A True Story And Tribute To One Of Jazz's Finest
(Originally posted Feb 2021 on vocal.media)
This week we lost another living legend. Armando Anthony Corea aka Chick Corea, one of jazz piano’s giants, passed away at the age of 79. Winner of 23 Grammys, he played for other jazz legends such as Herbie Mann, Stan Getz and Miles Davis, and that was before embarking on an epic solo career. He most notably helped to usher in the jazz fusion era, and was still a prolific performer and composer. He won his 23rd Grammy last year for Best Latin Jazz Album.
I was fortunate to see him perform live, even more miraculously (and hilariously) blessed to perform with him... sort of.
Here’s how it went down…
As a music therapy undergrad, I entertained a multitude of fantasies concerning my future. As far as I can remember, none of them involved ministry, but that is what college is for. It's perhaps the final bastion of imaginative forecasting before the often somber realities of adulthood take full control. For example, I spent a few days during my freshman year, entertaining the heady delusion that I might become a professional Jazz musician.
This all began when I auditioned for one of the many student Jazz ensembles on campus. I had received about a year's instruction on basic Jazz piano during my final year of high school in Barbados. I should've been hip to the fact that being taught Jazz piano by a Jazz trumpeter probably wasn't the best way to go, but what did I know? During the audition it quickly became evident that I didn't know nearly as much about Jazz as I thought I did. Imagine my surprise when I was assigned to... the trombone ensemble!? Well every Jazz ensemble needs a rhythm section -- drums, bass, guitar, piano. So there I was, a member of my first Jazz ensemble, and now I was receiving instruction from... a Jazz trombonist. He knew his stuff and made the translation from trombone to piano well enough. My playing improved -- not that there was really any place left to go but up. And it happened that my Caribbean heritage came in handy as we learned to play the tune St. Thomas and I was the only one who could teach the drummer an authentic soca beat. At the end-of-semester ensemble concert, our group, the Jazz Bones, were the unexpected hit... at least that's how I choose to remember it. After our performance the head of the Jazz department surprised me by complimenting my playing and inviting me to come to his office on Monday to talk about getting me signed up for times to work with him the following semester.
And that's when the fantasy kicked in. I could see it plain as day...at the end of four years I'd be a music therapist by day, moonlighting in the Jazz clubs by night. I'd catch the ear of some Jazz legend who snuck into the club one night. Could I lend my talents to a studio recording? Would I sit in and jam with other Jazz greats at a benefit concert? My imagination was in overdrive for the next few days. It overshadowed the reality that I probably couldn't take classes without paying extra because Classical Piano was my major instrument. You see, as a music major I had to choose two instruments on which to perform. Classical Piano was the instrument and style that earned my admission into the conservatory; that, and the fact that I could pay full tuition without taxing their scholarship funds. Most non-performance majors would declare voice as their second or minor instrument. Having heard myself sing, I was clear that wasn't an option. And I especially didn't want to learn to sing in foreign languages. The only other instrument I played was guitar, and that was just strumming chords, not the fanciful classical finger-picking style that was required at the time.
But I was determined. Then I had what I would now call a Divine Idea, but back then I saw it as my penchant for finding loopholes (It's still a gift for finding ways around the rules, but Divine Idea sounds so much more spiritual doesn't it?) After carefully scrutinizing the catalogs and requirements I deduced that, because it was listed as a separate instrument and there was no stipulation against it, Jazz Piano as a minor instrument was a possibility. My advisor was momentarily dumbfounded when I presented my case. She argued that my major instrument and my minor instrument couldn't be the same instrument, and I argued that according to the catalog they could be and wouldn't these skills be handy as a music therapist since improvising was a large part of what we did and aren't you glad somebody discovered this wonderful option so please approve it before they close the loophole?
Application approved. Boom!
And so, with great excitement the Jazz lessons began. This time, with an actual Jazz pianist. Within three weeks we both knew we had made a terrible mistake. It was a mistake born from two assumptions that shouldn’t have come within ten feet of each other. He assumed that I understood and would commit to the hours of practice that were required to master the seemingly endless scales and riffs. I assumed I would learn by osmosis. Neither of us changed our fundamental positions, and we both learned something from the experience. I learned that raw talent is not enough for true success; it needs to be supported by an unwavering commitment to work. He learned that my commitment to not work could be just as unwavering. Eventually we settled for four semesters of miniscule to mediocre progress. I was definitely not his success story. I went on to graduate with my music therapy degree and have a successful music ten year therapy career, but after college I played less and less Jazz. Eventually my chops reverted to near pre-college form. I would be reduced to comping chords and avoiding solos. But I retained an impressive Jazz vernacular, using words like "chops" and "comping" to impress upon others that some semblance of a Jazz musician lay within.
About six years after graduation something happened that would teach me about how the power of Imagination can truly shape our reality. We were living in Lee's Summit, MO just a few miles outside Kansas City. Seemingly out of the blue, my wife Jennifer received a call from a colleague who had some tickets to a Chick Corea concert she couldn't use and she thought we might be interested, given our music background. Well of course we were interested! It was freaking Chick Corea!!
That year he was doing a "Solo Piano" tour. We learned that was code for just-me-at-the-piano-without-a-set-list-just-playing-whatever-comes-to-mind-and-it-will-be-okay-because-I'm-a-living-legend." Well, he WAS a living legend and it WAS more than okay. We sat front row center. The performance was unforgettable. Chick alternated Jazz standards with his original compositions. Sometimes he would pause between songs to talk and share his thoughts about the piece or a chapter from his storied history. Other times he played three of four songs in a row, transitioning so smoothly and subtly that I couldn't distinguish when one ended and another began. He was both transcendent and sublime, notes flooding the air in ways that bypassed the intellect and took the soul on a spontaneously creative odyssey of sound.
About three-quarters way through the concert, he spoke to us about improvising. He said it's like an artist who sets out to paint a work of art, and there's an image in mind, but the subject speaks to the artist so when the painting begins it becomes an organic process. It takes on a life of its own and any preconceived notions dissolve into the creative moment. To demonstrate, he asked for a volunteer from the audience to come on stage so that he might "paint" or musically improvise their portrait. (Yeah...you know where this is going) Without thinking my hand shot into the air. Then I looked around, stunned that it was the ONLY hand in the air. What was wrong with these people?! Was I the only one who realized that we were being given the opportunity to share the stage with one the world's greatest musicians, and we didn't have to play an instrument? Beside me, already crimson with embarrassment, Jen hissed for me to put my hand down, to which, judging by the laughter around us I whispered too loudly, "Are you kidding? I get to to share the stage with one the world's greatest musicians, and I don't have to play an instrument!" I should probably mention that I'd had a few Rum & Cokes during intermission which no doubt dulled my inhibitions.
So up onto the stage I bounded. Chick gestured towards the chair and I sat with great anticipation. He studied me for a moment, his head slightly tilted and eyes narrowed in concentration. Then he launched into a funky hip-hop flavored piece that made me think, "Yes! This is exactly what I would want to hear every time I walked into a room." I bopped my head to his rhythmic explorations. I assumed everyone in the audience was bopping their heads as well but I couldn't see anything past the edge of the stage because of the floodlights. It felt like a rather intimate experience; just me and Chick sharing space. That feeling, plus the aforementioned Rum & Cokes, just might have contributed to what happened next.
When I first made my way to the stage, I noticed that there was a tray of small percussion instruments to Chick's left. Thoroughly lost in the moment, and figuring I had nothing to lose, I stood and pointed to the instruments and mimicked playing. The intended message was, "Can I jam with you?" The erroneously received message was, "Can I jam with you...on the piano?" because next thing I know he scooted over and patted the bench next to him. The collective gasp of hundreds washed through the auditorium as I sat next to one the greatest musicians alive.
I really had to idea what I was doing. To compare Chick Corea's musical skills to my musical skills is like comparing the work of Pablo Picasso to a paint-by-number using crayons with my non-dominant hand. From the deepest recesses of my memory I excavated a few runs. Without missing a beat, and being the master musician that he is, Chick made me sound like a virtuoso. As we played together it felt like time had stopped. It hadn't. In reality our duet might have lasted half a minute, and when it arrived at its natural conclusion, the applause and cheers were deafening. I stood and took a bow, perhaps forgetting for a second that this wasn't my concert. Chick and I shook hands and I returned to my seat next to my now-beaming-with-pride wife. Her look said, "Oh yeah, that's my man!" When Chick asked "Who's next?" about a hundred hands shot into the air.
At the end of the concert, as we exited the theater, more than a few folks congratulated me on my boldness. My favorite comment came from an African-American gentleman who must have been in his eighties. He looked very dapper in his three-piece wool suit, hand-knotted bow tie and silver-handled cane. He grasped me by the elbow and leaned in to whisper much too loudly, "Son, you have balls as big as brass bells!" No higher praise was ever lavished on my impulsivity and apparent lack of boundaries.
I’m now 46 years old, hardly playing, and I've mostly forgotten many of the more mundane events of my life. My time on stage with Chick Corea will stick with me to the end, of that I’m certain. I don’t believe in Heaven as an afterlife destination. But if there was one, I’m sure I’d float down some misty back alley in the clouds to the mother of all jazz clubs, and find Chick Corea continuing to take us to new heights.
Safe home, and thanks for all the music.