Category Archives: Obituaries

Dave Smith, 1950–2022

When I heard the news that synthesizer pioneer Dave Smith died on June 1, my mind wandered to the rendition of “In a Silent Way” that appears on Weather Report’s 1979 album 8:30. I heard it played live at the Terrace Theater in Long Beach, California. It was a beautiful performance, with Joe’s exquisite string patch backing Wayne’s soprano saxophone. That string sound came from Joe’s newly acquired Prophet-5 synthesizer, the instrument for which Smith is best know.

Smith’s path to the Prophet-5 began in 1972 when he purchased a Moog Minimoog. Utilizing his skills as an electrical and software engineer, Smith soon starting building accessories to the Minimoog for his personal use, one of which was an electronic music sequencer. Thinking he might be able to sell it to others, he founded a small company in 1974 that operated out of his apartment in Sunnyvale, California. He named it Sequential Circuits—a nod to his first product.

In 1977, Smith followed that up with the Model 700 Programmer, which could store the settings of an ARP 2600 or Minimoog. Joe bought two programmers, one for each of his 2600s. They greatly simplified the setup of his 2600s, allowing him to store 64 patches each, which could later be retrieved by pressing a few buttons, bypassing the laborious process of reconfiguring the sliders on the 2600s’ front panels.

Between the sequencer and the programmer, Smith did well enough to quit his day job and move operations from his apartment to a nearby industrial complex in the heart of Silicon Valley. Meanwhile, the microprocessor revolution had just begun. The first commercially successful personal computer, the MITS Altair 8800, hit the market in January 1975, while the Apple II was released in June 1977.

Smith was well-acquainted with this technology, and he harbored ideas of building a synthesizer around it. But the advantages of doing so were so clear to him that he figured the established synth manufacturers—Moog and ARP—must have already been working on it, so he was inclined to stick with accessory devices. However, when Smith attended his first NAMM show in June 1977, visitor after visitor to his booth suggested that he combine his sequencer and programmer with a synthesizer. On the flight back home, he thought about it some more and had a change of heart.

Smith got together with a musician and clinician named John Bowen, and together they worked out the design for a five-voice polyphonic synthesizer. It would have a sound architecture similar to a Minimoog, but the front panel knobs would control the settings for all of the voices simultaneously. More crucially, digital technology made it straightforward to save all of the synthesizer settings in computer memory, allowing the instrument to have a large bank of programs or patches, each of which could be recalled instantly. At the time, no one else had a synthesizer that could do that. In July 1977, Smith went to work on the project in earnest. His goal was to show his synthesizer to the public six months later.

Smith toiled in secret, but as the winter NAMM show approached, word got around that he had a polyphonic synthesizer. On the first morning of the show, representatives from Moog, Oberheim, and ARP all gathered at Sequential’s booth to have a look, but there was no synthesizer to be found. That’s because the one and only prototype was still in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Smith was working feverishly to get it to the point where it could be demoed.

After pulling an all-nighter, he took the one-hour flight down to Southern California, ambled into Sequential Circuit’s booth at around noon and set up the synth, now named the Prophet-5. “It mostly worked, most of the time,” Smith recalled. “It would crash once in a while and we’d have to restart it. But it was certainly operational enough to blow everybody away.”

Dave Smith at the Sequential Circuits factory in 1978. Photo: Sequential.
The Prophet-5 was a milestone in the evolution of synthesizers. As the first with an embedded microprocessor, its technology leapfrogged the competition. More critically, it gave musicians what they wanted: A polyphonic, fully programmable synthesizer that sounded fantastic. If you were serious about playing keyboards, you had to have one, even if you couldn’t afford the $3,995 price tag. Sequential Circuits came away from the show with orders for 400 units.

Right after Smith got back to the Bay Area, Joe’s keyboard technician, Alan Howarth, heard about “this Prophet-5 thing” from his music store friends back in his hometown of Cleveland, so he put in a call to Sequential’s Sunnyvale office. “Man, I heard you were at the NAMM show and you had something amazing,” Howarth said, asking if he could come up and have a look. “And I went up and visited Dave Smith in his little shop. The Prophet-5 from the NAMM show was sitting on the table. I took one look at it and said, ‘We gotta have it.’”

Inventing the Prophet-5 would have been enough to secure Dave Smith’s place in the pantheon of synthesizer pioneers, but his most far-reaching achievement was spearheading the MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) standard so that instruments from different manufacturers could communicate with each other. It was demonstrated at the January 1983 NAMM show, when keyboards from Roland and Sequential Circuits were connected via a cable and played each other’s sounds. Up to that point, the various synth makers each developed their own schemes for connecting their devices, but no standard existed for general interoperability.

Despite some grumbling from the various manufacturers who were naturally invested in their own technologies, MIDI quickly established itself, and virtually all keyboards released from 1983 on were MIDI-equipped. Soon, personal computers also came with MIDI interfaces, leading to a wave of new software and hardware products that changed the face of music production. In recognition of his efforts, Smith is now known as “the father of MIDI.”

Dave continued to design and implement innovative musical instruments throughout his life, most recently at his company Sequential, which sells a modernized version of the Prophet-5 and Prophet-10 synthesizers. Joe wound up acquiring three Prophet-5s, as well as a successor model, the Prophet-T8, which he continued using right up to his last concert in 2007, 24 years after the instrument was manufactured! (Look for the Prophet-T8 logo at around the 3:32 mark in this video.)

Wayne and Jaco got their own Prophet-5s, too. In fact, Jaco’s second wife Ingrid remembered how Jaco used it to compose his most enduring composition, “Three Views of a Secret.” “He had recently moved into my tiny apartment, and it was the newly acquired Prophet 5 that helped him evolve the tune,” she said.

Not many people can lay claim to changing music. Dave Smith did. Rest in peace.

Banner photo credit: Sequential.

Barry Harris, 1929–2021

Pianist Barry Harris died last week at the age of 91. According to his business partner Howard Rees, Harris’s death was caused by complications of Covid-19.

A “steadfast champion of bebop,” as the obituary in the Detroit Free Press put it, Harris was perhaps the best living exponent of the bebop style of jazz piano, revered by many for his playing and his generous spirit when it came to codifying the bebop language and teaching it to others.

Though he was never affiliated with a major educational institution, Harris was renowned for leading informal sessions in which he taught bebop to other musicians, starting in his home in 1950s Detroit, and later at various venues throughout New York City. Many significant musicians came under his tutelage, but Harris was welcoming to students at all levels. Eventually he taught clinics around the world. Harris maintained informal weekly sessions with students until just before his death. According to Mark Stryker, who wrote Harris’s obituary for NPR, Harris taught his last class, via Zoom, on Nov. 20.

Decades earlier, Joe Zawinul was one of the recipients of Harris’s generosity. When Joe settled in New York City in 1959, the city was full of excellent jazz pianists, none of whom, according to Zawinul, sounded like the other. Joe practiced with many of them, trying to soak up as much knowledge as he could. One style that he wasn’t exposed to in Austria was bebop, and there was no one better to practice bebop with than Barry Harris, who had preceded Joe in Cannonball Adderley’s band. They used to get together at a rehearsal room at Riverside Records, which was Harris’s label.

“Barry and I used to rehearse together a lot at that time,” Joe recalled in 1984. “It was kind of a one-sided relationship in one respect, though. I got a lot from him. Coming to jazz when and where I did, I missed the bebop thing, and that was the style of piano playing I wanted to learn. To my mind, Barry was about the closest there was to the pure bebop style—after Bud Powell, that is. Barry has got that down beautifully; he’s a superb musician. We used to spend all our time at Riverside Records’s studios, rehearsing. As I say, he gave me a great deal, and I will never forget it or be able to replay him for it.”

Around 1965, Harris was involved in an incident that motivated Joe to evolve his own personal style of playing. He related the story to me in a 2003 interview:

I was standing on the corner of 52nd Street and Broadway, which is right where Birdland was. And Barry Harris comes out of a cab, and says, “Joe! I gotta tell you something, man. It’s killing me, man!”

“Yeah, what is that?”

“The tune I just heard on the radio in the cab, it was Cannonball, and I swear to God I thought it was me playing, and then they announced it was you, man. Congratulations!”

I said, “Thank you, Barry.” And I was flattered for a minute. But when I thought about it, I said, well, now… What the hell does that mean, man? He’s already copying Bud Powell, and I’m copying him. What the hell is this? So I went home… I went home, right then and there, and put all my records in cellophane, and they are still in it, stashed away. And I never listen to music. I don’t listen to music, not even to my own. I listen to music now because I have to work on it. The moment it’s done, I don’t even know the name of the tunes. I really don’t.

Joe retained warm feelings for Harris throughout his life. But as the 1970s unfolded, Harris grew disillusioned with the music scene in general, which he expressed in a 1977 Down Beat profile. “Harris doesn’t go out to listen to other musicians very often,” the article stated, “explaining that ‘the music has no class now at all.’ ‘I don’t go to clubs much, ’cause musically I can’t deal too much with most of what’s going on—the commercialism, the avant garde musicians.’”

“I’ve been able to make it here (New York) a little bit, not much,” Harris added. “I make enough to send my family some money sometimes. The last few years I’ve been much luckier than I’ve been in my life, and I’ve still never made any money in my life. I’ve made a lot of records and I’ve never received a royalty check off a record in my life. And yet, everywhere in the world I’ve been, I’ve seen my records. It’s pretty weird . . .”

Like a lot of his contemporaries, Harris felt that the younger generations of jazz musicians had sold out the music. He made those feelings clear when he was part of a 1990 jazz piano roundtable that appeared in Keyboard magazine. “Right now, the word ‘jazz’ is like a garbage dump,” he said. “Everything that they can’t classify, they say—ploop!—‘Jazz.’”

When the other panelists brought up the subject of Weather Report in the context of defining jazz, Harris went off: “What kills me about those kinds of groups is that when someone has a jazz festival, they bring these cats together and call them a jazz group. See, I’m one of those people who believes that you cannot lie twenty-three hours of the day and be real for one hour. You can’t be untruthful to something, and then suddenly be this real person and show me that you can do it.”

The interview session went on:

Richie Beirach: Barry, the thing about Weather Report is that there’s no doubt about their jazz credentials. I loved that group; they did great music. But the emphasis was not on improvisation. It was on color, orchestration, and composition.

Harris: Zawinul and all those cats wrote certain tunes that showed their intent. I mean, if you wrote those tunes under the auspices of them being jazz tunes, then you knew they were leading somewhere funny. Joe Zawinul—oh, man, I hate to talk about that cat. It’s almost like we should be blessed because he brought his music to us from Europe.

Beirach: I saw him playing with Dinah Washington, though.

Harris: I know, but when I used to be over here on 46th Street, and I’d go to the studio and practice all day, Joe Zawinul was the first person to come in and stay with me all day [i.e., learning from Harris]. So when you mention those names, I’m real negative about them. I can’t call them jazz musicians.

Kirk Nurock: What you’re saying is fascinating, because it illustrates that this gray area is very controversial.

Harris: Oh, yeah. What makes me mad is that the musicians who were working, young cats—Herbie Hancock, all these cats—they were the ones who was working! They was working more than me! They were the ones who were really helping jazz! And they are the ones who went over to somewhere else. Now, that I don’t understand. They were making it with the music—they were making it!

Beirach: Well, they were making it in your eyes, but maybe it wasn’t enough for them.

Harris: Money, you mean.

Beirach: Well, money, exposure…

Harris: Money!
. . .
Harris: See, I get funny when you mention things like Weather Report.

Nurock: I noticed.

When the journalist Leonard Feather brought Harris’s comments to Joe’s attention later that year, Zawinul laughed it off. “I like Barry Harris,” he responded. “I have no problem with what people say. He is one of the finest, but he’s a copy of Bud Powell. I have arrived, you see. Last summer the Montmartre in Copenhagen they had a list of coming attractions. They had Betty Carter, and they identified her as a jazz vocalist. They bill some band and described it as a rock group. But with my name they had no description. They just said ‘Zawinul.’ Not jazz, not rock, just me. I am my own category.”

Of course, the beauty of it all is that the world is large enough to accommodate both Zawinul and Harris. The former learned bebop so that he could leave it behind in order to forge his own style, while the latter devoted his life to spreading the bebop gospel so that it continues to be played by new generations of jazz pianists.

Rest in peace, Barry Harris.

Harris photo credit: Mirko Caserta, A Day With Barry Harris, 2007.

Darryl R. Brown, M.D.

Today, November 24, is the fourth anniversary of Darryl Brown’s death. He was 64 years old. In the pantheon of Weather Report drummers, Brown is not well known despite being the band’s full-time drummer from July 1974 to the end of that year. Actually, Brown isn’t well-known as a drummer at all, even though he toured with the likes of Weather Report, Stanley Clarke, Natalie Cole, and Grover Washington, Jr.

If you do a Google search you won’t turn up any articles or interviews about his musical career. The primary reason for this is that Brown left professional music behind in his late twenties to pursue his education, eventually obtaining a medical degree from Drexel University College of Medicine. He subsequently practiced medicine until his death, with music relegated to a hobby.

When I was doing interviews for my book Elegant People: A History of the Band Weather Report, I knew that Darryl was someone I wanted to talk to, but his lack of internet presence and his retirement from music made it difficult to track him down. However, I also knew that he had become a medical doctor and some sleuthing led me to a Darryl R. Brown, M.D., in Casa Grande, Arizona. On a hunch, I called his medical office and sure enough Dr. Brown was also a drummer who once played with Weather Report.

I think I was the first person to explore Brown’s Weather Report days in depth. Darryl was an intelligent, articulate man whose recollections greatly enriched my book. Five years later, I tried to get back in touch with him and found out that he had passed away. Such a gentleman. I was—and am—sad that he is no longer with us. Since little has been published about Darryl’s background and musical career, I want to use this post to fill in some of those details, most of which did not make it into my book.

Darryl was born and raised in Germantown, a neighborhood in Northwest Philadelphia with a rich cultural history. A number of musicians come from Germantown, including Weather Report’s second drummer, Eric Gravatt. Brown was a childhood friend of Stanley Clarke’s and there’s a photo at Clarke’s website of the two as teenagers with saxophonist Byard Lancaster, another Germantown resident who was ten years their senior. Here is what Darryl told me about his childhood and early professional career:

I started playing the drums when I was about seven, and I had a very diverse musical experience. On the one hand, I had a teacher by the name of Harry “Skeets” Marsh who used to play with Count Basie and Duke Ellington. At another time I studied with a guy by the name of Jake Hoffman, who was with the Philadelphia Orchestra. So because of that, I was exposed to a wide variety of music. Of course, in school I played in the band—the concert band, the orchestra, etc.—and in my house my mother played the organ and piano, and also played violin and sang in church.

I grew up in a part of Philadelphia called Germantown, and there were a lot of talented people living in Germantown. My mother and dad met the great organist Jimmy Smith at a car repair place and got to be friends with him. Jimmy Smith used to come over to our house and he would bring his latest recording on a reel-to-reel tape, with Wes Montgomery and Grady Tate. He would get on the organ and he’d sit me down at the drums. He got me started in jazz and basically showed me how to play. And actually, when I was thirteen I was featured in a concert with him out in New Jersey.

Larry Young—you probably remember him from John McLaughlin and Tony Williams—came to the house a few times to jam. And there was a local saxophonist, Byard Lancaster, who had gone to Juilliard and at one point played with McCoy Tyner. He encouraged me to get better and to play and explore all avenues of music.

There was a club in downtown Philadelphia called the Showboat. They had matinees in the afternoon. My mother and father got to know the owner there, and he allowed me to come into the matinees. And there I had an audition with Mongo Santamaría. I once sat in with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. As a matter of fact, he gave me a little cymbal that day, which was really cool. And there was a bagpipe player you may have heard of named Rufus Harley; he played there and let me sit in.

When I was fourteen I formed a band called the Latin Unit. Some of the guys were older than me. One was Arthur Webb, a flute player from West Philadelphia who was known for recording and playing with Ray Barretto. And there was a local percussionist named Peachy German, a bassist you may have heard of named Charles Fambrough, and a young piano player by the name of Stanley Clarke.

A little later—in high school or right after—I joined a band called Andy Aaron and the Mean Machine, and Stanley was the bass player; he had made the transition from piano. We used to do these cabarets, and Grover Washington, Jr. played with us at the cabarets and things like that. In the meantime, my parents were pounding on me to go college, but because I had these fortunate experiences while I was still in high school, they saw my talent and ability, and my burning desire to play music, and I think they kind of understood.

So after I finished high school, I went on the road with some local bands and ended up in Connecticut. And I guess got lucky. Natalie Cole was in Hartford, Connecticut, and she decided coming out of college to pursue music and have a band. So I auditioned for her band and played for her for while I was up there in Connecticut. I was around eighteen, and one day I got a call while I was in Connecticut from Grover saying, “Hey man, I want you, I’d like to hire you for my band.” So I moved back to Philly and played with him for a couple of years. From what Joe Zawinul told me, that’s the first time he heard about this “young and talented drummer.” From there, I came back to Philly and played in some local bands, including Good God, which opened for Weather Report a few times.

Brown joined Weather Report in mid-1974, just weeks after his twenty-first birthday. He got the gig by auditioning at Bob Devere’s house (Devere was the band’s manager at the time), after which Joe told him, “Man, you’ve got some big ears.” You can see him in action playing “Boogie Woogie Waltz” in this clip, which was originally filmed for an episode of the television program Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert that aired on December 14, 1974.

Darryl was Weather Report’s regular drummer for the rest of the year, but Joe and Wayne would often bring in other drummers who would join Brown on the bandstand. At one point, Ishmael Wilburn, who recorded on Mysterious Traveller and toured with the band before Brown, came back for a few gigs. But none of the other drummers stuck, which served to motivate Brown.

“There was one time they brought in another drummer from Philly, Emmanuel Hakim,” Brown told me. “He was a very talented drummer, but he played in small jazz trios and things like that, and we were playing like a hard core rock band. In fact, we even opened one time for ZZ Top; somebody thought we could play for that kind of audience. But the bottom line is, I remember Emmanuel playing and doing what he could, but I don’t think he had ever played that loud and that hard. When he finished he just said, ‘Damn!’ [laughs] And it was nice because he was somebody that I had watched. He was older than me, and he was in the band Mean Machine before me. And of course, that didn’t work out.

“And then they got this guy from Africa, and they sent him over, and for some reason he was under the opinion that he actually had the job. So, same thing, that didn’t work out. He even came over with his family, and they sent him back. So these things were happening, and at one point I didn’t like it so much because it told me they had eyes for somebody else potentially. But at the same time, as these guys were being rejected, I kept saying, ‘Well, I must be doing something right,’ because they’ve got to be comparing them to me. And obviously, if a guy came along that they thought did a better job, then they would probably hire him.”

Given this, it’s surprising that Brown wasn’t retained for the Tale Spinnin’ recording sessions, which took place in January 1975. Evidently Joe and Wayne wanted to try something different, and Brown’s status with the band was left hanging. Although he was never told whether he was in or out, his Weather Report days were over. As a consequence of not recording with the band, Darryl’s stint with Weather Report remained relatively unknown until my book presented it in detail.

So what happened after Weather Report? Darryl tells the story:

There were a couple of things that happened. I played with some local bands, and I played with this one guy, Mike Pedicin, Jr., a great saxophone player who used to play with Maynard Ferguson and had some albums of his own. I did some studio work at Philadelphia International Records, and I also put a band together with some evolving great musicians-to-be, including Kevin Eubanks and Michael Wolff. And then Michael Wolff invited me to come to New York; he was putting a band together with Alex Foster called Answering Service. While I was in New York I got a call from Stanley Clarke for the School Days band. I toured with Stanley and did a record with him called I Wanna Play For You. Some of it was live, some in the studio. One of the nicest experiences I had with Stanley was playing at Madison Square Garden when we opened for Bob Marley. That was just amazing.

Somewhere after the Stanley Clarke tour I started taking some college courses. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do; I just felt that I wanted to further my education. I gravitated to science and was a biology major. That was kind of consistent with my household. My mother was a musician, while my father was a chemist. He initially had dreams of becoming a doctor, so he had pre-med books around the house. When I was little I I just looked at the pictures and diagrams. But as I got older I started reading through them, and I think there was an influence there.

When I was studying sciences in college, I had some professors take an interest in me. They thought it was interesting that I had a music background and they encouraged me to consider medical school. Initially, I wasn’t sure, but there was a saxophonist out of Philadelphia named Al Rutherford who was Chief of Cardiology at the University of Pennsylvania. We used to play at a place called Grendal’s Lair in South Philly. He would come down and talk to me about my college courses, and he suggested that I think about medicine.

So as time went on I got more interested in it and I took the medical entrance exams. I did well and I started getting interviewed for medical school. Since there was a time lapse from high school to college, I wondered how that was going to look. I was also thinking about the musician stereotypes and I didn’t know how that would look to medical schools. But Al Rutherford looked at me and said, “Tell them you were playing music. Trust me, they will find it very interesting.” And believe it or not, during my interviews pretty much all they asked about was my experiences with music—who I played with and how I got involved in it. You know, you have to have the grades, but there are a lot of very bright candidates that they’re choosing from. If you have done something unrelated to science—especially if you have accomplished something—that seemed to be something they wanted. So that’s kind of how it went.

I think when I went back to college my parents were a little surprised. And then when I went to medical school, my dad didn’t know what to say. And actually I did play at the medical school, made some money there, which helped me pay for my tuition and all that.

After finishing his residency and passing his board exams, Brown moved to the Phoenix metro area where he practiced internal medicine for over two decades. Although you will find little about Brown’s musical career on the internet, you will find plenty about his character. Just read the comments about him from his friends and patients at legacy.com. He was well-known throughout the community, and many of his former patients posted online testimonials upon his death.

“He was an amazing doctor, musician and person and will be greatly missed,” one commenter posted.

“We had great conversations about the trials of parenting, music, and his generous spirit,” wrote another. “He was a wonderful physician and cared deeply for each and every patient including many of my family members. I loved his laugh and the smile he wore on his face every day.”

“Darryl was not only an amazing musician, he was also one of the finest men I’ve had the pleasure of knowing,” wrote a third. “He was always professional, both as a doctor, and, as I knew him best, as a musician. He carried his joy around with him and shared it with the world. What a smile. I’ll never forget him. If there is a Heaven, Darryl’s drumming with the band… and making them sound better than they are.”

George Wein, 1925–2021

George Wein in 2014. Credit: digboston, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
George Wein, the legendary impresario who virtually invented the concept of the contemporary music festival, died on September 13. He was 95 years old. According to his obituary in the Washington Post, Wein “may have presented more musicians to more people than anyone else in history. He launched the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954, the folk festival in 1959 and later developed the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the Playboy Jazz Festival in Los Angeles, and dozens of others across Europe, Asia and North America.”

Joe and Wayne performed at many Wein productions over the years. Weather Report’s first time at Newport was to be in 1971, but that appearance was canceled in the wake of a riot the previous night. Later that year, Weather Report participated in a concert in Boston to benefit Wein, who suffered significant financial losses because of the festival’s cancelation. When the festival was moved to New York City the following year, Weather Report took part, as it did in 1973.

Wein inaugurated the Playboy Jazz Festival in 1979, where Weather Report was the headliner. When the band returned in 1981, it put on a stellar performance that prompted journalist Leonard Feather to call them “the unquestioned crowd killers of the festival.” Wein booked Weather Report for yet another appearance in 1982. Given their strong showing the previous year, Wein asked Joe if the band could do “something special”—something that could top the previous year’s gig. He suggested a guest musician, which led to Zawinul inviting the Manhattan Transfer to perform “Birdland” with Weather Report—a surprise, unannounced encore that brought down the house.

Aside from appearances at Wein’s festivals, there are a couple of stories that involve Wein and Zawinul that are of interest. It is well-known that Joe came to the United States in 1959 thanks to a partial scholarship to the Berklee School of Music. Less well-known is that Wein almost brought Zawinul to the States in 1958 as part of the International Youth Band, which Wein organized with Marshall Brown for a performance at the Newport Jazz Festival. As Wein describes in his autobiography, Myself Among Others, he and Brown were intent on including musicians from across Europe, but finding one from Switzerland proved difficult.

“We could find no suitable musicians in Switzerland, one of our target countries,” Wein wrote. “Fortunately, we did find a good Swiss pianist by the name of George Gruntz—in Milan. Our problem seemed to have been solved, but another arose when we discovered a more desirable pianist in Austria, a young man by the name of Josef Zawinul. What could we do? There were a number of good musicians in Austria, but only one capable player from Switzerland. And so it was that we chose George Gruntz over Joey Zawinul for the International Youth Band.”

The other story takes place shortly after Joe arrived at the Berklee School of Music in January 1959. Joe was older and quite a bit more experienced than most of the Berklee students, and he found the curriculum to be well-beneath his abilities. However, there was an advantage in being the best piano student in school. Wein owned and operated the Storyville jazz club, located not far from Berklee in Boston. About two weeks into the semester, Ella Fitzgerald was scheduled to appear there. The pianist for the house band was ill that night, so Wein called Berklee for a substitute. Ray Santisi, a legendary piano teacher at the school, sent Joe. He impressed the drummer, Jake Hanna, who called his former employer, trumpet player and bandleader Maynard Ferguson, whose pianist was going into the Army. On Hanna’s recommendation, Joe to auditioned with the Ferguson band the next day. The rest, as they say, is history.

Chick Corea, 1941-2021

In a Facebook post today, Chick Corea’s family announced that he died on Tuesday, February 9. The news came as a shock. His death was due to rare form of cancer which was only discovered very recently. He was 79 years old.

Corea enjoyed one of the most distinguished careers in jazz. As Ted Panken wrote for his Downbeat obituary of Corea:

It’s quite possible that no jazz musician ever conceived, composed and/or performed with more top-notch bands than pianist-keyboardist-composer Armando Anthony “Chick” Corea, who was born on June 12, 1941. An NEA Jazz Master who won 23 Grammy awards, and a treasure trove of Downbeat Readers and Critics poll honors, Corea’s conception of jazz was, as he told Downbeat in 2017, “a spirit of creativity.” He continued: “Great art is made when the artist is free to try whatever techniques he wants, and combine things any way he wants. That makes life interesting and a joy. I try to live that way as best I can. I don’t always succeed. I would like others to acknowledge my freedom to be myself and try new things any time I want to, and I try to treat other people that way.”

Chick Corea was one of the musicians I gravitated to when I was a teenager. Among the first LPs I bought was Return to Forever’s Where Have I Known You Before, which was released in 1974. And one of the first concerts I attended was Return to Forever’s performance at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles for the Romantic Warrior tour. That show left an impression, that’s for sure. This was the classic RTF lineup, with Lenny White, Al Di Meola and Stanley Clarke, at the height of its powers and popularity. I remember walking out of the hall in awe, asking my music teacher, “Do you think they are the best musicians on their instruments?!” My teacher offered me a gentle response. “They are some of the best, yes.”

In 1981 I had the pleasure of sitting right next to Chick when he performed a benefit show at Pasquale’s, a tiny jazz club in Malibu. I could have reached over and touched the piano keys. That was a cool vantage point to watch a master at work. A few years later I saw Chick’s band at Disneyland, where I sat in the front row of a sparsely attended theater. (I wonder if he got annoyed with me taking photos during the show. I wish I could find those slides now!) There were other shows—the duets with Herbie Hancock and the first RTF reunion tour, among others—but the Dorothy Chandler performance stands out as one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen by any band.

Although he was several years younger than Joe and Wayne, Chick came up in much the same musical environment. Around 1968 Chick replaced Herbie Hancock in Miles Davis’s band, joining Wayne on the bandstand. It was a time of experimentation for Davis, leading to the albums In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, which are largely credited with launching the jazz-rock movement of the 1970s. Along with Corea and Wayne, Zawinul was a major contributor to those albums, too, composing “In a Silent Way” and “Pharaoh’s Dance,” the latter of which consumed the entire first side of the Bitches Brew double-LP.

In addition to the piano, Corea was an excellent drummer. At one point early in his career he more or less gave up the piano in favor of the drums because he grew tired of having to play on pianos that were in poor condition. That changed in 1967 when he got the gig with Stan Getz, whose stature afforded high caliber instruments. Chick was one of the musicians Wayne called upon for his 1969 album Super Nova, where Wayne asked him to play drums and marimba. Airto Moreira, who later played on Weather Report’s first album, was also on the Super Nova sessions.

“I got to the studio early and when I walked in there was a guy practicing drums and he was playing some incredible stuff,” Airto remembered. He asked producer Duke Pearson if it was Jack DeJohnette, who was also in the studio. “No, that’s Chick Corea,” Pearson replied. Having just arrived in New York from Brazil, Airto thought if the piano players in New York are this good on drums, imagine what the real drummers must be like! “I said, ’Oh my God, I’m going home!'” Airto recalled. “‘I left the studio and started walking down the street, but Flora [Purim, Airto’s wife] had come with me and she said, ’You have to go back and play.’ So I went back and did the session and it ended up being an incredible session with some beautiful music.”

At around the same time, Corea called upon Weather Report’s third co-founder Miroslav Vitous for his album Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, which is now considered an essential work in the jazz piano trio cannon. Miroslav’s participation came about from living at Walter Booker’s apartment in New York, where Corea came by to jam, along with many others. “I had just met Miroslav,” Corea remembered, “and we were doing some more free kind of stuff together, me and Miroslav.” As a result, Corea called him for the date.

Chick’s band Return to Forever was one of the jazz-rock heavyweights back when jazz-rock was the dominant force in jazz. For a handful of years RTF was right up there with Weather Report in terms of popularity, and the bands shared a handful of gigs in 1973 and 1974. At the earlier shows, Weather Report opened for Return to Forever. Bradie Speller, a percussionist who sat in with the band for a November 1973 gig in Ohio, remembers it being “a disaster.” Return to Forever “knocked the ball out of the park, and then we came on and Butch [Ishmael Wilburn] was playing so strong that he pushed a hole into the kick drum itself. Fortunately, Dom Um [Romão] had a drum set on stage and he jumped off the percussion and onto the drums. It was not the same, so we had trouble.”

By the fall of 1974, Mysterious Traveller had been released and Weather Report didn’t want to take second billing anymore. They abruptly pulled out of a concert in Lewiston, New York (near Buffalo), complaining that newspaper ads failed to give them equal billing to Return to Forever. According to Variety, the audience was told of the no-show just before showtime. Return to Forever played for an extra hour to make up for Weather Report’s absence, while about 100 of the 1200 attendees requested refunds. (A few days later Weather Report was listed first in ads for their joint Cleveland concert.)

In June of last year, Chick posted this photo on his Facebook page. It was taken in June 1984.

Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, Wayne ShorterJoe Zawinul, Chick Corea, and Wayne Shorter, June 1984.

“Joe Zawinul—what a monster!” Chick wrote. “He was a mad scientist with the electric keyboards; he could really make them talk. And Wayne Shorter, my God–two of my heroes. They were co-leaders of Weather Report during the ‘Fusion Era’ in the 70s. Weather Report, Return to Forever and Mahavishnu Orchestra were 3 of the big touring groups at that time. Amazing musicians and great friends.”

Rest in peace, Chick. Thanks for all the great music.