Memories of Chick Corea

February 12, 2021

It was 2009 and one of my staff members suggested trying to bring Chick Corea to Aeolian Hall to perform.  At the time, I knew who he was and his cross-over into classical music, but only at a really surface level.

To my great surprise, the invitation to perform at The Aeolian was accepted.  I never thought he would come to such a small venue with little history of presenting Jazz Giants.  On March 2nd, I picked Chick up at the London (Ontario) airport with his tour manager who was also his piano technician.  Our first stop on the way to the hotel was to pick up some spring water at a local store.  While his manager went into the store, Chick and I began a lively conversation centered around music.  Luckily, the errand proved much longer than anticipated.   We chatted about so many classical composers and music.  Scarlatti, Scriabin, Dutilleux and many more.  That night, Chick went to the internet and downloaded some scores.  He ended up performing some of the works we chatted about that next day in the concert.  I distinctly remember the Scarlatti Sonata he performed.  He played it straight with no improvisation.  I’ve never heard a piece of music performed with such meaning.  It was if Chick had written it himself.  Every interval felt vocal and intentional.  No pianism, just sheer music.  That first concert was a mash-up of everything you could imagine stylistically.  He performed in sweatpants as if he was in his own living.  His interactions with the audience were informal, warm and regular.  I sat within his view.  He gazed over regularly, smiled, winked and I felt that he played every note for me.

I spent much of the next day looking after Chick and his manager.  That included meals and eating together.  One of the Aeolian’s volunteers cooked up a gourmet feast for us, so we were able to eat on site and not miss a beat!  Conversations flowed easily.  Chick had a child-like curiosity and wonder for music.  The music industry hadn’t affected his ability to be in wonder and awe at the beauty of discovery.  I’ve seen so many veteran artists jaded and tired on our stage over the years.  This experience was so refreshing.

Chick had been touring a lot when I first met him.  I asked him how that felt.  I had left that world when I bought Aeolian Hall in 2004 out of fatigued and loneliness.  He called himself a “Road Warrior” and loved the adventure even after all of the years of touring.  

I remember one discussion we had about Bach and the Well-Tempered Clavier.  He was just discovering and learning some of the Preludes and Fugues.  He said to me: “You could spend hours delving into two bars of this music”.  He was also learning the Dutilleux piano Sonata.  I had studied that Sonata many years before and we were able to both marvel at the structure and development of ideas in this work.  

Chick told me about his experience at the Juilliard School of Music.  It was brief (I think I remember him saying a couple of months). He was, in his own words, not a sophisticated classical musician.  He said he came from a humble background.  He loved Chopin and brought some of Chopin’s music to his lessons.  After playing for his teacher (a Russian teacher), she told him that it was very nice.  He said: “yeah, I’d really like to learn more about this Chopin guy”.  The teacher responded: “No, we are going to do the finger exercises”.  He said to me: “I had a choice.  Go this way (classical) or that (jazz).” He chose the latter.  He told me that he regretted that choice today because he missed so much of the foundations of pianism and training in the discipline of classical music.  He said classical music was his greatest inspiration. I told Chick that I had plenty of that training and that it could be really limiting. I wished that I could improvise. 

To that he responded: “Yes, classical musicians take themselves and their music too seriously.”  I knew exactly what he meant; how that training can limit freedom of expression-especially in the old paradigm of having students do the interpretation their teachers insist upon them to do, instead of letting them discover and serving as a  guide to them.

Concerning The Aeolian and my passion to advance its mission, Chick told me: “Don’t you ever let this place stop you from making your music”.  Those words haunt me even to this day.  It’s so easy to stop playing when you have administrative and program development duties on your brain all of the time.  I fight to keep my music going.

After his first visit, Chick and I stayed in touch by email.  I remember introducing him to the late works of Gabriel Fauré and his excitement when I sent him Fauré Fifth Impromptu.  I had suggested a project of coming back with Herbie Hancock and having them improvise with two pianos on themes from Fauré’s Piano Nocturnes and record the concert.  He was excited and enthusiastic about the idea.  Chick left with my CD recordings and graciously told me how much he enjoyed them-especially my Debussy playing.  What an inspiration to hear this from such a great musician.

A few days after his visit, Chick sent me an unsolicited testimonial for his experience at The Aeolian: 

“ Thanks once again for a totally pleasurable two days. You and your team were the best of hosts and best of all, the Aeolian Theatre, the audience you helped bring in and the whole ambience was just perfect including the very nice Yamaha grand. I’m sure any of my musician friends would love this venue and the wonderful way you have of hosting the artist (me in this case). I wish you all continued success in your passion to bring good music to London, Ontario and hope to play here again soon.”  

In 2012, Chick’s agent reached out to us mentioning that he would love to come back with his friend Gary Burton and the Harlem String Quartet.  The cost of producing this concert was out of the reach of our 300-seat venue.  We told the agent that we couldn’t proceed.  When Chick found out that we couldn’t go ahead, he made arrangements so that we could produce the concert by reducing the price to the same as his solo concert.  Chick himself kicked in the difference in cost.  Many who attended this concert thought it was the best concert they had ever heard.  It was all new music composed by Chick.  The collaboration was astounding.  The Harlem String Quartet was a great maven for diversity with Black and Hispanic members.  Chick would often get up from the piano when he wasn’t playing his part in the concert and go over to the members of the quartet and listen, sometimes waving his hands….not conducting; just getting caught up in the moment.

I had to travel to Toronto to pick Chick up at the airport for this concert.  On the way back to London, conversation flowed steadily for two hours.  At one point he was asking me about a technical challenge of playing repeated octaves and his struggles for endurance.  On the dashboard while driving, I showed him how one can utilize the wrist in a down-up movement to avoid fatigue; something discovered in the 19th Century by Theodore Kullak that revolutionized octave playing.  He got it right away.  I’ll never forget the feeling I had when I imparted this knowledge to this legendary man and how grateful he was.  Later, when I watched his interactions with our volunteers, clients and staff, I noticed he always treated everyone as an absolute equal.  I’m quite sure one of the biggest roles his tour manager had was to protect his time with people so he could practice, eat and sleep!

During this second visit, my husband and I sat down to dine with Chick, Gary Burton and his life partner Jonathan Chong.  I introduced my husband to everyone at the table and then Gary introduced his husband.  Gary later told me that he was so happy I had been so open in front of Chick about being gay.  I guess Chick and Gary had never discussed his homosexuality-even after years of performing together.  Chick had only positive, nonchalant reactions to these introductions. He belonged to the Church of Christian Science which is a Church that had a history of being anti-gay…although I think that is changing in recent years.  

Another question I asked Chick during this visit was tied up with my own frustrations as a musician.  I remarked: “Don’t you ever worry that with all of the projects of composing and learning music, you’ll run out of time in this life?”.  He remarked: “No.  I’ll have many lifetimes to get to the ones I don’t get to in this life.”

We lost a great musician this week.  A man who I’m sure had a profound, inspiring impact on everyone he met.

In closing, here are Chick’s own words he placed at the end of his collection of Children’s Songs:

Keep what you like

Change what you want

Create your own rules

Have a question?

            Get it answered

            to your satisfaction

Seek out the ones who create

            And are willing to share knowledge

Beware of the “authorities” who don’t

            themselves create

Discipline your body

Discipline your instrument

But only toward your own 

            dreams and goals

Run the body and make it obey

Practice with an even flow

Control with easy intention

Discover the Beauty of Slowness

It’s the Beauty you intend

Practice your imagination

Put your illusions through your 

            Body and instrument

Sing to yourself without your body’s 

            Voice

                        This is what is meant by

                           “hear it”

Play what you “hear”

Practice with an even flow

Control with easy intention

Gather the techniques that

            Serve your dreams

Create techniques to 

            Serve your dreams

(Chick Corea)

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