Chick Corea Improvises an Interview

Aaron Doerr, St. Louis Public Radio, KWMU

Aug 7, 2011

Jazz pianist and composer Chick Corea replaced Herbie Hancock in Miles Davis’ band in the late 1960’s  and blossomed as a composer, band leader and improviser through decades of genre-bending traditions, especially those electric jazz-rock fusion years that lead him to form, among other groups, Return To Forever, the fourth edition of which is about to embark on an extensive U.S. tour amidst their 2011 World Tour featuring Frank Gamble on guitar, Jean Luc-Ponty on the violin and Lenny White and Stanley Clarke on drums and bass respectfully.

I spoke with Chick over the phone from St. Louis,  asking him about learning music, the role of one’s environment, and jazz and the complexity of reaching a wide range of

people with a genre so rooted in musicianship and technical skills.

Aaron Doerr: Hello Chick? This is Aaron from KWMU radio in St. Louis… I know you’re real busy – 1st stop on your U.S./World Tour… You have 41 dates starting tonight in Pittsburg.  How have you been doing and happy belated birthday!  You just turned 70 this past June;  Do world tours age you quicker or keep you young?

Chick Corea: Oh yeah no… I definitely love to play and travel so travel’s part of the deal, you know… and you get used to it.  You get used to the actual physical traveling – you get all those little things together that you have to have together for hotels, and planes and busses an all that, but um… definitely playing the music keeps me fresh.

You have one date in Boston MA.  Is that near Chelsea, your hometown, and do you think of Chelsea as your hometown or would you associate growing up more with a place like New York, where your career as a jazz musician really started?

Well I have… they’re like ‘Phases’ you know?  Definitely my home – my birthplace – is Chelsea and that’s where all my high school friends are and… I still keep a connection with them so you know, that’s a really nice warm connection.   My musical birthplace is more New York than anywhere else although, you know, I had a lot of great experience musically in Boston.  But uh, New York is more what I consider my musical home.

You’re sharing your dates in the U.S. with Dweezel Zappa, son of the great Frank Zappa, who’s music may be the perfect blend of jazz, rock and pop.    So, it must be fun playing with another band whose music is so adventurous and exhilarating to listen to.  I’m sure you’re exited to share that energy.  Can we expect a surprise sit-in on “Peaches en Regalia?”  Did you ever learn that song?  I think it’s in the Real Book – the published and legal version of the Real Book, which is the sort of bible of jazz music and standards as far as songbooks go. 

…What song are you talking about?

Well, “Peaches en Regalia”  I know is in the newest edition of the Real Book.

 

 Oh yeah, you know I’m actually not that familiar with the Zappa repertoire although I’m a big fan of Frank’s music, and I’m just getting to know Dweezel so it’s all an experiment right now but it should be great.

I have a feeling a lot of my questions might be answered in your book, which is from 2001 and titled, A Work In Progress (2001), so I apologize in advance, but I haven’t been able to get a copy of it.  Is it out of print and only available on your website?

 

Yeah it was never published by a, you know, publishing company but we print copies of it from home.  You can call my office and get a copy.

It’s advertised as a look into your performing and practicing mind, which I would think would be a universally valuable resource for musicians.  Did you always want to get your thought process down on paper?  Is it written for musicians?

 It’s definitely written for musicians or anyone interested in music, but my concept for the book is sort of… the fact that… you know everyone has to find their own way artistically it’s… it’s not a mystery how art works – everyone innately knows that so… I don’t…  I don’t believe that setting down a whole lot of rules about how to do this and how to do that is the way to go, although if you’re interested in that there’s  lots of books written about you know how to play the piano how to play the violin how to compose how to do this and how to do that.  My book is more or less… giving answers to questions about how I do things.  Like, ‘This is what I’ve discovered,’  ‘This is the way I study,’  ‘This is the what I’ve found to be useful,’  ‘This is what I think about… what I don’t think about’ and then another person can have a look at that and take from that what might be useful for them and leave the rest.

You studied music education at Juilliard for six months before your career as a musician got underway.  Is that right? 

Yeah, I attended Julliard for a short period of time.  It was more an excuse to be in New York with my – where all my jazz heroes were, as I was, you know, a young man out of high school and my first time away from home and so forth so going to school was the acceptable way of being away from home but, it quickly turned out that really really what I wanted to do was work with the musicians, meet musicians and play and work it out you know?

 

Going in, did Music Education seem somewhere where you could advance and maybe shed some light to new musicians?  Was that an interest?  Did you wanna be a teacher?

 

No.. because… Because I really don’t think in art… actually in anything that… You know, teachers are… Teachers are not needed.  Inspirations are needed and data is needed and encouragement is needed but um… That kind of attitude where one person claims to know what another person doesn’t know – I never enjoyed that relationship!  So … I’ve found – in my example – that… Music and Art and the act of creation – Creativity – it’s innate in everyone, and it’s just… the real help I think is the way to encourage that or illicit it or draw it out of another or help another person find his own way – that kind of thing  – rather than just give a person streams of data.  Cause you can go to libraries and read all the books you want.

But surely some people are more talented than others.

Yeah it’s a philosophical and spiritual question isn’t it? LOL 🙂

Yeah I love that… 🙂 Can I share a story with you?  I think one of the best explanations of practice and learning came from a clinic Victor Wooten, the great bassist for Bela Fleck’s band, did when I asked him, after he played a pretty furious bass guitar solo, what percent of those notes he played on purpose.   Before I continue, care to take a guess at what percent he said? 

 Well it depends on… a whole lot of philosophical questions – What’d he say “none?”

Well he did answer, but first he asked me a question.  He asked how many words did I really think about using prior to asking that question.  ‘Not many really,’ I said, ‘I just said them.’  And he said he thought about maybe 50% of them “on purpose,” and went on to explain music development in terms of language development:  He basically said we learn by Immersion and that, as babies learning to talk, we do what every musician should do – jam sessions.  Not only were we exposed to perfect masters of the craft from Day One, but we were encouraged out of our own need, instinct and curiosity.  No one forced us to “practice” but we were corrected if our communications were unsuccessful, and rewarded with a response and outcome when they were successful.  Is that how you think about music education, and how natural it can be given the right environment?  Cause you HAD the perfect environment.

 

Well that was a long, deep statement from Victor and I admire Victor greatly not only for his musicianship but for his grasp of that… which is the naturalness of understanding of  people have.  I agree with that part of it.  I agree that – and that’s like what I said before – what I try to do with others… in any kind of help-effort is just to encourage them.

Right, and to cultivate an environment where someone needs to know something or wants to know something.  And maybe that’s where a teacher belongs and that there is a chance for Music Education  in that since.

 

I like the term “apprenticeship.”  I believe that that’s really… the concept of apprenticeship is really where the learning process happens, cause… you come into an environment and… you hone in and… get interested in a particular skill.  I mean there are millions of skills you could focus in and get really good at but… there’s probably not enough time in one lifespan to do them all.  So you focus in on something like you know, the piano or chemistry – I don’t know something but… You focus in on it and then you find someone … someone of those people that do the thing you’re trying to do very well – the masters at it – and you go seek ‘em out.  You listen to ‘em and observe ‘em and hopefully work with them and that’s apprenticeship and that’s the way learning happens.  It kinda puts you in the environment like you were talking about and… there you go! That’s the way it works.  And that’s actually the good part about schools because it brings people of similar interest together in the same environment and they can share ideas and so forth – that’s the positive end of schools.

It’s like a jam-session for learners 😉

Yeah!

You know, I’m really curious in the humanity behind the musical mastery we know and love of Chick Corea today.  I’ve always wondered for someone like you: Is there anything hard about what you do onstage?  Do you ever “mess up” LOL 🙂   You know what I mean?  And I know we probably not talking about wrong notes here… or are we?

Well I mean, I mean that’s the way you learn.  You learn by challenge.  You set the bar for yourself. That’s the way I see it… Every person – it’s kind of a private thing – you have to… challenge yourself to do better all the time and then when you… put that kinda stress on yourself there’s always bound to be goof-ups.   Because if you’re doing something totally comfortably all the time then you get really comfortable about it and then you get more comfortable about it and then all of the sudden the adventure’s  gone, see?  So…  I guess each person can set the dial on how he sets his life to the amount of adventure they like – and that would be equal to the amount of mistakes they’re making.

And as far as playing the piano do you have an example of risk-taking nowadays –  have you ever wondered ‘Well this seems like a good idea. I’d like to try it,’ regardless of whether it works or not?  I’m wondering what kind of risks we might be talking about.

 

You know, we’d have to sit down with the video or the audio of one performance and listen through to it and I could go ‘See there I was comfortable,’ and ‘There I’m taking risks,’ and ‘There I’m really out of my mind,’ and ‘There nobody understood me,’ and ‘There everyone understands me,’ you know what I mean?  It’s every night is a new set of challenges.

I think that answers my question of what it means to be successful when you’re onstage – you’ve talked about… you know… breaking through to somebody or real communication and involving the audience and the charismatic playfulness that your music has –  it must be important to attract as wide and as far-reaching an audience as possible… Is it hard to share that with the enormous amount of musicianship and technical expertise to people who may not pick up on it?

I have always found that… once the audience arrives at the club or the venue or wherever we’re playing, you know… Somehow they got there.  And through whatever marketing or interest… once they arrive they’re… I have found  98% are pretty open to whatever gets given to them and I think probably  myself and the musicians that I associate with have established enough of a precedent that the audience knows they’re gonna get improvisation, and they’re gonna get… things that are happening at the moment onstage and I think that’s one of the things they come for.  As a matter of fact, I’ve noticed… a couple of times we’ve tried this… uh… I’ll give you one example –  a cute example:

            We did uh, we recorded a video in Montreux  recently – we played the Montreux Jazz Festival and they had cameras and so we did… we did two sets and we recorded,  and then the show was over – we did an encore and the show was over, but there were a couple of tunes that there were enough… uh.. problems with that we wanted to redo – redo those pieces.

            So we went out onstage after the second set and I said to the audience  ‘Look thanks for coming’ and, you know ‘It was a pleasure playing for you but, we.. we wanna redo a couple of things cause we just were making a video and… you’re welcome to stay if you want but we’re gonna kind of go into editing mode here’ you know?…  So we took a ten minute break, came back out again – everyone stayed – and we just like went over sections of pieces as if we were in the studio and the audience loved it!  They liked that more than they liked the show!

            We were making mistakes and we were stopping and we were talking to one another and we were like, rehearsing and I noticed that the audience felt like really like they were … they felt let in on something really…you know,  private and something great.

Wow what an awesome perspective…

Yeah, you know, I’ve tried that a couple of other times if I’m recording live and… I figure… we travel long distances to play for audiences and after you go that far just to be onstage for an hour or an hour and a half, it’s… unfulfilling to me sometimes – I need longer.   Remember in the seventies I used to play sometimes three, four-hour concerts…  Somehow it doesn’t work so much these days.  So that third set is an opportunity to stretch out when the venue allows it.

 

So you’re never worried about… I mean, of course the goal is to communicate with the audience and to fulfill the musicianship in your mind and what you’re able to do.  Do you ever feel like you’re risking ‘talking over their heads’ so to speak?

Naw, never.  Never – it never enters my mind and as a matter of fact, like I said,  my observations lead me to believe that the audience loves to be given the whole thing, and… there’s nothing that they can’t, understand.   And the trick of that is – it’s not a trick but the answer to that is… it’s just… allowing each other in our world of freedom to be.  You know?  Nobody’s the same.  The audience is thousands of people out there but each one’s an individual.. . He’s got his own taste, his own background, his own language sometimes,  and uh… his own freedom to even be changing his mind during the concert so… to try to second guess what someone is gonna like or understand or not understand is fruitless.  The only thing I can do is… demonstrate my joy of living and creation for people and hope they get pleasure out of it.  And… I don’t need to analyze it any further.

You wouldn’t say that your playing would be more free or fulfilling within an audience as similarly rooted in the jazz tradition as yourself?

 

No… not necessarily.   It’s just… too… Using categories like that is just too “filmy” and non-real cause there’s too much crossover of experience so categories…  naming categories never helped me get to any truth.

 

Are you glad the days of defending and uh, the exhausting struggle to define electric jazz and fusion are over?

 I never I was never part of that LOL 🙂 – I was never part of the argument –

Well I’ve read a LOT of interviews –

 

–  I always watched it from a distance and kinda chuckled to myself and let people go at it for one another and I saw it to be a fruitless conversation.

Yes.  Can you explain… People talk about you know, expertise and musicianship and risk – like we said – risk talking over people’s heads or getting too involved, yet there are certain staples like Beethoven, Ravel, Duke, Armstrong, who seem just, universally appealing and far reaching…

Staples like – mention what you said again, like – staples like who?

Beethoven or Shakespeare or Louis Armstrong or “Stairway To Heaven” you know?  There are just certain universally appealing things out there and I wonder what goes into making something so universally recognizable and appealing?

It’s just the amount of agreement.

 

What do you mean?

Well, the amount of agreement is… you know… the degree of agreement amongst the people who are looking at it makes something more real – more and more real. So, many people like Louis Armstrong and remember him, so more people and then another decade goes by and then more people – it’s the amount of agreement.  That’s what makes popularity –  it’s built into the definition of the word by… coming from the word “populous” it’s like public – the amount of agreement is what causes that.  It’s got nothing to do with Truth;  it’s got everything to do with agreement.

Agreement, perspective, things that you can’t measure or practice to fulfill.   It’s all about the perspective and bringing that audience in based on how much they’re open to it and… like you said, agree to it.

Yeah I guess. I’m not sure what you’re getting at at this point….

Well it seems like, for example, pop music, or soundtracks to Wizard Of Oz, or… it doesn’t take any effort for an audience to right away latch on to something like that.  Or like, to look at a Dali painting – they know exactly what it is and they have an immediate reaction to it.

Oh I see.  You know what?  I know what’s happening in our, in our little discussion at this point is see… I judge, I judge… I like to judge things by the viewpoints of individuals – not groups.  A group’s viewpoint is like… is like a poll.  It’s like agreement again.  It’s like how many people agree on what – which agreement could change tomorrow see?  Cause people have the freedom to change their minds.  You could do a survey of a hundred people and ask them a hundred  questions on Monday, get certain answers, and then survey them again on Tuesday, and get different answers… What I’m driving at is I don’t think truth can be found in studying groups so much as it can be found studying the creative potentials of an individual and what he does.  That’s what I’m interested in.  And so I grant that to my  “audience” quote-unquote which is…  They’re a bunch of individuals constantly changing.  So I don’t try – like I said, again – I don’t try to second guess them.  I accept them on face value.  They’ve  come to the show – there they are – and here I am – and here we go!  LOL 🙂

 

And it works, it works every time.   … maybe these answers would change the next time they’re asked. But…

Are you a dog person or cat person?

Uh… I like ‘em both. I… I like animals.

Chocolate or vanilla ice-cream?

Oh, I’d put ‘em both together in the same place.

Country vacation vs. city vacation? 

I hate vacations.

You don’t idle well do you?

 No.  I don’t like… I don’t like the concept of taking “time off.”  I think TIME ON is what I’m looking for.

Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland? 

Oh I like em both I love all fantasy.

 

 Do you have any guilty pleasures music wise, like that people might – I don’t know… “fluff music” that you listen to that… I don’t know how to ask it…

 

Yeah I get. I get it – my personal taste… my purely personal taste in music would probably turn up most of the planet.  LOL

That doesn’t surprise me.  Chick Corea thank you so much and enjoy your first U.S. date tonight and I hope your sound check goes well.

 

Thanks Aaron, nice talking to you man. 


Author: aarondoerr

Owner of Fellow Musician LLC, a small music education business specializing in outreach and private study. I'm guitarist for musical theatre and production assistant at St. Louis Public Radio.

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