Chick Corea, iconic jazz keyboardist, dead at 79

Jazz keyboardist Chick Corea has died at the age of 79.

“It is with great sadness we announce that on February 9th, Chick Corea passed away at the age of 79, from a rare form of cancer which was only discovered very recently,” an announcement on Corea’s Facebook page, posted Thursday afternoon, read.

Corea “was a beloved husband, father and grandfather, and a great mentor and friend to so many,” the message continued, in part.

“Though he would be the first to say that his music said more than words ever could, he nevertheless had this message for all those he knew and loved, and for all those who loved him: ‘I want to thank all of those along my journey who have helped keep the music fires burning bright. 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.’

“And to my amazing musician friends who have been like family to me as long as I’ve known you: It has been a blessing and an honor learning from and playing with all of you.”

Corea was often seen — along with Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett — as one of the most important pianists in jazz to emerge after the 1960s. Born June 12, 1941, the Massachusetts native started playing piano at the age of four, spurred by his father, a local jazz trumpeter. He moved to New York City after high school and briefly studied at both Columbia and Juilliard before dropping out. By the early ’60s, Corea had played with significant names in jazz and Latin-adjacent music like Mongo Santamaria, Herbie Mann and Stan Getz.

Corea released more “conventional” jazz records at the beginning of his career, such as the 1968 trio set “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs.” He would reunite with the personnel of that record — which was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999 — over the years, including for a 1982 performance at the White House. But an early and key part of his career was his time in Miles Davis’ groundbreaking electric group, playing on a run of late ’60s albums — “Bitches Brew” and “In a Silent Way” — that have passed into jazz legend.

Corea’s unique approach to the electric piano can be heard in Davis’ set at the 1968 Isle of Wight Festival, which, with attendance conservatively estimated at 600,000, was by far the largest audience Davis — or indeed, any jazz musician — ever played to. Eventually, Corea left Davis’ band and formed a short-lived free jazz “supergroup,” Circle, with Davis’ bassist Dave Holland and avant-garde saxophonist Anthony Braxton.

Corea launched his electric group Return to Forever with an album of the same name in 1972, now seen as a watershed recording for jazz fusion, which was set to become the most commercially popular permutation of jazz for the 1970s.

But no one setting defined Corea’s career: He often performed as in duos with collaborators as far-ranging as banjoist Béla Fleck, though fellow Davis bandmate Hancock was one of his most frequent partners. And he composed a piano concerto based on one of his most-loved jazz compositions, “Spain,” performing it in 1999 with the London Philharmonic.

Corea continued to tour and record with various groups as he passed from young lion to elder statesman. He maintained and rotated through both “Elektric” and “Akoustic” bands that were often in high demand, both anchored by Brooklyn native John Patitucci on bass.

Corea was, funnily enough, briefly at the center of a minor diplomatic kerfuffle between the United States and Germany in 1993. Having read “Dianetics” by L. Ron Hubbard in 1968 and fallen under the thrall of Scientology, Corea was never shy about his interest in the controversial Church. Organizers of a concert he was slated to perform in Baden-Württemberg decided to bar him from performing based on his involvement with Scientology, leading multiple members of Congress, including Senator Dianne Feinstein, to send formal letters condemning the action to the German Ambassador over the flap. (He would perform in Germany many more times following the incident.)

Following news of Corea’s death, some of the brightest names in contemporary jazz, like Thundercat and Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label, rushed to add their voices to those memorializing Corea. One surprising tribute came from comedian Eric Andre — himself a Berklee-trained bassist — who posted a clip of Corea playing live with Miles Davis in 1969.

Corea — who picked up a staggering 23 Grammys from nearly 70 nominations —authored a book, “A Work in Progress … On Being a Musician,” that he published in 2002. In its introduction, he wrote, “Being a musician is what I’ve been at the longest and is the ‘hat’ I’ve loved like no other.”