As with all deaths of people one has known personally, the passing of Chick Corea came as a shock (”Chick Corea, at 79; eclectic jazz pianist earned 23 Grammys,” Feb. 12). We were teenage friends and budding musicians, jamming on Saturday nights in his basement and gigging in class D barrooms on Broadway in Chelsea. I played the drums.
The first time I visited his basement, he was playing trumpet. Puzzled, I asked if the trumpet was his instrument. Surprised, he replied, “No, how did you know?” “I can hear it,” was my answer; the smooth transitions were missing and the tone was wrong, the improvisation cumbersome. He told me his main instrument was piano. So I asked him to play something for me. What I heard was stunning — the touch, the invention, the effortless fluidity.
We occasionally visited Storyville, Boston’s famed jazz spot, on Sunday afternoons (when underage aficionados were allowed in), where we first heard Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry’s new sound and a young Boston drumming sensation, Tony Williams, who was sitting in — at age 14 — with whoever was in town. Chick later recorded with Tony on the Miles Davis album “In a Silent Way.”
Prior to leaving for New York in the late 1950s, Chick was still picking up a trumpet when he played around town. A few years later, he made a return trip to Boston (with trumpeter Blue Mitchell). I made a beeline to hear the group at Connolly’s, where I marveled at Chick’s assured playing — this time on piano, where he naturally belonged.
At the break, he came over excitedly and asked the only question meaningful to musicians: “How does it sound?”