recollecting the past musings of today envisioning the future
"It’s not about your music—it’s about what makes your music your music." Sonny Rollins
The New Yorker, June 11, 2020 by Daniel King
As the shock of jazz icon Chick Corea's passing continues to sink in worldwide spanning the generations and cultures, I spent much of last night thinking about his life and music. I also read quite a few articles about his musical contributions. With all that has been said, all that is being said and all that will be said about his piano/keyboard work and his compositions, I discovered one major aspect of his music that is absent in all of the articles I read . . .
Chick's significant contribution to his music specifically written for vocalists!
Bobby McFerrin, Chaka Khan ("High Wire-The Aerialist"), newcomer Jason Joseph ("What's Crackin' In India Town"), Lisa Rich (several of his unknown songs), Chick's wife Gayle Moran (MusicMagic album) and perhaps Chick's best known vocalist from his Return To Forever ensembles, Flora Purim ("500 Miles High," What Game Shall We Play Today" and "Crystal Silence"), Al Jarreau and Stevie Wonder -- all benefited greatly from their association with Chick. Stevie's band has their own arrangement of Chick's "Spain." And there's still a wealth of his songs for vocalists that have yet to be sung. Many of the lyrics were written by Chick's associate Neville Potter. It was Chick's songs for Flora Purim that made her an influential vocal force beginning in the 1970s--a time when "weird" things were happening in jazz.
If you're old enough to remember the 1970s, the word "electric" no longer was an adjective complimenting a great music performance--especially a jazz performance. "Electric" now meant electric instruments--a revolution similar to the one nearly a decade before in folk music when Bob Dylan walked into a studio to sing "Like A Rolling Stone" accompanying himself on a Straocaster. In jazz, Miles Davis and Gil Evans were listening to Jimi Hendrix. Dexter Gordon added a Fender bass to his ensemble. Herbie Hancock ("Chameleon") and Joe Zawinul (from Cannonball's band) were making totally keyboard-synthesized music and jazz bands had names like Spyro Gyra, Weather Report, Headhunters, Blood Sweat & Tears (yes, they were jazz!) and Mahavishnu. George Benson’s music entered the Top 40. In the same decade, the resistance to this revolution led by folks like Woody Shaw, Bill Evans and others in their total disdain for what they called "commercial music" was also happening. (I interviewed Bill Evans when I was a college student back then. When I asked him about this revolution, he just sighed and said, "Why don't you ask me something else.") It was during all this creative and revolutionary music fusioning that I came to discover Chick Corea's music--and especially his music for singers.
I was 22 in 1976 when pianist/keyboardist Isaiah Sanders (less than 2 years away from joining Stevie Wonder's band) knocked on my college rehearsal room at school, stepped in and said, "Hey man, I heard you practicing and you're good. Listen, I got this trio gig in Mississippi for the summer, and I need a vocalist who plays guitar. Are you interested?" I instantly said, "yes." Then Isaiah said, "But I also need you to play bass. Can you learn to do that before the summer?" Again, I said, "yes!" The next time Isaiah and I met he gave a list of songs to start learning as a singer and on guitar and bass. The list included Freddie Hubbard's "Gibraltar," on bass, Charles Mingus' "Ellington Sound of Love" on bass and vocals--and 3 Chick Corea songs that I was to sing and play bass on: "What Game Shall We Play Today" (my favorite of all his vocal songs), "500 Miles High and "Crystal Silence."
We were also playing songs by James Taylor, Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder. Aside from hearing Chick's name mentioned to me by David Baker, I knew nothing about Chick or his music. But this gig was the beginning of my learning all about him. The gig went so well, that we got hired to return for the summer of 1977. That summer, I also got a summer gig with a quartet that played in upper Michigan. We played many of the disco hits of the day. And, we included plenty of jazz that included my 3 Chick Corea songs. Jazz purists in attendance may have had a coronary when hearing our band segue from the Dazz Band's disco "Jazz Dazz" to Corea's slow and meditative "Crystal Silence." But that's what we did. That gig ended just in time for us to drive all the way from the Michigan peninsula to Jackson, Mississippi in time to start our return gig. After all these years, I still live cassette recordings of us playing those 2 summers that I may post on my website later this year.
When that gig ended in late summer, I returned to college and attended my first Return To Forever concert at Indiana University, Bloomington. It was Chick's last version of the band, big and groove-crazy. His future wife, Gayle Moran was the vocalist (a completely different stylist than was Flora Purim), Joe Farrell on sax and flute, Stanley Clarke on bass, but I don't remember who else was in the band that night. Still, it was a great concert. Attending the concert caused me to buy an array of Chick's jazz and classical albums. Don't know why I didn't go backstage to meet Chick after that concert. But that opportunity would present itself again a few years later when I moved to California.
The year was either 1982 or 83. I was singing and playing guitar in an incredibly funky group I had just joined called the Tourist Band. We played songs like Cameo's "Flirt," the SOS Band's "High Hopes." We loved the funk, but we had a special place in our hearts for local jazz artists like Cal Tjader and Rodney Franklin. So when we heard that Chick and Return To Forever were coming to the Berkeley Community Theater we just knew we had to go. Someone scored some backstage passes for all of us. We had permission to be backstage before, during and after the concert--the kind of access that is nearly impossible to get today.
When we arrived at the theater backstage, very few people were there. But Rodney was already there pacing about. Return To Forever was setting up the equipment. When I saw Chick, I immediately went over to him, introduced myself and said something that even surprises me now that I had the courage to say. "Excuse me, my name is Clif Payne. I sing and play guitar. Would you mind if I just stand here and watch you play when the concert starts?" Without missing a beat, he just smiled and said. "Yes, but you have to be quiet." So I stood by on his left in line with the stage curtain about 5 feet from him all during the concert. Anyone sitting in the front row audience on that side of the stage would have seen me. At one point during the concert, I began clapping to one of his catchy riffs. He quickly turned to me and said, "Shhh!" So I stopped my counter rhythms.
After the band completed its final song, and the bowings were done to tremendous applause, Chick turned to me, held out his hand, smiled and shook mine. I thanked him for letting me watch him play up close. I thanked him for his music and for the moment.
When I read about Chick's passing, I thought about that night at the Berkeley Community Theatre. I actually got teary-eyed thinking about that night and the great loss so many of us are feeling in the light of his passing. He was an iconic talent and a kindred artistic soul. So much so that he left this note for all of us:
“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. My mission has always been to bring the joy of creating anywhere I could, and to have done so with all the artists that I admire so dearly—this has been the richness of my life.”
I've been reminiscing about my time in LA during the early 1990s. My 3 Star Search appearances and some of the best gigs I ever had were during that time. So when I woke up this morning to the news that Supremes co-founder Mary Wilson had died, I was particularly saddened. I was one of the singers who opened for Mary at the Century Plaza Hotel one evening. Legendary LA singers Peggi Blu and Freddie Poole were also with me in the band. It was an absolutely wonderful night! It don't I remember what the name of the event was, but I do remember how nice she was to me after my performance. She had the most beautiful, enduring smile and a magnificent spirit that made you feel instantly at ease in her presence.
With Florence Ballard's passing nearly 50 years ago and now Mary, Diana Ross is the remaining member that was the original Supremes trio signed by Berry Gordy under his Motown label. Mary always wanted to be recognized as a soloist in her own right. She got that opportunity after leaving The Supremes to establish her vocal career in the main spotlight.
Mary's passing makes me think of my time in LA and singing with other great LA singers--Ellis Hall, Adam Aejaye, Lynn Coulter, future Supreme Lynda Laurence and many others. My performance at the Century Plaza gig led to me being chosen by other celebs to perform at their private events--Michelle Phieffer, Marlo Thomas and husband Phil Donahue among them. It was a great time and season. My kids were tots, I had more hair and I was 15 pounds lighter! The gig also led to my recording session with the great drummer Harvey Mason at LA's Record Plant.
It's an understatement to say that Mary Wilson will be great missed. Her charm, her voice and talent are the kinds of attributes missing in much of todays' popular talents. She was a true survivor.
Rest in power, Mary Wilson.
An Endangered Los Angeles Landmark- The Century Plaza Hotel
The Century Plaza Hotel has been a Los Angeles iconic landmark since its grand opening in 1966. Designed by world renowned architect Minoru Yamasaki (also know for the World Trade Center towers), this graceful and enduring building, with it's curved features and urban beauty, once sat on a former backlot of a motion picture studio.
Although the hotel recently went through a $36 million dollar renovation, new owners plan to raze, or skim off, the building and replace it with two questionable "environmentally-sensitive" 600 foot towers containing hotel rooms, luxury condominiums, and retail space. Local preservationists are also concerned that a lack of appreciation in Los Angeles for architecture from the recent past may deny the opportunity for this Los Angeles landmark to be considered for historic landmark status.
If you would like your voice to be heard on this topic the Los Angeles Conservancy has taken an active interest on the topic. http://www.laconservancy.org/