What did Chick Corea learn from the time he spent playing in the bands of Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Stan Getz and other jazz giants?
“I’ve had the best teachers, haven’t I?” said Corea, who in January won the 23rd Grammy Award of his illustrious career. He credits his musical apprenticeships as a young artist for laying the foundation for his multifarious career as a solo artist and band leader.
“Miles did that with Charlie Parker. ‘Bird’ played with Billy Eckstine. We all did apprenticeships.”
How to learn and teach music are some of the key areas addressed at the Chick Corea Academy.
In the bonus Q&A below, he reflects on his apprenticeships with some of the most esteemed artists in jazz history, starting with …
“That was an interesting gig! I did that for a week in a showroom at a hotel in Boston. He had a revue with scantily clad dancers and I was wearing my dad’s loose-fitting tuxedo. I think I was a junior in high school. I could read music so I could read and do the show. Musically, it was kind of fun. And watching Cab communicate with people was interesting and new for me. He was doing his thing and I was so far from being able to do that. It was inspiring.
An interesting sidelight of that gig was getting a piano lesson every night from Herman Chittison in the hotel’s lounge. He was an older Black pianist in Boston who had Art Tatum’s flowing style in his blood and could play those beautiful standards. Every intermission I had during that week with Cab, I’d go sit near Herman and watch him play.”
“That was a great apprenticeship! I’ve been blessed to work with some of the greatest singers, including my sweet wife, Gayle, who is an amazing vocalist, and Bobby McFerrin — we’re planning to do more stuff together.
“Working with Sarah was like getting to work with Miles. Her music was so beautiful, and the whole background she came from — she was the young singer in Billy Eckstine’s band when she was in her late teens. I got to work with her for a little more than a year and it was great.
“The thing I loved about her is she let me interact with her, not just as an accompanist. See, the thing about piano and voice, or rhythm section and voice, is that — when you have a vocalist — very often the way it is put together is that the vocalist is the featured person and any music is background accompaniment. And that’s fine. But it’s not my particular love, because I live to improvise and have interaction.
“Sarah was the ultimate solo singer, but she encouraged interaction between me and her. She’d say: ‘Chick, go take the trio out on stage and warm up the audience.’ I’d go out and play a five-minute tune and then she’d come on. She liked it so much that she’d ask me to play longer before she came out. So I’d play a half-hour set and play things like ‘Matrix’ and all my wild stuff! This was in 1967, 1968.
“Sarah was very encouraging and I started writing some arrangements for her. I really learned from her. And I improved at accompanying a soloist, her, who was so rich in melody and expression, and learning how to make an interesting background for them — not just a plodding backdrop — but a piece of music that would make something beautiful out of it.”
“You’re going through all my universities! Mongo was the universities of African music, Cuban music, dance music and Afro-Cuban religious music. Wow!
“In Mongo’s band, I got to work with Willie Bobo, Patato, Victor Venegas and, later, Larry Gales. Mongo was a great leader and a great communicator. And when he laid that beat down on the conga drum, no matter what tempo or rhythm, it drew everybody in. He would just put a spell on the audience and take you right into his rhythmic world. I learned a bunch of little intricacies about these dance rhythms and the spirit of that is in my own music.”
“Another university! Another soloist! Stan was the tenor saxophone soloist. He had a beautiful, lyrical sound. Again, I was fortunate that he pretty much gave me the freedom to play what I liked. When I first got in the band, he tamped me down because my solos were too long and my intros were too long and weird, and he wanted something simpler.
“But Stan helped encourage me as a composer, because he started playing my song ‘Windows’ and, later on, ‘La Fiesta.’ I was introduced to Roy Haynes and Steve Swallow in that group; Steve recommended me to Stan. A couple of years later, after I formed Return To Forever, Stan invited me to put a band together for him for a tour. So I put together Tony Williams, Stan Clarke and Airto Moreira, and we did an album with Stan of all my music, ‘Captain Marvel.’
“So, Stan was a real mentor to me and, like Sarah, very encouraging to me. In a lot of ways, he taught me how to get a song across, how to put a beautiful melody and arrangement together. He helped tame me down, because I was always wild and wanted to play free music, which I got to do with Miles and with Circle, the band I was in with Anthony Braxton, Dave Holland and Barry Altschul. It was always a tendency of mine to play wild, but I admire the classic approach that Sarah and Stan had. And I was happy to learn to make an expression into a simple emotional expression that can be understood.”
“That was the ultimate apprenticeship! I was definitely an apprentice with Miles. We all were, the whole band. By 1968, when I joined the band, everyone playing for Miles was apprenticing for him. Horace Silver was one of Miles’ first pianists, on Miles’ solo albums, and Horace was also a mentor for me.
“I’ve had the best teachers and I’ve been so lucky to have experienced all of that. Miles was the greatest silent teacher, with very few words and only a demonstration with his horn of what he wanted. What he chose to do with his music was an endless learning experience for me, for two and a half years.”
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