Chick Corea

October 24, 2014

Trilogy-Trio_2_by_Andrew_ElliottA masterful pianist and composer, Chick Corea has been one of the most significant figures in jazz for nearly half a century. Throughout a career that has included collaborations with the likes of Herbie Mann, Stan Getz, Miles Davis, Stanley Clark, John Patitucci, Herbie Hancock, and Steve Gadd (among many others), Corea has been a pivotal figure in the sustainment and development of a number of styles within contemporary jazz. From his early hard bop work as a bandleader to his jazz-rock fusion playing on Bitches Brew and later in Return to Forever, to recent projects such as an album of duets with banjoist Béla Fleck and his current trio with Christian McBride and Brian Blade, he has proven himself to arguably be the greatest and most versatile living jazz pianist. Along the way, he’s also managed to compose a handful of what are now considered jazz standards – “Windows,” “Spain,” and “La Fiesta,” among them – and snag a number of accolades (Corea is a 20-time Grammy Award winner).

Corea was born into a musical family in Chelsea, Massachusetts – his father, a jazz trumpet player, was a powerful catalyst in his son’s appreciation of the musical form. Early gigs in the Boston area led to a move to New York City, where Corea briefly studied music education at Columbia and then attended Juilliard (also briefly). He soon found different avenues of “real life” music scholarship via gigs with Cab Calloway, Blue Mitchell, and others. 

Corea is, himself, passionate about sharing musical ideas with developing players and helping to advance the study and appreciation of jazz. In addition to frequently conducting workshops with music students, the Chick Corea Music Workshop (www.chickcoreamusicworkshops.com) is an ongoing online initiative wherein Chick shares his experiences, thoughts, and advice.

JAZZed: You come from a musical background – specifically a family that put the focus on jazz. Can you talk about how that background informed your development as a young music scholar?

Chick Corea: I guess I was quite fortunate to have two great beings for parents. My dad, Armando, was the highly motivated musician and my mother Anna was the ultimate in family love and care. My dad had a small, but rich record collection – 78-RPM vinyl recordings – I still remember the pleasant smell of the vinyl. The Billy Eckstine big band, the Dizzy Gillespie big band with Art Blakey and Sarah Vaughan, The Charlie Parker quintet with a teenage Miles Davis on trumpet, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, and more. I loved it all. Couldn’t have been in a better place to sell the music that I love.

Who were some of the teachers who had a lasting impact on your musical development? What was it about their approach to imparting information that resonated with you?

My dad was my first music teacher. He was gentle and, from the start, allowed me to have my own mind and my own judgment in all things musical. When I was eight years old, my dad thought I should go to a ”proper” piano teacher. So he and my mom sent me to Salvatore Sullo who happened to be a friend of the family in Boston. He was a very good classical pianist who performed in the summertime with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. As a ”teacher” he thought that “jazz” was silly, but he seemed to like me and guided me into my first touch with classical piano repertoire: the easy pieces of Chopin, Bach, Beethoven, and more. I learned mostly by watching him play those pieces. At eight years old I wasn’t much interested in practicing the piano – but I did spend some time at it and enjoyed it a lot.

My real passion was the jazz that my father played and that I heard on those beautiful old recordings. This is where I spent most of my time listening, copying, practicing, and having a blast.

 Can you share some of the first gigs and bands you performed with in your youth? 

Of all my classmates in grade school and high school, I had one real “jazz music buddy.” We’re still friends and I see him when I travel to Boston. Lenny Nelson was the first drummer I played with. We used to jam together, listen to recordings, and talk about music. We’d go into Boston and catch what jazz was being played and generally dream about going to New York where all our jazz heroes were.

One of the first paying gigs I ever got was what with a Portuguese trumpet player named Phil Barboza. We played dance gigs around the Boston area. The conguero playing with Barboza was Bill Fitch, who became my first musical contact into the world of Latin music. When I was in my junior year in high school, I also played a week’s engagement at the Mayfair Hotel as the pianist in Cab Calloway’s Boston pick up-band.

For a junior in high school, that’s an amazing gig to have landed. You’ve played with some of the true giants of jazz – clearly even early in your career. Can you discuss the differences between “learning on the job” through playing with the likes of Calloway and Miles, as opposed to a formal classroom or private lesson setting?

Well, briefly put, I have learned that one’s sense of art and music can’t really be “taught.” I have observed that one can be encouraged – one can be directed to sources of information, one can be told many technical ways of accomplishing the physical actions – but basically one’s own intention to learn and one’s own genuine interest to get involved and find out what he wants to know and then practice at it is really the only workable way to become proficient at art or anything else.

That’s a huge and very important subject which I’m highly interested in because I want the future of art and music on this earth to flourish and prosper. In this regard, what time I have between performances and recordings I devote to music workshops – live and online – to share with other musicians my own experiences and successful practices and hopefully encourage them to trust their own aesthetic judgment and continue to participate and create in the arts.

Relating to the previous question, of all the luminaries you’ve played for or collaborated with, who sticks out as having had the most profound impact on your development as a musician?

Truthfully, comparisons are slippery in this regard – life and learning being such an incremental and day-to-day thing. That being said, as the years continue, Miles Davis and John Coltrane’s inspiration have been constant – always a touchstone and instant link to a that higher wavelength. I could then begin to list so many other artists who have inspired me, but for this interview, let’s leave it at that.

Fair enough. You’ve played, and excelled at, disparate forms of contemporary jazz – traditional, fusion, avant-garde, et cetera. Can you discuss the formats you have embraced throughout your career and what you get from each?

Sure. When I think about styles of music and techniques of music, I think about individual musicians who taken interest in them. Again, it seems to me that the learning process occurs bit by bit – a little at a time – each interest and pursuit forming a part of one’s vocabulary and dimension of experience. I find it “slippery” to start to put these experiences into neatly named categories such as: “jazz,” “classical,” “Latin,” “fusion,” “free music,” “electronic,” “hip-hop,” “blues,” “cha-cha,” “buleria,” “flamenco,“ “swing” – you see? We could go on endlessly listing names and using words to try to encompass an area of art. And probably learn very little.

Sure. Many musicians find the “over-genrefication” of art to be frustrating or pointless.

I like music that reaches the listener in a real and emotional way – especially art and music that lifts the receiver in an upward direction spiritually. I like music and art that makes you want to dance and enjoy being alive, or music that inspires you to create something yourself, or just to be creative. Just having a pleasant experience is enough of a fulfilling effect for me to enjoy it. And, you know, as the old and truthful saying goes: beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

With what you just said in mind, this next question may well be somewhat pointless, but: of the many projects throughout your career, which do you feel most effectively achieved your aims as a musician? Which do you feel showcases your abilities at their peak?

A question it’s impossible for me to answer as this way of viewing my own work doesn’t exist in my mind. But in terms of music being “effective,” the answer to the last question still holds true.

Can you talk a little bit about experiences you’ve had as an educator, yourself?

Briefly, my workshops are geared toward encouraging and showing the work-shoppers that thinking for themselves and being their own judges and making their own decisions and strengthening their own certainties is the way to achieve their artistic goals.

I try to do this by a minimum of talk and explanation and a maximum amount of demonstration and interaction.

What do you enjoy most about teaching?

I enjoy being able to help another person become inspired to create and communicate his or her music and art.

Do you have any advice you’d impart to other jazz educators? Ha ha – lots! But it would have to be done one-on-one and done with care and humanity. It’s such an important activity! Bottom line, though, is that I believe “all advice is cheap advice,” as the giver gives it out rather freely, but the receiver is one who has to take responsibility to see if it works for him.

Within the pages of JAZZed, as well as online, we’ve recently – more so than in previous years – been confronted by the notion of mainstream media and culture “neglecting” jazz. How do you view the current state of jazz music and culture, and where do you see things going in the future?

This negative idea has been floating around ever since I can remember. I say leave the moaning up to the moaners and let’s get on with creating more music. Any new idea or creative new thing always has a catch-up curve to the public. But the so called “future” will always be in all our hands as a responsibility to create one that is positive, free, creative and joyful. Why create otherwise?

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