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Chick Corea, pioneering jazz fusion keyboardist, dies at 79

Mr. Corea, performing at the Hatch Shell in Boston in 1989.Pam Berry/Globe Staff

The decades of gigging and composing and improvising that would bring Chick Corea 23 Grammy Awards began in Chelsea, where his parents hired a crane to lift an upright piano into the family’s fourth-floor apartment.

As a young boy, Mr. Corea touched a keyboard for the first time, he recalled in a 2018 Globe interview, and it quickly became his life — inspired in part by his father, a jazz trumpeter.

“Once I started playing the piano at 4, and sitting in on gigs with my dad at about 6, and meeting other musicians, I never really thought of doing anything else,” he told the Globe. “It wasn’t like I made a decision to do it. I just never made a decision to do anything else.”


Mr. Corea, a pioneer of jazz fusion whose best known band, Return to Forever, merged genres and styles from across the musical spectrum and around the world, died Tuesday. He was 79 and recently had been diagnosed with a rare cancer, according to his website.

“I want to thank all of those along my journey who have helped the music fires burning bright,” he said in a statement on his website. “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.”

The fun began early for Mr. Corea. On the way to expanding the vocabulary of jazz, he embraced music and the piano as more interesting alternatives to the rest of his young life.

“I remember very clearly going to first grade in Chelsea, going for the first time in my life into this fixed environment, where at a certain time you had to walk in the room and fold your hands, and then we had to put our heads down on the desk and do, to me, kind of silly things,” he told the Globe in 1996. “And I thought, ‘Well, it’s kind of nice, because I’m around kids my age,’ but it was all like a dream.


“And after I walked out of the school each day and went back home to my family and to my piano, I thought, ‘This is reality.’ "

By his 20s, he was playing with jazz notables such as Stan Getz, Herbie Mann, and Miles Davis. Mr. Corea played on Davis’s transforming 1970 album “Bitches Brew” — he once recalled that Davis had instructed him at one session to switch to electric piano.

Soon after “Bitches Brew,” Mr. Corea founded Return to Forever, which expanded the melding of rock and jazz elements in “Bitches Brew.” On the band’s first eponymous album in 1972, he was joined by Stanley Clarke on bass, Flora Purim on vocals and percussion, Joe Farrell on flute and saxophone, and Airto Moreira on drums.

“Our music has a simple, clear purpose: to communicate happiness and truth to people and to create and share some beauty with people,” Mr. Corea told the Globe that September. “Our trip is a group trip, to take the people into a safe and beautiful place, instead of a place of conflict and chaos.”

Over the years, through the 1970s and on through reunions that included a 2011 tour, Return to Forever changed sizes and personnel, at different times including in its ranks musicians such as guitarist Al Di Meola, violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, percussionist Steve Gadd, and guitarist Earl Klugh.


Mr. Corea also formed the Chick Corea Elektric Band and Chick Corea’s Akoustic Band, and he performed and recorded in duet projects over the years with vibraphonist Gary Burton, jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, classical pianist Friedrich Gulda, and banjo player Bela Fleck.

Reviewing a 1980 solo performance, Globe critic Ernie Santosuosso wrote that Mr. Corea’s “frenetic flamenco style of keyboard playing encircles the listener almost hypnotically.”

Of a trio performance at the Regattabar in 2000, Globe critic Bob Blumenthal wrote that Mr. Corea’s “recurring vamp careened as if shot through a cyclotron. The piano solo came at the rhythm head-on.”

Born in Chelsea on June 12, 1941, Armando Anthony Corea was the son of Armando J. and Anna Corea. His father had played trumpet in a band.

“Hanging around with my dad and his orchestra, I had privately made a pretty clear decision, at 5 or 6 years old, that this is what I wanted to do — make music,” Mr. Corea recalled in the 1996 Globe interview.

He also played trumpet well enough to join a local drum and bugle corps as a youth, and had played drums in the 1960s when he “couldn’t find gigs with decent, in-tune pianos.” But “piano has always been my main ax,” he said in 2018.


“When I was about 8 or 9 years old, either my mother or my uncle got me a gig at a barroom on the corner of Broadway and Everett Avenue in Chelsea,” Mr. Corea said. “They had an upright piano, and my mother would bring me there to play. She’d sit by the piano to protect me, I played for about an hour at night, and I’d get a tip or two. That was pretty cool. When I was in high school, there was a barroom a couple of blocks from where we lived after we moved to Everett. I had a funky little trio in there. There was a drummer and an accordion player, and I played trumpet because they had no piano.”

As a performer, he drew inspiration from pianists such as classical musician Glenn Gould, whom he called his favorite influence. “All my contemporaries have been influential: McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, and, prior to that, Bill Evans. For the spirit of probing and freedom in jazz, Bud [Powell] and [Thelonious] Monk continue to be touchstones. Also Duke Ellington, not only as a pianist but as a complete music maker. One more has to be included almost at the top — he’s in a class by himself — and that’s Art Tatum.”

Mr. Corea studied music briefly in New York City at Columbia University and the Juilliard School before turning to professional playing full time.

Along with his 23 Grammys (and 67 nominations), Mr. Corea was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2006. In 1997, he delivered the commencement address when the Berklee College of Music awarded him an honorary degree.


According to the Associated Press, Mr. Corea, who lived in Clearwater, Fla., and was a member of the Church of Scientology, leaves his wife, singer Gayle Moran, and a son, Thaddeus.

A complete list of survivors and plans for a memorial service were not immediately available.

Mr. Corea influenced generations of musicians with his cross-cultural, genre-blending approach to performance and composition, and with his unforgettable improvising.

“When you compose or improvise, you’re making something up, creating something out of nothing, getting an idea and then rendering it — boom! — like that,” he said in 1996. “If you just continue that in a stream, in a flow, it turns into an improvisation. Like when a stand-up comic grabs onto an idea and he’s off, and it’s kind of rolling off him, that’s improvisation.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.