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Interviews

Chick Corea: Creative Giant

By Published: May 16, 2011
AAJ: Is there ever a minute on your day where you don't think of music?

CC: The answer is no, but I try to live my life in an artistic way, not just when I am playing the piano—like everybody does, really. I try to be creative about other things that I do. My wife, Gayle, and I, we try to keep our home in a beautiful, creative way. So it's a wavelength, to be creative. And it's a natural thing to do as well, and I just try to be there all the time.

AAJ: I know you started out playing drums as a kid. Do you ever wonder what it would have been like to pick drums instead of piano as your main instrument?

CC: Drums have always been a passion, ever since I got my first set of drums, when I was about eight or ten years old. I have always had a drum kit by my piano, and I still have it now. I also have a marimba instrument, which is an instrument that I like a lot, and I play it too. Drums, well, it's just a passion, what can I say? I'd like to get a gig on drums. Sometimes I try to mock myself to some of my friends, and say, "Hey man, if your drummer can't make it give me a call" [laughs]. But I've learned an incredible amount about music from great drummers. Going back to the drummers that played with Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
and Count Basie
Count Basie
Count Basie
1904 - 1984
piano
, to Philly Joe Jones
Philly Joe Jones
Philly Joe Jones
1923 - 1985
drums
, Max Roach
Max Roach
Max Roach
1925 - 2007
drums
, Elvin Jones
Elvin Jones
Elvin Jones
1927 - 2004
drums
, Tony Williams
Tony Williams
Tony Williams
1945 - 1997
drums
and Roy Haynes
Roy Haynes
Roy Haynes
b.1926
drums
...These drummers, to me, are the essence of jazz, the essence of music. So I like to play drums, to keep in touch with the rhythm.

AAJ: What do you remember about that first gig with Cab Calloway
Cab Calloway
Cab Calloway
1907 - 1994
composer/conductor
?

CC: Oh, you dug that one up, huh? I was, like, in high school, I don't think I was even senior, I think I was sixteen or something like that. I guess they couldn't find a pianist to play the Cab Calloway show in Boston and somehow I got recommended, because I could read music, and they wanted me to do this show. So I had never done a gig like that, I had hardly done any gigs, actually. They had a chorus line there of girls too, where they didn't have too many clothes on and stuff, and I was all embarrassed about that, but it was fun, really. Cab Calloway is like a monster to me, such a great performer.

One of the memories of that gig was that there was a pianist, an older man even at that time, 1957—two years before I graduated high school—that played the piano at the lounge of the hotel. His name was Herman Chittison, and he played solo piano in the lounge and had a style like Art Tatum
Art Tatum
Art Tatum
1909 - 1956
piano
. I used to go in between shows and sit next to him and watch him and listen to him play. It was a great pleasure to me to listen to Herman Chittison.

AAJ: And what do you remember about recording with trumpeter Blue Mitchell
Blue Mitchell
Blue Mitchell
b.1930
trumpet
on The Thing To Do (Blue Note, 1964)?

CC: Oh, that was a big, big step in my life, because in 1964 I was only in New York for a couple of years, and I got to play with the musicians that were playing with my, at that time, all-time favorite band, which was the Horace Silver
Horace Silver
Horace Silver
b.1928
piano
Quintet—Blue Mitchell
Blue Mitchell
Blue Mitchell
b.1930
trumpet
, Junior Cook
Junior Cook
Junior Cook
1934 - 1992
saxophone
, Gene Taylor
Gene Taylor
b.1929
and Roy Brooks
Roy Brooks
b.1938
. When Horace Silver wasn't working with his quintet, Blue Mitchell would take leadership of the group, find another pianist and go do gigs. So somehow I must have gotten a good recommendation from somebody and I ended up playing with Blue. That first record that we did, The Thing to Do, was recorded at Rudy Van Gelder Studios, a fond memory to me, which I believe was with Al Foster
Al Foster
Al Foster
b.1944
drums
on drums, although Roy Brooks was the original drummer in that band. Al Foster joined the band shortly after Roy Brooks.

I got a lesson in music that was very valuable, and Blue Mitchell treated me kinda like a son, he took me under his wing, and helped me out and showed me things. It was a glorious couple of years that I spent with that band.

AAJ: Why did you choose jazz over classical?

CC: Well, my father was a jazz musician. He led a band. All of the music that I heard when I was young was jazz music, and it appealed to me because it was creative and it was loose and it was very natural, and the musicians who played jazz were communicative and looked like they were having fun. My first impression of classical music was that it was kind of stiff and formal, and it was not the way I liked to be. But it was mainly the music; jazz music was filled with the kind of emotion and life that I was attracted to immediately. I had no doubt that that was the music I wanted to play.

AAJ: Is it true that you studied musical education for one month at Columbia University and six months at The Juilliard School, and quit because you were disappointed?

CC: Well, not that black and white, but at Columbia I was there for maybe two weeks, maybe three weeks or so before I realized that that was not really how I should be spending my time. Those few weeks that I spent in New York I spent them going to jazz clubs, and I was way more interested in the music. Then I realized that I had gone there on the advice of others, rather than on my own steam—not that Columbia is a bad school, or anything like that. So I called my parents in Boston, and I told them that I really didn't want to do that, and we came up with the idea of going to Julliard School of Music, because that was in the area of music. So I went there the next year, and it was better, but only to find out that the kind of thing that was being taught was not what I was wanting to learn. I finally realized after all of that that what I really wanted to do was play with the musicians in New York City and learn from the musicians who I loved.

At that time, 1960-1961, New York was filled with the great jazz musicians of all time: Miles Davis, John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
Quartet with Elvin and McCoy and Jimmy Garrison
Jimmy Garrison
Jimmy Garrison
1934 - 1976
bass, acoustic
, Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
b.1930
sax, alto
. Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
b.1930
saxophone
was playing around town, Maynard Ferguson
Maynard Ferguson
Maynard Ferguson
1928 - 2006
trumpet
's band, Count Basie
Count Basie
Count Basie
1904 - 1984
piano
was there, Duke Ellington was there, Tito Puente
Tito Puente
Tito Puente
1923 - 2000
band/orchestra
, Eddie Palmieri
Eddie Palmieri
Eddie Palmieri
b.1936
piano
... What was I doing with my head in a book when the real deal was happening with these bands? So that's when I decided what I wanted to do: I wanted to go learn from the people who were making the music that I wanted to play. So that's what I finally spent the rest of the sixties doing, learning from my heroes.

It's well-known, in the world of people that are successful in what they do, that degrees in anything might tell something, but they don't really tell the story you want to know, which is how competent is the person, how well can he make music, how well can he play his instrument and so forth. It doesn't matter how the person gets there, whether he went to school or didn't go to school, it doesn't matter. I just think that the essence of education is apprenticeship and, no matter what kind of books you read or other opinions that you get of the subject that you are studying, eventually to work with a person who is a master in the subject that you are trying to learn is the best way to do it. That's why the practical mind of a musicians always says, "Well, you gotta go out and work"; but I have to add that you have to choose who you are working with, so that you know you are working with someone that you can learn from, and improve yourself by expanding your knowledge. It's still my joy in making music.

It doesn't matter how old the musician is, because most musicians are younger than me now; but I can work with a musician that I can learn something from, like with Christian McBride
Christian McBride
Christian McBride
b.1972
bass
and Brian Blade
Brian Blade
Brian Blade
b.1970
drums
, whom I have worked with recently. They are younger than me. I have learned a tremendous amount working with them. Actually, most musicians that I work with, I learn from. It's a constant joy to learn that way. In a school, if there was a way to help the musician realize his only goals, however he does it, then that would be a good thing.

AAJ : The days of your first album, Tones for Joan's Bones (Vortex/Atlantic 1966)?

CC : Well, it's a story I tell a lot because I am proud of it. It's my best memory of that record. I remember a lot of just details about the band and all those guys that I played with; Joe Chambers
Joe Chambers
Joe Chambers
b.1942
drums
, Joe Farrell, Woody Shaw
Woody Shaw
Woody Shaw
1944 - 1989
trumpet
and Steve Swallow
Steve Swallow
Steve Swallow
b.1940
bass
. But the main success that I came away with, from making that record, was that it was the first record that I did and I did it in a way that was purely what I wanted to do. It wasn't what someone else wanted me to do. The way it happened was that I was working with Herbie Mann
Herbie Mann
Herbie Mann
1930 - 2003
flute
's band at the time, and Herbie had just formed a new record label of his own called Vortex, funded by Atlantic Records.

So Herbie liked the way I played and he asked me to make a record for his label. I said, "Sure, I would love to do that. I am working on some music now, and blah blah blah." And he said, "Yes, but I'd like you to use some timbales, and conga, and make it kind of Latin style record." And I said to him that it might be fun to do, but what I really would like to do was the music I was working on with the quintet; that was the music I would like to record. So I didn't get to do the record. Then he asked me again some weeks later, and this time he said, "Maybe if you just use the timbales on a couple of your tunes." I said, "No, Herbie, really, I am working on this quintet music and that's really what I want to do." I turned him down maybe three times, until finally he said to me, "Look Chick, just make a record and do what you were writing, what you are working on; whatever you do is fine." And that's what I did.


From left: Chick Corea, Christian McBride, Brian Blade

I spent, I think, two days recording all these tracks, songs that I had written with my favorite musicians at the time, and I never went in the control room once; I didn't mix the record, I didn't have anything to do with the album cover, and then six or eight months later, I saw the LP in a record store and I said, "That's my record!," and I bought it. But my success was that I kept to my own reality and my own goal about what I wanted to record, and then I kept that way for the rest of my life. I never was persuaded by a producer or by what someone else thought I should do. I think it's made a good life musically for me, that way. I am proud of being able to always make music the way I see to make it.


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