Jazz great, 23-time Grammy winner Chick Corea dead from 'rare form of cancer' at 79

Lyndsey Parker
·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
·4 min read
Chick Corea at the 57th annual Grammy Awards in 2015. (Photo: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, File)
Chick Corea at the 57th annual Grammy Awards in 2015. (Photo: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, File)

Chick Corea, an architect of the jazz fusion genre as a member of Miles Davis’s first electric ensemble, one of the most important pianists of the post-John Coltrane era, and the composer of such jazz standards as “Spain,” “500 Miles High,” “La Fiesta,” “Armando's Rhumba,” and “Windows,” has died. His death from “a rare form of cancer which was only discovered very recently” occurred on Feb. 9, and was announced via a post on his official Facebook page on Thursday afternoon. Corea was 79 years old.

Armando “Chick” Corea was born June 12, 1941 in Chelsea, Mass., and was introduced to the piano and drums at a young age by his father, a Dixieland trumpet player. He took piano lessons from concert pianist Salvatore Sullo at age 8 and started playing professionally while still in high school, later moving to New York City to study music at Columbia University and the Juilliard School. While his formal undergrad education lasted less than a year, Corea remained in New York and started learning on the job as an in-demand keyboardist and bandleader, playing with the likes of Willie Bobo, Herbie Mann, Stan Getz, and Sarah Vaughan.

After the release of his first two albums, 1966’s Tones for Joan's Bones and the 1968 trio LP Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, Corea replaced Herbie Hancock in Miles Davis’s band during Davis’s late-‘60s Lost Quintet transitional period. Switching upon Davis’s recommendation to electric piano (and frequently using a processing device called a ring modulator), Corea played on Davis's Filles de Kilimanjaro, In a Silent Way, Miles Davis at the Fillmore, A Tribute to Jack Johnson, On the Corner, and one of the most influential albums in jazz history and a classic of the progressive jazz genre, Bitches Brew.

In 1970, Corea and his Davis band colleague Dave Holland left to form the free jazz ensemble Circle; two years later, Corea changed course again and formed the seminal fusion group Return to Forever, which revolutionarily mixed elements of rock, funk, and Latin American music and, along with Weather Report and John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, spearheaded the jazz-rock movement of the ‘70s.

Over the course of his more than six-decade career, Corea never stayed in one lane or stayed idle for long, playing music that bridged avant-garde, bebop, chamber music, classical, and Latin jazz, and influencing artists ranging from alternative metal band Living Colour to D.C. hardcore band Bad Brains to bluegrass-fusion artist Béla Fleck and neo-soul pianist Robert Glasper. His other projects included the Chick Corea Elektric Band, the Chick Corea New Trio, the Five Peace Band, and Chick Corea & the Vigil, and he celebrated his 75th birthday in 2016 by playing with more than 20 different groups during a six-week residency at Greenwich Village’s famous Blue Note Jazz Club. His final recording was last year’s live solo album Plays, which featured interpretations of the works of Domenico Scarlatti, Bill Evans, Frédéric Chopin, and Thelonious Monk. In late 2020, Corea was reportedly working on both a trombone concerto for the New York Philharmonic and a percussion concerto for the Philadelphia Orchestra.

“Throughout his life and career, Chick relished in the freedom and the fun to be had in creating something new, and in playing the games that artists do. Through his body of work and the decades he spent touring the world, he touched and inspired the lives of millions,” read the statement on Corea’s Facebook page. “Though he would be the first to say that his music said more than words ever could, he nevertheless had this message for all those he knew and loved, and for all those who loved him:

“‘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.’”

Corea is the fourth-most-nominated artist in the history of the Grammy Awards, with 65 nominations as well as 23 total Grammy wins. He has a chance to posthumously win two more Grammys at next month’s ceremony, where he is nominated for Best Improvised Jazz Solo and Best Jazz Instrumental Album.

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