For Chick Corea, Clearwater is home, creatively and spiritually

Chick Corea, who lives in Clearwater, has 22 Grammy awards.
Chick Corea, who lives in Clearwater, has 22 Grammy awards.
Published Oct. 5, 2016

Chick Corea has Grammys sprinkled all over Clearwater. He keeps a few at his recording studio on Fort Harrison Avenue, a few more at his mansion farther inland. And he always has to plan for more coming.

"That's always a yearly question that my wife, Gayle, asks about," said Corea, calling from Kiev, some 5,700 miles from all those golden trophies.

Deciding where to store your Grammy awards — 22 in all, tied for sixth most all time — is not a bad problem to have. It's one of the few that the legendary jazz fusion pianist has in Clearwater, the city he has called home since 1997.

A Scientologist for more than 40 years, Corea has been a regular Gulf Coast visitor since the mid-1970s, when the church purchased the old Fort Harrison Hotel — right around the block from Corea's studio and the Capitol Theatre, where he has a concert with his Elektric Band on Wednesday — and established Clearwater as its worldwide spiritual base.

It is from Clearwater that Corea, too, spreads his influence around the globe, whether he's producing jazz and piano workshop videos in his downtown studio, headlining a two-month residency in New York or preparing for a concert in Ukraine.

At 75, with all those Grammys and dozens of albums under his belt, Corea rarely slows down, rarely stops creating, rarely breaks from the road to decompress. But when he does, he finds life in Clearwater is still every bit as fulfilling — personally, spiritually, creatively — as he ever could have wished.

"Once we settled in here, it's got everything I want," he said. "When I come home off the road, my main thing is to create and compose and make new music, and study and enhance myself every way that I can.

"It just works for me at this time in my life."

• • •

Corea's place in jazz history was secure years before he started coming to Clearwater.

From his childhood growing up outside Boston, he was a piano prodigy, learning the trade from his father, a Dixieland trumpeter, and later studying, briefly, at Columbia and Juilliard. During the 1960s he shared stages with Cab Calloway, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz. In 1968, he replaced Herbie Hancock in Miles Davis' band, appearing on landmark albums like Bitches Brew.

It was around this time, as he was coming into his own as a bandleader, that Corea discovered the work of another towering figure: L. Ron Hubbard.

The founder of Scientology "was a great artist himself as a writer," said Corea, who quickly became a fan of Hubbard's science fiction writing and teachings. "He was magnificent."

Corea was among the church's early celebrity practitioners, and when the church established its base in Clearwater in the late '70s, he and his wife, singer Gayle Moran, made regular visits.

"We kept coming down, and after a while, I was spending weeks down in Clearwater, renting rooms," he said. "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."

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Living in Clearwater allows Corea to take Scientology courses at the church's spiritual headquarters: "The idea is just to improve myself, and find out better ways to create and better ways to help myself and others," he said. He has played numerous church events and written two albums, 2004's To the Stars and 2006's The Ultimate Adventure, based on Hubbard's writings. He even collaborated with Hubbard on the founder's own albums, 1982's Space Jazz — a soundtrack to the novel Battlefield Earth — and 1986's The Road to Freedom.

"Unfortunately, I didn't get to meet him," Corea said. "But we had a great letter line together, and I got some very nice arrangement suggestions, when he asked me if I would arrange some of the pieces. I made the arrangement, and sent it to him to see what he thought. It was a collaboration that we did via tape and cassette, that kind of thing. It was wonderful, just absolutely wonderful."

Some of Corea's Scientology-based works were praised by fans outside the church — To the Stars and The Ultimate Adventure both earned Grammy nominations, with the latter winning two.

But while Corea is famed as a musical bridge-builder, he doesn't necessarily see himself filling that role between Scientologists and non-Scientologists.

"I love to see people do well," he said. "I do very well, have done very well my whole lifetime, applying L. Ron Hubbard's principles to myself and my family and my life. So when others find them and they work for them, it's a very good thing. I like to promote good works, and things that help others. But Scientology is like any philosophy — it's something that someone has to find for themselves. They have to see what works for them. That's what L. Ron Hubbard's idea always was, and I think it's what a Scientologist adopts as a basic principle. It has to work for you."

Faith isn't the only thing keeping Corea in Florida. Here, Corea can relax and rewind, go to the movies on a Tuesday or Wednesday, dine out without being recognized. He has played the Clearwater Jazz Holiday and Ruth Eckerd Hall, and popped in on local sets by friends like Diana Krall and Bela Fleck. He even loves the hot, humid weather.

And then there's the beach.

"I've been to beaches all over the world — Cote d'Azur, all these great exotic places, Hawaii and so forth," he said. "And Clearwater Beach is absolutely my favorite."

• • •

Corea's next stretch in Clearwater will begin around Christmas. From the Capitol Theatre, he'll play a few gigs up the East Coast before settling in New York for an eight-week residency at the Blue Note Jazz Club.

It's a retrospective of sorts, with nights dedicated to many of his career's countless incarnations: nights of Return to Forever, nights of his Elektric Band, nights honoring Miles Davis, nights of flamenco music and piano duets and electronic experimentation. He'll be joined by many friends and bandmates past, including, at some point, his old pal Herbie Hancock.

It was designed as a commemoration of his 75th birthday, but he doesn't want it to feel like the end of anything. He led similar stretches at Blue Note for his 60th and 70th birthdays, and there's no reason to think he won't do it at 80.

"When the acknowledgment gets too much, it's almost like telling me to stop," he said. "It's like, 'Thank you, Chick! Thank you, Chick! Thank you, Chick!' 'No, take it easy guys, there's more to come!' "

Is there ever. Among the projects Corea has lined up for this fall and 2017: a compilation from his 2011 Blue Note residency; a documentary about his life that has been in the works for years; and multiple studio sessions, including one for an album inspired by electronics and hip-hop "that's going to be something real different from anything I've ever done."

Here's how he described that one: "It's made up of first takes. You know the term first take? It's like when I sit down at a synthesizer and I call up a new sound that I've never tried before. I try the sound, and I make music with it right away. Rather than trying to figure something out, there's music being made right away. So this whole album is made with sounds that I play for the first time."

It's a daring choice for a 75-year-old artist, one you can trace to the precious little time Corea spends off the road, replenishing his creative and spiritual energy. When asked how he stays so curious and prolific at his age, Corea pivots back to faith.

"That's a spiritual question," he said. "I've found that interest is something you create. Mostly, (people) think that you accidentally become interested in something. I don't think so. I've found out that when there's something that I love to do, I create it, and I go ahead. 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."

Lifetimes? That's a lot more Grammys for Corea's overloaded shelves. At least he knows where he'll always have them shipped.

Contact Jay Cridlin at or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.