Pianist Chick Corea has had about 20 different jazz careers. Which is why New York's Blue Note is turning over the club to Chick and his music for nearly the entire month of November. The unprecedented move not only comes in celebration of Chick's 70th birthday but also his 50 years of playing and influencing jazz and its direction. Starting tonight, Chick will lead 10 different bands over 27 days, featuring 30 different musicians and covering virtually all facets of his music. (For more information, go here and here.) [Photo at top by Martin Philbey]
Chick began recording in 1962 in the boogaloo bands of Willie Bobo and Mongo Santamaria. Then he recorded in the soul-Latin band of Montego Joe in 1964, followed by a hard bop ensemble led by Blue Mitchell in 1965 and Cal Tjader's Latin-swing group of 1966. Chick's first album as a leader was Tones for Joan's Bones in 1966, a breakout hard-bop date with a modal feel. Now He Sings, Now He Sobs followed in 1968 offering a more refined experimental sound. Over the years, there were many sideman dates. Then came Miles Davis' electric bands, Chick's free-form period, and his seminal Return to Forever jazz-fusion bands of the early 1970s.
While Chick has led quite a few other exciting bands and trios since Jimmy Carter was president, it's jazz-rock fusion that I chose to focus on for this interview. I find the period fascinating and transitional, especially since Chick was on the cutting edge of the movement that challenged traditional acoustic jazz and continues to divide jazz fans today.
Here's Part 1 of my multipart conversation with one of jazz-fusion's founding fathers:
Jazzwax: Was one of your earliest paid gigs really with Cab Calloway?
Chick Corea: Well, I made some money playing dances and stuff when I was in high school. But playing a gig with Cab was the first time I worked outside of my father’s circle. My father played trumpet, and I’d go on gigs with him.
JW: How did the gig with Calloway work out?
CC: When I was a junior in high school—I guess I was 15 or 16 years old—I was called to do a gig with Cab's band for a week at Boston’s Mayfair Hotel. That was my first real stepping-out. I was stunned. All of a sudden I had to wear a tuxedo and it was like a big show with lights on the stage. It was kind of scary, you know? He had a dance line of ladies who were only dressed a little bit. They seemed huge to me. They were daunting.
JW: What was Calloway like?
CC: Cab was cool. He was fun. After a little while I got into the swing of it and started really loving being out on my own like that. As for the entertainment value of it all, I was just thrilled to be there. I didn’t notice anything particular in terms of the show’s bigness. One of the interesting sidelights to that gig was that I became aware of an incredible pianist who I listened to every night.
CC: Well, my gig with Cab ran every night for a week. In between shows, I went into the hotel lounge and sat near the piano. The guy playing was Herman Chittison, who played in the style of Art Tatum. He was amazing. I sat there gawking at him for the whole week. [Photo of Herman Chittison by William P. Gottlieb]
JW: Much has been written about Bob Dylan going electric in 1965 and the uproar. Miles Davis did the same thing with jazz and so did you, generating similar hostility. How do you feel about those years looking back?
CC: The sound of jazz began to change during the time I was in Miles’ band. Before joining Miles, I had been pretty much a purist in my tastes. I loved Miles and John Coltrane and all the musicians who surrounded them. But I didn’t look much further into rock or pop. I listened to a little bit of classical music, but that was it for me. When Miles began to experiment, I became aware of rock bands and the energy and the different type of communication they had with audiences during a show.
JW: What did you notice specifically?
CC: I’d see young people at rock concerts standing to listen rather than sitting politely. It was a different vibe and more my generation. It got me interested in communicating that way. People were standing because they were emotionally caught up in what they were hearing. I related to that.
JW: Were volume, lights and stagecraft part of rock's appeal and the audience's mood?
CC: I think so. I find that audiences tend to have to agree about what mood they’re going to be in based on the venue. Like when you go to the Village Vanguard, for example, audiences tend to be real quiet. They drink quiet, they whisper and there’s not a whole lot of loud applause. Just a little, because you don’t want to bother anyone. It’s that kind of vibe. In other clubs, the vibe might be just a little wilder.
JW: The same was true in the late '60s?
CC: Absolutely. If you went to the Palladium or the Fillmore in New York, they were rock venues so audiences there knew that the vibe was different. It was noisier, more explosive and a younger scene.
JW: Was Miles Davis trying to appeal to a younger audience?
CC: He sensed early that something big was shifting in the culture. Miles didn't want to give up his form of jazz expression but he wanted to communicate with that new crowd, to a younger, more emotional audience. So the sound and the rhythm of his music changed. The band I was in with Miles starting in '68 was pretty wild. It was transitional in the fusion movement, and we were doing all kinds of stuff. [Photo of Miles Davis in 1969 by Don Hunstein/Sony Collectibles]
JW: From your perspective, what was electric jazz-fusion?
CC: A lot of different things. That's a mechanical term—electric… jazz… fusion. Fusion was evolving through the years. In my own little keyboard area in the early '70s, I was mixing instruments more and more. I’d mix the acoustic piano with the Fender Rhodes or an electric rig. In 1993, I assembled a contemporary version of my Elektric Band from 1986. We took a long “Paint the World” tour. It was an attempt to take the louder, rockier electric sound but keep a jazzier sound with the Fender Rhodes and so forth. That’s what that band was all about.
JW: When does jazz-fusion arrive exactly?
CC: Oh, the history of it. That’s your job, man [laughs]. It’s tough to say. When I talk to bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Lenny White, they’re about 10 years younger than I am, so they had a different experience. For instance, Stanley was into rhythm and blues and deep into James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone before I became aware of them. So the arrival is tricky to nail down to any single date in time.
JW: Let me rephrase: When did you realize jazz was changing?
CC: When I was in Miles’ band. I became aware that jazz was changing and that this thing called fusion and jazz-rock was emerging. When I recorded on Miles Davis’ Filles de Kilimanjaro in June 1968, I used the electric piano and Ron Carter was on electric bass. So there was a taste of that then. We also used electric piano and electric bass on In a Silent Way in February 1969. But that was just the beginning.
JW: Was Tony Williams a major influence?
CC: Absolutely. When I joined Miles in ‘68, Tony was still in the band and remained there until the spring of ’69. When Tony left along with guitarist John McLaughlin, the first time I saw them after that was with Tony’s Lifetime trio—with John and Larry Young on organ. I saw them perform down at the Vanguard, and they blew me away. That group did a lot to change the sound of jazz.
JW: How so?
CC: It’s the first time the rock sound was fully integrated into jazz. There were no horns, just Tony’s driving drums, John’s rock guitar and Larry’s hot organ. In fact, the first time I saw Lifetime I had to put plugs in my ears. It was the loudest thing I had ever heard, but I loved it. What they were doing was kind of early for jazz-rock fusion. Tony’s Emergency [in May 1969] with Lifetime was ahead of Miles at the time. But even though we didn't record Bitches Brew until three months later, Miles was setting the pace. In the face of all the critics and the jazz purists, he was changing the form of his music by adapting and integrating what he heard and saw.
JazzWax tracks: Chick Corea's Tones for Joan's Bones can be found here. His Now He Sings, Now He Sobs can be found here as a download. Here are more of my favorite pre-fusion Chick Corea albums, as leader and sideman:
- Roar of the Greasepaint—Herbie Mann (1965)
- Total Eclipse—Bobby Hutcherson (1968)
- In a Silent Way—Miles Davis (1969)
- Complete 'Is' Session—Chick Corea (1969)
- To Hear Is to See—Eric Kloss (1969)
- Bitches Brew—Miles Davis (1969)
- Super Nova—Wayne Shorter( 1969)
- Consciousness—Eric Kloss (1970)
- Courage—Joe Farrell (1970)
- Circle: Paris Concert—Chick Corea (1971)
- Outback—Joe Farrell (1971)
JazzWax clip: Here's Chick Corea playing Matrix from Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (1968)...
And here's Chick Corea with Blue Mitchell in 1964 on Chick's Tune...