Some Lessons You Never Learn: Maybe That’s OK— Chick Corea (1941-2021)

Armando Anthony “Chick” Corea died on February 9, 2021. He was a musician’s musician, an inspired composer, a dynamic entertainer, and a warm human being. Chick mastered many different forms of music from classical to be-bop, and helped pioneer the jazz-rock movement of the 1960s and 70s, among many other musical milestones.

In the early 1980s, Chick Corea was going strong while I — a die-hard-drummer-to-the-bone — was pursuing my passion for marching percussion as the drumline TA for the Wichita State University Marching Band. Mastering the mallet instruments was not on my agenda, but my percussion professor, Dr. J.C. Combs, had other plans. 

Dr. Combs showed me that you could be both a drummer and a mallet player, because that’s exactly what he was. Add to his resume entrepreneur, impresario, emcee, composer, conductor, and civic leader, and you begin to get a clearer picture of J.C. Combs. He is also one of the wittiest and most creative individuals I’ve ever known, and a treasured mentor to me and many others. My classmates at WSU comprise a long list of successful and creative musicians, composers, and educators that includes life-long friends such as composer Paul Elwood, drummer Matt Wilson, and my duo partner, Mat Britain. 

During a memorable vibes lesson, J.C. casually handed me a record, saying, “You might like this.” The album cover was a photo of a city skyline at night with the title, in simple typewriter print, Chick Corea and Gary Burton in Concert, Zurich, October 28, 1979

The next day, I asked Mat Britain if he had heard the album and he responded with an emphatic “Yes! but I thought I had the turntable on the wrong speed at first.” Indeed, the recording of Señor Mouse was so fast that it seemed to be playing at 45 rpms rather than 33 1/3 (something that could easily happen back in turntable days).

Though the album was minimalist and unpretentious on the outside, the music inside was embellished and bold. The double LP recording featured live versions of nine Chick Corea compositions previously released on their earlier studio albums Crystal Silence and Duet, and included a nearly twelve-minute version of Crystal Silence, which became one of my favorites of his works. Those three recordings set in motion my journey with Chick Corea’s music. 

Mat and I explored the Corea songbook together, banging our heads against tunes like Crystal SilenceSea JourneyThe Children’s SongsLa FiestaOpen Your Eyes You Can Fly, and many others. 

Then, when Mat and I heard Andy Narell and Dave Samuels perform for the first time as a steel pan/marimba duo at the 1983 Percussive Arts Society International Convention, the idea for the Britain Moore Duo was hatched. Adding to the significance of that moment for us was that they played a Chick Corea composition. Andy later told me they chose Falling Grace because “it was the only tune we both knew.” By 1983, ten years after its release, Falling Grace had become a Jazz Standard—immortalized in the ubiquitous Real Book, along with several of Chick’s other compositions.

I began studying with Dave Samuels soon after that PASIC performance. He became an early mentor of the Britain Moore Duo who coached us, advised us, and admonished us NOT to play Chick Corea tunes, especially the ones Chick and Gary Burton had made famous. Dave told us, “You don’t want direct comparisons with players like that.” Ouch! 

But this was the one lesson of Dave’s we never learned. The pull of Chick’s music was too strong. 

Chick Corea was a kindred spirit of percussionists, partly because he was a drummer in his younger days, but also because he just loved the vibes and marimba. We were fortunate to host Chick at The University of Iowa on several occasions, and during a Burton Corea duo tour, I got a call that they wanted a marimba for their performance. Sure, no problem. 

When the marimba arrived, Chick seemed more excited than Gary, who barely even looked at the instrument. Chick fawned over our Yamaha five-octave marimba as he told me that most venues on their tours couldn’t come up with one, so this was a real treat. I thought he was just being nice. At concert time, Chick bounced onto the stage clutching a pair of marimba mallets held tightly to his chest. He slid onto the piano bench and discreetly deposited them inside the piano where they remained hidden, and the marimba untouched, for the next 90-minutes. Near the end of their program, they launched into Armando’s Rumba and suddenly Chick retrieved the mallets from their hiding place and burst from the piano to join Gary in a spirited marimba vibes duet. He was having the time of his life, and so was the audience.

After the concert, Chick told me he was “really only practicing the marimba these days” and that he had a similar Yamaha marimba at home. He loved the marimba and enjoyed pushing himself in new musical directions. 

Chick performed often as a soloist but I think that he much preferred making music with others. Here are the final thoughts he shared with his many friends and fans from around the world.

“I want to thank all of those along my journey who have helped keep the music fires burning bright. It is my hope that those who have an inkling to play, write, perform or otherwise, do so. If not for yourself then for the rest of us. It’s not only that the world needs more artists, it’s also just a lot of fun.

And to my amazing musician friends who have been like family to me as long as I’ve known you: it has been a blessing and an honor learning from and playing with all of you. My mission has always been to bring the joy of creating anywhere I could, and to have done so with all the artists that I admire so dearly—this has been the richness of my life.”

I still have a great fondness for the mountain of incredible music Chick Corea left us. I will continue to enjoy learning and playing it, and letting it add to the richness of my life. 

 Some lessons you just never learn, and I’m OK with that.

Here is a recording of Crystal Silence made from the light booth at the 10th Patagonia Percussion Festival in Argentina, 2012. My tribute to Chick Corea.

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