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Chick Corea, jazz legend and longtime Clearwater resident, dies at 79

The 23-time Grammy-winning pianist, brought to Tampa Bay through Scientology, died Feb. 9.
Chick Corea died Feb. 9 at age 79.
Chick Corea died Feb. 9 at age 79.
Published Feb. 11
Updated Feb. 12

Chick Corea, a legendary jazz pianist who played with Miles Davis and won more Grammy awards than most any other performer, has died at age 79.

Corea, a longtime Scientologist who lived in Clearwater for many years, died Feb. 9 “from a very rare form of cancer which was discovered only very recently,” according to a statement on his website.

A Boston-area native, Corea played with innumerable jazz luminaries over the decades, starting with Sarah Vaughan and Stan Getz before replacing Herbie Hancock in Miles Davis’ band, and playing alongside John McLaughlin of the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Related: Twitter reacts to the death of jazz icon Chick Corea

It was around this time that Corea became an innovator in the field of jazz fusion, blending jazz and rock and experimental sounds in myriad ways. He founded the band Return to Forever, a roving band of world-class collaborators whose lineups included legends like Stanley Clarke and Al Di Meola. He’s worked on many other projects, including duos with Hancock and vibraphonist Gary Burton.

Corea was known for performing an array of styles in different formats — electric, acoustic, traditional and avant-garde — and for touring relentlessly for decades. He recorded and performed classical music, standards, solo originals, Latin jazz and tributes to great jazz pianists. Over the years, Corea won 23 Grammy awards, eighth most of all time, just ahead of Stevie Wonder, U2 and Jay-Z. His most recent Grammy came last year; he’s nominated for two more awards this spring.

He was named a National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Master in 2006.

In the ‘70s, Corea developed an interest in the Church of Scientology, and even contributed to musical projects by L. Ron Hubbard. That’s what drew him to the Tampa Bay area.

“We kept coming down, and after a while, I was spending weeks down in Clearwater, renting rooms,” he said in a 2016 interview. “We rented a house for one year as a trial to live down there in Belleair, right on the water. It was a gorgeous place. And that was when we decided, Look, let’s just get a nice place and settle in.”

Related: For Chick Corea, Clearwater is home, creatively and spiritually

Here, he could relax and pop in on shows by touring friends. He played the Clearwater Jazz Holiday and many shows at Ruth Eckerd Hall. He eventually built a studio in downtown Clearwater, from which he would record dozens of albums and broadcast performances and even musical master classes.

Chick Corea performed at the Clearwater Jazz Holiday on Oct. 16, 2014.
Chick Corea performed at the Clearwater Jazz Holiday on Oct. 16, 2014. [ CHRIS URSO | Tampa Bay Times ]

Asked in 2017 how he stayed so busy and creative at his age, he said it was a “spiritual question.”

“When there’s something that I love to do, I create it, and I go ahead,” he said. “I love working with music so much that from my viewpoint, I’ve just scratched the surface. There’s so much to do with music, with art in general, with combinations of different art forms that, my god, I could continue for lifetimes this way.”

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 “Chick, you are missed dearly, your music and brilliant light will live on forever.”

Chick Corea performed with his Electric Band on Oct. 12, 2016 at the Bilheimer Capitol Theatre in Clearwater
Chick Corea performed with his Electric Band on Oct. 12, 2016 at the Bilheimer Capitol Theatre in Clearwater [ JAY CRIDLIN | Tampa Bay Times ]

Last year, Corea released the double album Plays, which captured him at various concerts armed simply with his piano. 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 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 is survived by his wife, Gayle Moran, and a son Thaddeus.

Related: Review: Chick Corea Electric Band delivers a joyful hometown show at Clearwater's Capitol Theatre

In the statement announcing his death, Corea shared a message for all his collaborators and fans.

“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.”

Information from the Associated Press supplemented this report.