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Windows and Senior Mouse: Reflections on Chick Corea

By Edmund Kuryla

In his master dialogue The Republic, Plato (through his mouthpiece Socrates) argues that poets and musicians must be banned from his ideal city. Ironically, Socrates makes this case sans his characteristic irony. Plato explains that he loves these gifted craftsmen. Regrettably, owing to their special, God-natured powers and unique ability to persuade and influence, he excludes them from his city in speech. Poets and musicians are just too powerful. By their nature, they pose a grave threat to the order of his polis. To modern democratic ears, this sounds absurd. But every so often, when confronted with musical genius, one thinks anew about Plato’s concerns.

Chick Corea was one of these rare and special musical-poetic geniuses. His life was a constant journey of creative output, all the way to his recent passing from cancer. When news of his passing came to me, I felt the loss of a great genius and a personal musical father-figure.

Chick taught me about great music and the beauty and fun inherent in this incredible art form. His influence reached outside the “jazz” world because he shaped and will continue to shape the very musical consciousness of multiple past and future generations. He taught us something we didn’t know before. He showed us something of value behind that proverbial veil – someplace holier and more powerful.

I first saw behind this veil in—of all places—a Walmart in a small town in Illinois, USA at the age of sixteen. It was a for sale bin with stacked-up compact disks. I saw one very colorful CD with the name Akoustic Band on the cover. It was Chick, Dave Weckl, and John Patitucci. At the time I didn’t know anything about these musicians. I was inspired anyway, not so much by the cover, but by the musical ideas somehow hidden inside. I will never really know what inspired a young small-town “know-nothing” like me to pick up that CD and move from ignorance to knowledge. Such mysteries are beyond the scope of this essay. I do know that I wore the CD out. I listened and re-listened to it thousands of times. This was clearly musical genius, something I had never known or experienced before. It changed my life.

From that moment on, I have been a jazz pianist. Professionally, my career as a jazz pianist and musician has taken me to many different countries–by virtue, of all things, to a position as a U.S. Army pianist for the previous eighteen years–where I have had the opportunity to “shred” with the best of them. For me, Chick was always there, in the background, guiding me and showing me the way.

Chick was a walking legend, and stories about him are endless. But his genius wasn’t confined to the jazz piano. He played multiple instruments, multiple styles, and rivaled the best ‘classical’ musicians, composers and performers. One of my jazz piano teachers, Donald Brown, a legend in his own right, once told me a story about Chick’s abilities:

While informally hanging and playing with Chick and some other musical friends – all of them legends – Chick asked to play the trumpet. The trumpet player in this group could have been Dizzie Gillespie or Freddie Hubbard. It didn’t matter. To everyone’s astonishment, Chick picked up the trumpet and began burning beautiful and lyrical bebop lines over a tune, as if he had been playing the trumpet his whole life. Who knew? My reaction was “Wow, Donald, that’s amazing! But I’m not surprised.” Strangely enough, Donald recalled a similar reaction. Although amazed at Chick’s superhuman abilities, he was not surprised by what happened. That was just Chick.

When thinking about Chick’s relationship with Miles Davis, and Miles’ own amazement at Chick, no one is surprised. After Chick’s musical stint with Blue Mitchell, Miles heard about the young pianist and invited him to play at an NYC jazz club. As the story goes, Chick was incredibly nervous. Then, after the first set, while sitting at the bar, unsure if he had played well, Miles sat down next to him and muttered, in his inimitable style, “Man, you one bad M*f*&.” As Chick explained it, his career took off from that point.

Lest readers get the wrong idea though, this was all Chick (to be invited to play with Miles in the first place was no small matter). People knew him, had heard him play, and were influenced in much the same way I was as a young musician learning and performing jazz. To my mind, it was no accident that Chick and Miles had that fateful meeting.

I think Chick would have been the master poet-musician in Plato’s world, a potential threat to order to be sure, at the same time having a great deal of fun performing his craft. I also think his influence would have been benevolent and awe-inspiring, worthy of the Gods. Plato and Socrates would have loved him, whatever their misgivings.

The power of Chick’s music and improvisation has stayed with me throughout my life and musical career. I felt loss at his recent passing, but I was reminded that he cared about communicating his art and influencing people. He succeeded – I think more than he ever realized.