Chick Corea, Jazz Fusion Pioneer, Has Died Of Cancer At 79

Feb 11, 2021
Originally published on February 12, 2021 8:37 am

This story was updated at 9:28 p.m. ET on Thursday, Feb. 11.

The keyboardist, composer and bandleader Chick Corea — one of the most revered figures in contemporary jazz, but an artist whose work spanned fusion to classical — died on Feb. 9 at age 79.

Dan Muse from Chick Corea Productions confirmed his death to NPR on Thursday afternoon. Corea's team also reported his death on social media, saying that he died from "a rare form of cancer which was only discovered very recently." No other details about his illness and death were shared.

A pianist whose crisp touch and clarion tone were always buoyed by an effervescent way with rhythm, Corea loomed large in a jazz landscape that branched in many directions. His 1968 album Now He Sings, Now He Sobs has long been a touchstone for the modern acoustic piano trio, a format to which he often returned; in 2019 he released another album in that vein, Trilogy 2, with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade.

As well as being named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2006, Corea has won 23 Grammys. He has been nominated a total of 67 times, including twice for Trilogy 2 this year.

He was already a talent clearly on the rise when he joined a group led by trumpeter Miles Davis in the late '60s, just as the shadowy, mercurial post-bop that had defined Davis' music of that decade was yielding to elements of funk and psychedelic rock. Playing electric piano on albums like In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew and Miles Davis at the Fillmore — often alongside his most gifted pianistic peers, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett and Joe Zawinul — he helped define a new hybrid music in tune with the Aquarian Age.

His own band Return to Forever, which he formed with bassist Stanley Clarke, was an important marker for this emerging genre, known as fusion. Its first iteration drew airy inspiration from Brazilian music, before taking on a more turbocharged grandeur; the band found mainstream commercial success with a lineup featuring guitarist Al Di Meola and drummer Lenny White. (When this version of the band reunited in 2011, its itinerary included theaters and festivals more accustomed to legacy rock acts.)


Two of Corea's most popular compositions — a heraldic, syncopated anthem titled "Spain" and an ethereally grooving piece called "500 Miles High" — appear on the 1973 Return to Forever album, Light As a Feather. Among his other enduring pieces are "Matrix" and "Windows," sleek paragons of post-bop, and "La Fiesta," which captures his affinity for Spanish flamenco.

Few improvising musicians ever collaborated more broadly, or with more boundless enthusiasm. Corea did meaningful, distinctive work in duos with vibraphonist Gary Burton, vocalist Bobby McFerrin and banjoist Béla Fleck, among others; his fusion legacy extends beyond Return to Forever, including the Chick Corea Elektric Band, Chick Corea & The Vigil, and an all-star crew called the Five Peace Band (whose ranks included two other Miles Davis alumni, guitarist John McLaughlin and saxophonist Kenny Garrett). Among his many other collaborators was his wife, the singer Gayle Moran Corea.

Corea also delved into free jazz with Circle, a collective he formed in the early '70s with bassist Dave Holland, drummer Barry Altschul and saxophonist Anthony Braxton. (With Holland and Altschul, he released A.R.C., among the first albums on ECM Records.) Corea's most recent release, a solo piano double album titled Plays, includes material by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Thelonious Monk, Stevie Wonder and Antonio Carlos Jobim — as well as a smattering of pieces from Corea's own 1984 album, Children's Songs. His Akoustic Band, a trio with bassist John Patitucci and drummer Dave Weckl, has a reunion album due out this May.

Prolific in every sense, Corea released well over 100 albums, and maintained a busy touring schedule. In 2018, he told Jazz Night in America about what he saw as the artist's role: "We have a mission to go out there and be an antidote to war, and all of the dark side of what happens on Planet Earth. We're the ones that go in and remind people about their creativity."

Born June 12, 1941, in Chelsea, Mass., Armando Anthony Corea grew up playing piano and drums and listening to bebop as well as classical music. His father, also named Armando, was an immigrant originally from Southern Italy, and a trumpeter who led a Dixieland band; a tune that Corea named in his honor, "Armando's Rhumba," was another staple of his repertoire.

After moving to New York as a young man, Corea played with Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria and other Latin jazz bandleaders like vibraphonist Cal Tjader and flutist Herbie Mann. He also worked with saxophonist Stan Getz, trumpeter Blue Mitchell and flutist Hubert Laws before making his first appearance with Davis, on the album Filles de Kilimanjaro.

At around the same time, Corea had his first encounter with Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, a book by L. Ron Hubbard that forms a cornerstone of Scientology. Corea became a prominent Scientologist, dedicating his albums to Hubbard and embracing archetypes of the religion in his album and song titles.

The social media announcement of his death included words from Corea himself: "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."

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One of the nicknames given to jazz pianist Chick Corea was the Chameleon. His career was a stylistic kaleidoscope - modern post-bop, jazz fusion, Latin and Spanish tinges.


CORNISH: He was celebrated by several generations of jazz musicians so much so that he won 23 Grammy Awards. His Facebook page announced today that Chick Corea died on Tuesday of cancer. He was 79 years old. Nate Chinen of WBGO and Jazz Night In America is here.

Welcome back, Nate.


CORNISH: How did he earn the nickname Chameleon? What did people mean by that?

CHINEN: Well, you know, few musicians over the course of their career have played as many different kinds of music as Chick Corea did. You know, his career lasted over 50 years, and he played, you know, modern post-bop and played a defining role in jazz fusion, Latin jazz. He played Mozart. You know, he collaborated with people like Bela Fleck and Bobby McFerrin. And he just always seemed to bring the same energy and enthusiasm no matter what the context was. And no matter how often those colors changed, so to speak, he always sounded exactly like himself. You always knew it was Chick Corea.

CORNISH: Can you tell me some of the reaction from the jazz community of his passing?

CHINEN: Just total shock, you know? This is a musician who has been prolific. You know, he's really been one of those figures who seem to defy his age, you know? He's 79 but really with the energy of someone maybe in his 40s. And some of that is in his music. You know, there's this effervescence in his playing and just a real sort of love of life that you hear in every note. And so I think for a lot of people, this is just really kind of unfathomable.

CORNISH: What is the legacy that he leaves in terms of the jazz piano specifically, meaning, what kind of player was he? And have there been others who have come up in his style?

CHINEN: Well, I'll start with the last part of the question. He's been hugely influential. A lot of pianists have emulated him. And his contribution is - you know, it happens on multiple registers. One of his very first albums, "Now He Sings, Now He Sobs," is really in the small circle of definitive post-bop piano trio recordings.

CORNISH: In what way? What does that style mean?

CHINEN: Well, you know, it's this extremely modern, streamlined, very progressive approach where harmony and rhythm are both sort of turbocharged. And, you know, this recording has just been a touchstone for generations. But speaking of touchstones, you know, he was also a part of the group of musicians with Miles Davis who really ushered in the fusion era. And after playing with Miles on albums like "Bitches Brew," Chick then formed a band called Return to Forever that became one of the sort of defining fusion bands of the '70s - extremely popular and also hugely influential. So there's - this legacy has multiple touch points. You know, he means a lot of different things, really, in different areas of the music.

CORNISH: That was Nate Chinen of WBGO and Jazz Night In America, remembering the jazz great Chick Corea. Corea died on Tuesday of cancer. He was 79.

Nate, thank you for sharing these memories with us.

CHINEN: Thank you.