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'So kind': Legend Chick Corea touched the lives of many, including this UNCG professor
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'So kind': Legend Chick Corea touched the lives of many, including this UNCG professor

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NEW YORK — Chick Corea, a towering jazz pianist with a staggering 23 Grammy Awards who pushed the boundaries of the genre and worked alongside Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, has died. He was 79.

Corea died Tuesday of a rare form of cancer.

On his Facebook page, Corea left a message to his fans: “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.”

A prolific artist with dozens of albums, Corea in 1968 replaced Herbie Hancock in Miles Davis’ group, playing on the landmark albums “In a Silent Way” and “Bitches Brew.”

He formed his own avant-garde group, Circle, and then founded Return to Forever. He worked on many other projects, including duos with Hancock and vibraphonist Gary Burton. He recorded and performed classical music, standards, solo originals, Latin jazz and tributes to great jazz pianists.

John Salmon, a UNCG piano professor, crossed paths with Corea in May 2013. They both performed piano solos at a memorial tribute for legendary jazz pianist Dave Brubeck in New York.

Brubeck was Salmon's longtime idol, friend and collaborator.

Salmon said he remembers Corea playing a poetic rendition of Brubeck's jazz ballad, "Strange Meadowlark."

Salmon and Corea chatted after the program, and corresponded sporadically via email in ensuing years. Salmon even saved a letter from Corea from December 2016.

"He was such a gracious person," Salmon said of Corea. "So kind, so generous, so interested in other artists' work. A great pianist who undoubtedly shaped the direction of jazz but also a great human being (like Dave Brubeck) who always sent out good vibes and encouragement. He will be missed."

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Corea was named a National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Master in 2006. He was a member of the Church of Scientology and lived in Clearwater, Fla. He regularly won the title of Jazz Artist of the Year from Downbeat Magazine.

In addition to his Grammy wins, Corea also had four Latin Grammy wins. In a tweet, the Latin Recording Academy called him “a virtuosic pianist and one of the most prominent Latin jazz musicians of all times.” The Blue Note jazz club in New York City simply called him “irreplaceable.”

Drummer Sheila E. took to Twitter to mourn. “This man changed my life thru his music and we were able to play together many times. I was very fortunate to call him my family,” she wrote.

Last year, Corea released the double album “Plays,” which captured him performing at various concerts armed simply with his piano.

“Like a runner loves to run because it just feels good, I like to play the piano just because it feels good,” he told The Associated Press at the time. “I can just switch gears and go to another direction or go to another song or whatever I want to do. So it’s a constant experiment.”

The double album was a peek into Corea’s musical heart, containing songs he wrote about the innocence of children decades ago as well as tunes by Mozart, Thelonious Monk and Stevie Wonder, among others.

Corea is the artist with the most jazz Grammys in the show’s 63-year history, and he has a chance to posthumously win at the March 14 show, where he’s nominated for best improvised jazz solo for “All Blues” and best jazz instrumental album for “Trilogy 2.”

Corea was born in Massachusetts and began piano lessons at 4. But he bristled at formal education and dropped out of both Columbia University and the Juilliard School. He began his career as a sideman.

Corea liked inviting volunteers onto the stage during solo concerts, sitting them down near his piano and creating spontaneous, entirely subjective tone poems about the person. “It starts as a game — to try to capture something I see in music,” he told the AP. “While I play, I look at them a couple of times like a painter would. I try to see if, while I’m playing, are they agreeing with what I’m playing? Do they think that this is really a portrait of them? And usually they do.”

Late last year, Corea was working on two commissions: a trombone concerto for the New York Philharmonic and a percussion concerto for the Philadelphia Orchestra. “I get interested in something and then I follow that interest. And that’s how my music comes out,” he said then. “I’ve always followed my interest. It’s been my successful way of living.”

Corea is survived by his wife, Gayle Moran, and a son, Thaddeus.

Béla Fleck, a virtuoso on the banjo, who recorded and toured with Corea, called him “my hero, mentor and friend. The world has lost one of the great ones. I’m so honored to have known him.”

Staff writer Dawn DeCwikiel-Kane contributed to this story.

This article originally ran on celebretainment.com.

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