Friday, February 12, 2021

Raise High the Roof Beams

Raise high the roof beams, carpenters— a giant has passed from our midst. On February 9, the titan of jazz piano, Chick Corea, left this mortal earth. I’d like to imagine a splendid welcome party in the other world with the recently departed fellow pianists Ellis Marsalis, McCoy Tyner and then the pantheon of immortals who Chick had played with or been influenced by— Wallace Roney, Stan Getz, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and others. 

 

Meanwhile, we mortals are left bereft of one of the shining stars in the jazz galaxy. With dazzling fingers, big ears, a prodigious imagination, a relentless curiosity, a dedicated discipline, a hunger for the diverse cuisines of the musical banquet, Chick was a musician worthy of adoration, a model of qualities, musical and otherwise, worthy of our aspiration. 


The sheer range of his musical explorations is staggering— from the electric bands of Miles Davis and his own jazz-rock group Return to Forever, to modal jazz, to free jazz, to composed Children’s Songs, to world music fusion, to Mozart concertos with improvised cadenzas, Scarlatti set for jazz band, original string quartet compositions, Bartok piano pieces and beyond. 

 

And all the many roles he took—composer, bandleader, ensemble player. His duet collaborations are legendary— with vibraphonist Gary Burton, fellow titan pianist Herbie Hancock and more recently, Hiromi, with banjo player Bela Fleck, with singer Bobbie McFerrin. Each showing his ability to musically converse with a wide range of musicians in a wide range of styles. 

 

I had the good fortune to see him in concert at six or seven times, each one memorable. I appreciated his warm rapport with the audience, his playful spirit, his stunning virtuosity never played to show off, but always in service of the music. Perhaps the most memorable was the last one a few years ago when he played solo piano at the SF Jazz Center. At one point, he stopped and told the audience that he was lonely playing by himself and did anyone want to come on stage and play a free improvisation with him. To my surprise, without time to consider, I jumped up and was ready to sit down at the piano bench with him. But there was a problem— I had bought one of the cheaper seats high in the balcony and before I could even step away from my seat, someone much closer ran up to the stage. She did a lovely job and when she left, he said, “Usually I would invite someone else…” at which point I was ready to yell down, “Wait for me!!” But he finished the sentence with “but tonight Aaron Goldberg ( a young professional pianist) is in the audience. Aaron, come on up!” 

 

So that’s my famous fish story of the one that got away. With the moral: “Always buy the most expensive seats.” How I wish I could say in this moment that I had the extraordinary honor of playing with Chick Corea. But it was not to be.

 

I was stunned when a friend shared the news of Chick’s passing with me via e-mail. (And angry that my Online News did not have this as a headline! Why do I have to read about scum like Marjorie Taylor Greene instead of the culture taking a moment to proudly hail one of our fallen heroes? Aargh!) The world feels a little bit less than it did, that palpable sense of loss felt by those left behind. At 79 years old, it still feels too young for this vibrant still-performing musician to leave us. But on the other side of the coin, what a full, rich, vibrant and true-to-himself life he lived, bringing so much joy to others and himself enjoying playing so many kinds of music with so many different people. 

 

R.I.P. Chick Corea— you are loved and forever remembered.

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