and most do). And so it’s appropriate that the following tributes come from a diverse range of artists, from veteran players who knew and worked with him for decades to rising stars who saw him as both an elder colleague and a living testament to music history.

Chick Corea 1941-2021

The classic Return To Forever lineup (L to R): Al Di Meola, Lenny White, Chick Corea, and Stanley Clarke (Photo: Don Hunstein/Sony Music Entertainment)
The classic Return To Forever lineup (L to R): Al Di Meola, Lenny White, Chick Corea, and Stanley Clarke (Photo: Don Hunstein/Sony Music Entertainment)

LENNY WHITE

Drummer, Return to Forever bandmate, friend since 1969

I called Chick two weeks before he passed. I called him because I was teaching at NYU, and in my class we were discussing [Return to Forever’s] “Romantic Warrior.” I’d asked him to send me a lead sheet so that I could go over it in class. And I didn’t hear back from him. Usually I’d hear back. I did get an email with the chart, and in it he said, “I hope you have a great class. Love, Chick.” I didn’t really think anything of it. Two weeks later, I was teaching that same class and I got the word. And I had to stop the class. To be quite honest, I’m still processing it.

Stanley [Clarke] and I spoke not long after that, and the general consensus between the two of us is that we knew Chick a little bit differently than everybody else. We grew up together. I mean, Chick was a grown-ass man—we all were—but we grew up together in the sense of how we related as a band and how we related to each other. And we became greater men after being in the band. It was a very, very deep learning experience for me.

I met Chick in 1969 [at a rehearsal for Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew sessions]. Little did I know that four years later I’d be in a band with him, right? We spent a lot of time together changing people’s minds, people’s mindsets with our music. Chick was challenging what he heard, and he challenged us at the same time. He gave me the opportunity to talk on the mic in front of thousands of people. I was the first person to announce songs [at RTF shows] other than him. Had I ever done that before? Are you kidding? So I learned how to speak in front of people thanks to him.

His whole premise was about communication. Communication was the key. And he gave us these opportunities to think about how to communicate, and on a lot of different levels.

I do know that he was so prolific that there will never, ever be a time that anybody could forget Chick Corea. And when you think about the different categories that he wrote pieces in, and maybe even categories that he defined, that he created … he has enough of a legacy to last him for a few lifetimes, you know? People are gonna be catching up on that for a long time to come.

[as told to Mac Randall]

BILLY CHILDS

Pianist, composer, arranger, devoted Corea student, friend since 1982

I first encountered Chick’s playing on Bitches Brew. I was maybe 16. On “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” he took this Rhodes solo and I remember digging it. Then I heard [the 1973 Atlantic compilation] Inner Space, and I really love that album. So I started to learn, tried to learn some of the tunes off of that record. Unfortunately, my piano was a half-step flat, so I learned everything in the wrong key.

One thing that strikes me about his playing: It’s very compositional, but it’s also very lean. And by that I mean it’s economical. He’s only playing what’s necessary to convey the story that he’s trying to tell. There’s incredible clarity in his playing; the ideas are well thought, well conceived, and structurally beautiful. They have beautiful shapes. You can see his humanity in them.

In 1982, I was working with Dianne Reeves on her first album, Welcome to My Love. We recorded it with Bernie Kersh at [Corea’s L.A. recording studio] Mad Hatter. On the last song of the album, a song of mine called “Lullaby,” I played a synthesizer solo that I was really happy with. As we were mixing the album, Chick Corea came in and listened—to the whole mix—and I’m thinking, “Wow, Chick Corea’s here.” We get to the last song, the one with the solo that I really wanted him to hear, and the phone rings. Chick goes into the other room to answer the phone and I’m like, “Fuck, he’s not gonna hear the solo.” But he came back right when the solo began, and after the solo, he turned around to me and went, “Yeah!” That just made my whole fuckin’ year. And that’s how I met him.

After that, he invited me and Dianne to his next Valentine’s Day party. He and [his wife] Gayle [Moran] would have these Valentine’s Day parties, and everybody had to wear some sort of heart or something like that. So we went with our little hearts pinned to our lapels, and I think we played “My Funny Valentine” there. That’s where I really started getting to know him.

Chick had this childlike curiosity. He was open to discovering new things, and he was very unintimidated, very secure. His first instinct was to share, rather than to keep for himself. He treated me like part of his family; he was always really present with me. And I miss that. I always looked at him like I was the student and he was the teacher. But one thing that made me very proud is that he would tell me that he looked at me as a peer—he signed me to his label [Stretch] at one point. So what I feel good about is that he thought highly of me as an artist, and as a person too. Yes, he influenced me, but he was also a really dear friend.

[as told to Mac Randall]

L to R: Bill Charlap, Chick Corea, and Renee Rosnes at Carnegie Hall, April 2015 (Photo: Courtesy of Renee Rosnes)
L to R: Bill Charlap, Chick Corea, and Renee Rosnes at Carnegie Hall, April 2015 (Photo: Courtesy of Renee Rosnes)

RENEE ROSNES

Pianist, composer, friend

One of the hardest things about the passing of Chick Corea is to think of him in the past tense. Throughout his 79 years on earth, Chick remained so very alive. His warm and generous lifeforce came through in every note he played and in every space he left silent. I was always—and still am—astounded by just how prolific and multifarious his career was, how much music he composed, how much piano he played, and how centered, joyful, and open he seemed to be through it all. His imagination was boundless and he was, no doubt, a creative genius. Whatever he musically dreamt up, he would bring to fruition, and as a fan I was always looking forward to hearing whatever his next project was going to be.

Chick was also blessed with a sense of humor, which often came through in his music. In May 2010, he sent me an email with an audio attachment. At the end of his note he wrote, “I’m sending you my Art Tatum ‘Trio’—featuring Styles Bitchly on bass and Chick Boom on drums—I was sort of the producer, getting Tatum together with these two wayward rhythm section guys : – )!” It turned out to be a solo recording of Tatum playing “Can’t We Be Friends” with the addition of Chick playing both the bass and drums (“Styles Bitchly” and “Chick Boom”) along with the recording. It was undeniable how much he loved Tatum.

A moment in time I’ll always remember is when the band now known as Artemis was performing at the 2018 North Sea Jazz Festival. Chick and Béla Fleck’s duo had preceded us, and Chick was hanging out backstage. When we went out to perform and I sat down on the piano bench, I noticed the curtains at the far corner of the stage part, and out popped the head, and only the head, of Chick Corea! His face was wedged below his chin by the curtains, and he stayed there for quite some time, smiling and cheering us on! It was such a surreal experience, and I was both honored and amused.

Last spring, as the pandemic took hold, he embarked upon 31 days of Facebook livestreaming performances and invited the world to listen and watch him “practice.” It was a generous gift that went straight to the heart of his character. He viewed music and musicians as “the antidote to man’s inhumanity towards man,” words we can all relate to during this time period.

On April 17, 2020, after Chick’s 29th livestream, he said this:

“Life is life, and the fun of it is the doing of it. The fun of life is getting involved, doing it, and then being of help to others. I find that that’s a big part of my fulfillment … when I know that I can cause a positive effect on my wife Gayle, on my son and daughter Thaddeus and Liana, on all our friends and everyone who I work with: all of my musician friends for sure, and everyone. We’re all in it together … so I get fulfilled knowing that I can contribute something. These 29 days have helped me gather together an old intention of mine, which is an intention to want to contribute, and to want to help. I can always get on by myself and practice, write new music and just have fun with my instruments, and so forth, but that alone would be a very lonely life to me—unless I can take that joy that I get out of making music and share it and do it with others. That’s why I like to play with my trio, and with my Spanish Heart Band, and with all of my friends. I’m so honored, blessed, and lucky to have so many amazing, artistic musician friends that come and join me to play … so this is the richness of my life. I’d like to be able to pass that on and be of service to you.”

Now that his spirit has moved on to another realm, I thank Maestro Chick Corea for his lifetime of service. The richness of his life made us all the richer, and I’m very grateful for that.

Chick Corea at the Blue Note, New York, October 1995. (Photo: Alan Nahigian)
Chick Corea at the Blue Note, New York, October 1995 (Photo: Alan Nahigian)

PAQUITO D’RIVERA

Clarinetist, saxophonist, longtime colleague

Extreme specialization is often a disguise that hides limitations, or an unconfessed fear of the unknown. Chick Corea is, by contrast, a valid example of what a musician can achieve when he departs from his “comfort zone” and draws on other elements outside the traditional boundaries of the genre to which he dedicates himself. Otherwise, it’d be like cooking the same food every day, or like those sects that marry among members of the same family and don’t move forward or backward, but quite the opposite.

In the case of music, many orthodox specialists feed back too much from their own roots—their own or adopted—and end up playing all the same, boring and repetitive stuff. Meanwhile, Corea assimilated everything around him, and even if it seems like an oxymoron, that’s why he always sounded new, fresh, and different from everyone else. Listening to his Children’s Songs or his string music, you can clearly feel the healthy influence of Béla Bartók, and on a WBGO radio show we recently heard him mentioning almost in the same paragraph the likes of Mongo Santamaría, Thelonious Monk, and Alexander Scriabin as great inspirations in his career, all of this without compromising a bit of his individuality and powerful personal voice.

When meditating about the legacy of the composer of “Armando’s Rhumba” and “500 Miles High,” cross-pollination is the word that comes to mind. I believe that if we listened more to each other, perhaps many musicians from Latin America and other latitudes would discover the enormous advantages that musical notation offers, as well as start using richer harmonies than the rather monotonous tonic and dominant so limiting in their popular music. The Brazilians would notice that there are plenty of rhythms around in addition to samba, bossa nova, and the northeastern baião, and the tangueros would look more in the direction of their eastern neighbors and borrow a bit of the happiness, the blackness, and the rhythmic danceability inherent to the Uruguayan candombe.

On the other hand, jazz people would finally recognize the historical role of Bach, Chopin, Ravel, and other European composers in this genre, as well as understanding the sabor of what is called in English the straight eighth notes of other cultures like flamenco or Cuban son, totally different from the American swing groove. Meanwhile, classical musicians would not see syncopation as intimidating and unnatural, chord symbols as indecipherable hieroglyphs, or improvisation as completely alien to their expressive possibilities. In other words, good music is just one, regardless of genres, origins or periods, and it is for that very reason that Chick Corea well confirms the popular theory that “in variety is the taste of life.”

CONNIE HAN

Pianist, composer, colleague

Chick Corea was a giant, an icon, and true genius whose profound influence in modern jazz piano is inescapable. Few musicians have shaped jazz and creative improvised music as Chick has with his sheer versatility. 

As an improviser, he crafted his ideas with a laser precision and focus always in service of his creative destination. 

As a composer, he created lyrical yet intellectually challenging and forward-thinking music. With his gift for melodic clarity, he explored uncharted musical territory without indulging in complexity for its own sake. It is no surprise so many of his compositions were adopted into the standard jazz repertoire. 

As a genre pioneer, he bridged the gap between postbop and fusion, reinvigorating the possibilities of creative improvised music while keeping the spirit and integrity of jazz intact. His enthusiasm to explore a variety of instrumentation and novel sounds on the electric piano led to a prolific recording career that influenced generations of music thereafter. 

Without Chick Corea establishing jazz fusion’s dominance in the 1970s, the straight-ahead reactionary movement of the ’80s and ’90s, the Young Lions, wouldn’t have burst onto the scene with such passion and fervor. Indirectly or directly, the music of that movement was shaped by the evolution and modernization of jazz rhythm in fusion. It was a brand of straight-ahead jazz that, at times, was unapologetically complex and modern; yet it was profoundly spiritual. The music was driven by an inexorable quarter-note momentum and deep commitment to the spirit, swing, and tradition of the music. One album that immediately comes to mind is the intensity and grit of the Kenny Kirkland/Jeff “Tain” Watts dynamic on Wynton Marsalis’ 1985 album Black Codes (From the Underground)

Despite the diversity of his work, Chick was constant in his rhythmic signature. One of the most coveted qualities for a jazz musician to achieve is rhythmic freedom. Through his rhythmic ingenuity, Chick relentlessly dominates every musical situation over any repertoire. He redefined modern jazz piano with his iconic 1968 trio album Now He Sings, Now He Sobs. His approach to improvisation was unprecedented at the time, with his thought-provoking rhythmic placement of simple melodies and accompaniment. Though his vocabulary was eerily similar to McCoy Tyner’s, both piano masters established very distinct styles from one another in terms of rhythm. 

What made Chick compelling in this regard was his ability to use his rhythmic ingenuity to communicate so deeply with other musicians. His chemistry with drummer Roy Haynes established a playful dynamic and charismatic personality that established Now He Sings, Now He Sobs as a classic in the jazz piano pantheon. This duo belongs with the likes of Red Garland and Philly Joe Jones as well as McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones. 

Chick Corea is creative freedom personified in a human being. Though he may not be with us, his spirit, legacy, and philosophy of fearless creativity live on. 

JOHN PATITUCCI

Bassist, composer, member of three Corea groups, friend since 1985

Chick Corea (Photo: Don Hunstein/Sony Music Entertainment)
Chick Corea in the 1970s (Photo: Don Hunstein/Sony Music Entertainment)

There were only a handful of piano players that Miles thought should play in his band. Chick was one of them. And all of those guys went on to change the music: Chick, Herbie, Keith Jarrett, Joe Zawinul—I mean, you could just stop right there if you want, you don’t even have to go back to Bill Evans or Wynton Kelly or whatever. Those four guys changed everything.

I’ve known more years of my life with Chick than without. I’m 61 years old, and I’ve known him for 36 of those years. He changed my life. He believed in me as a young musician. And when I think about the improbability of my ever getting a gig with him … I’m just a kid from Brooklyn, man. My parents didn’t know anything about jazz. I didn’t come from a jazz family.

He got me my first recording contract too. And then, when he started Stretch Records, I’d told him a dream I had about doing an orchestral project with a concerto for both six-string electric bass and acoustic bass, which had never been done. Chick said, “Well, I know you’re still with GRP, but they’ve given me this division for my own little record label, and we’re gonna do your dream record first.” I was like, “Really?” If it wasn’t for him, that record [1991’s Heart of the Bass] would have never happened. And he didn’t have to do it. He did that for me just because he cared about me. It was like, “Oh man, that’s a dream you had, so we’re gonna do that.” He was always into dreaming, dreaming big, doing things that were without boundaries.

I remember doing gigs with him, and then he would stay at the gig because there was a nice piano—this was before he started taking his own grand piano. We’d just played a whole gig and he would be practicing Mozart piano concertos. He would say, “Oh, I think I’m gonna stay here for a little while longer and shed.” What an inspirational cat. Just a fountain of energy.

And then there was his sense of humor. When I hit my 60th birthday, Chick was on the road somewhere, so he couldn’t come to this little party we had in New York. He sent me this hysterical video of him in a hotel room, shot by his personal assistant. He was singing “Happy Birthday” to me, but slowly, to the tune of “Spain.” And he was doing it in this crazy voice, singing these high notes and cracking them on purpose, and playing his little electric keyboard. For each phrase he put on a different wacky outfit, so they had to edit it together. It was like Jerry Lewis or something. I loved it. And now something that was funny at the time is a keepsake forever.

Talking about him and how much he means to all of us is actually therapy for me. He was just full of life, and we have to really try to hold onto that, because he was that for 99% of his life. How he passed on is a blip, compared to what he gave us and what he did all these years on the earth.

[as told to Mac Randall]

CAMERON GRAVES

Pianist, composer, colleague

First of all, you can tell that he’s a classical musician. He’s got the touch of classical music. But incredible ears too, in terms of hearing tone upon tone upon tone, the different harmonies that he would just create on the spot comping behind somebody. His ears were enormous, man. So between the classical technique and the huge ears, Chick’s playing is unique. It’s hard to explain it in one sentence or phrase, it’s just like … a whole experience.

Chick was also one of the last composers that could actually write music on paper without having to think about it. A lot of us, when we do that, we have to go slow and there’s a lot of erasing and a lot of counting in your head to figure out how the rhythm looks on the paper. But Chick could actually write music as fast as he could write words. Stanley [Clarke] was telling me one time that he wrote the whole tune of “Spain” on a napkin. That’s crazy.

Any new student to the game who wants to know about Chick Corea should pull out Now He Sings, Now He Sobs. Stanley told me that Chick went into deep shed mode before he made that record. He just shedded for six to eight months, hours upon hours, getting his technique right, getting his ears right, getting his harmonies right. And then he went and recorded that record. I mean, he’s had so many masterpieces, but that whole record is truly a Chick Corea masterpiece. Of course, there’s always his hit songs: “500 Miles High,” “Spain.” But you wanna hear some real playing? You wanna hear Chick Corea go everywhere in the universe real quick? Now He Sings, Now He Sobs.

[as told to Mac Randall]

BÉLA FLECK

Banjoist, composer, duo partner, friend

Chick Corea with Béla Fleck (Photo: C. Taylor Crothers)
Chick Corea with Béla Fleck (Photo: C. Taylor Crothers)

As time passes and the part of my life when I was a musical duet partner to Chick Corea recedes into the rearview mirror, I find myself thinking about him often, and remembering so many experiences, musical and otherwise. In some ways it feels like a musical tornado came into my life, swept me up in the air, and dropped me down 44 years later, changed, matured, and invigorated. Hanging with Chick was such a privilege, and he was a true mentor to me as well as a good friend. He embraced my family as well, and was amazing with my baby son Juno.

Sometimes he shared thoughts about raising kids. His attitude almost always focused on letting the kids find their own way, less direction and more freedom. They’ll work it out for themselves, he’d say. This mirrored his approach to bandleading. Perhaps it was simply the jazz aesthetic, or maybe even the direct influence of his mentor Miles Davis, who was famous for not telling folks how to play. Give them some room, they’ll find their way.

Chick was an example of gentle leadership that allowed the ones being led to fully express their opinions and personality. He invited you to collaborate so you’d be you, not because he wanted to shape you into being him. And he wanted a lot of interaction and listening.

My philosophy in the Flecktones was similar. I put a figurative sock in my mouth so I’d shut up and let my incredible musical pals find their own way through my music. It worked out better, except for the figurative lint, of course.

Chick rarely wanted to give me direct musical feedback, so he was usually rather vague if I pushed for some. Therefore I had to build my own interpretation of what I thought he meant. For instance, I struggled with how to solo on his beautiful piece “The Enchantment,” which had lots of complex harmony that was new to me. For one thing, it’s hard to play lyrically on the banjo with as little sustain as I have, and for another, I was late to the game of playing this kind of music.

I asked him about it on one of our car trips early into our duo touring. Often it was just he and I in the back of a Mercedes riding to the hotel while road manager Kris and soundman Bernie finished packing or getting bags from the airport. Sometimes it was all four of us. As time went on he got fond of using the tour bus, rather than flying. He hated the flying experience, at least the part where we went through the metal detector and stood in lines. You know those lines in every airport where you wind back and forth covering the same ground? Boy, did he hate it. He knew how to detach the straps from those posts, and I watched him do that on a number of occasions. While walking by, he’d see one of those lines with no one in ’em, saunter over and release all the straps. I think he felt like a freedom fighter, or maybe it was just to torture our guards/oppressors. 

At any rate, we switched to the tour bus, which was really fun, just four people on a tour bus.

Back to “The Enchantment”— “You should play the melody” was his advice. 

“Okay, I’ll try that,” I said out loud. 

Huh, I thought quietly … Does he mean I should play the melody for my solo? He didn’t play the melody for his solo, why would he want me to? I mulled this over, trying to decide whether my feelings were hurt—maybe my soloing was so bad he thought it’d be better for the song if I didn’t try. Then I remembered an interview with Chick where he had said that everything he played was the melody. And then it clicked: Play whatever you play as if it’s the melody, not a chance to show your skills, etc. I’ve decided in retrospect that it was something like that. But who knows?

On another long car ride heading for the airport before saying goodbye after a long European tour, I asked him for some more feedback on what he might suggest to push my playing to the next place. Another nice vague answer—“It would be good for you to go sit at the piano,” he said. Take lessons? “No—just sit at it and mess around. It’ll show you something.”

Now that he’s gone, I find myself doing that more and more often. Sometimes I spot my son Juno watching.

I don’t say anything. 

Christian McBride Pays His Respects to Chick Corea Originally Published