American pianist Chick Corea live in concert in Mumbai in 2018. Photo: Prashin Jagger

With the passage of time, jazz music, now about 120 years old, has become a reservoir of some of the greatest music ever. After so many generations of artists, styles and influences, jazz has evolved into a fine tapestry of music. Although categories for different eras and different sounds have been created – mainly by the recording industry, jazz is really a continuum of a deep-rooted tradition. Having emerged from the times of the liberation of slaves in the United States and carried forward through times of war, peace, tolerance and suspicion, jazz is today, a sophisticated vehicle for musical expression.

With the recent demise of jazz pianist Chick Corea, an era has seemingly ended. He has brought immense joy to jazz listeners and provided both motivation and direction to younger musicians. With his unique approach to the elements of Latin sounds and also with a new perspective on what has become ‘jazz-rock,’ Corea created a new fan following of jazz listeners. He further broadened the definition and scope of jazz music.

Corea was one of four or five jazz pianists to emerge from the mid-1960s, the others being Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett and Joe Zawinul. This quartet of pianists followed the generation of Art Tatum, Fats Waller, Bud Powell, Thelonius Monk, Oscar Peterson and later Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Red Garland, Phineas Newborn Jr., Cedar Walton, Wynton Kelly among others in taking forward the jazz piano tradition. Interestingly, each of these pianists is unique, each with a piano style like none other; in totality, all these styles and approaches are the basis of modern jazz piano.

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Corea created some beautiful motifs for this tapestry of jazz, enriching it ever so much. So did the others who have trodden down this path of sharing their creativity with us all. Corea has adorned this huge tapestry with his unique stamp of music.

As with these jazz pianists, there is a lineage, a thread created by the early jazz musicians who have trodden down this path along the years. They have been the stepping stones for others to build on. The pillars on which the house called jazz is built.

The fascinating edifice of jazz has not come about as a natural, inevitable event; it has some strong basics in place. There are some pillars on which this amazing music form is erected. These are the pillars of jazz, leading lights that have paved the way for the music to have direction and to flourish. These six pillars are, broadly speaking, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Art Tatum and John Coltrane. A few songwriters may be added to this list, as also a few vocalists, but the essential core is, perhaps the six stalwarts.

Ellington, composer of several thousand jazz tunes is the basis for serious big band arrangements on which is the basis of the modern approach to the music, while Armstrong, sophisticated in his approach even in the 1920s is the foundation of improvised individual expression of the jazz sound; Satchmo, as Louis was nicknamed, played into the 1970s, constantly reinventing himself, and his music related to each successive generation.

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Parker created a new sound in jazz, bebop, which took jazz into a new sphere by emphasizing individual excellence. We would venture to say that Parker’s “Bebop” movement is the basis of much of today’s jazz performance.

Davis brought several innovations into jazz from the laid back ‘cool’ sounds, modal jazz (best exemplified in the album Kind of Blue) and the electronic experimentation of a later era. Coltrane furthered Parker’s stress on individual expression to an almost spiritual level, while Tatum emphatically demonstrated the scope of piano expression in jazz.

This brings us back to Chick Corea! He ingested all these lessons from his predecessors and found unexplored areas within them to build on. Oh! What a splendid tapestry has been created by the community of jazz players.

Sunil Sampat is a jazz critic and Contributing Editor of Rolling Stone India.

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