An Alaskan Piano Tuner Remembers Chick Corea

I, along with most of the musical world, was saddened to hear of the passing of Chick Corea this past week. His passing prompted several memories of my interactions with him while he was in Alaska that I thought I would share.

My first meeting with Chick was at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts in 2006. I tuned and maintained all of the pianos there at the time and as a jazz pianist myself I was very excited to meet and hear someone of his stature perform. Chick had long been a fan of Latin Flamenco music and he was performing many of those tunes along with a vibrant Flamenco dancer right here in Anchorage. My interaction with him was brief at that time. My primary recollection of that encounter was that Chick was a very loyal Yamaha artist and there was not a Yamaha grand at the center at that time so Chick had Yamaha send a beautiful CFIII 9’ concert grand from California! This piano actually remained at the PAC for almost 10 years afterward and was a gorgeous addition to the musical community of Anchorage.

After Chick finished the band soundcheck he commented to me that the piano was one of the nicest Yamahas he had played. I was grateful for his comments even though I did very little to the piano other than tune it. However, as a result of that first meeting, I received a call in early 2014 from Chick’s usual piano technician. It appeared Chick and Béla Fleck were coming for an Alaskan Tour of Fairbanks, Anchorage, and Juneau in April of 2014. Chick wanted me to travel to each venue to inspect and prepare each piano for his upcoming shows.

As it turned out Anchorage was the only town with a Yamaha concert grand at the performance venue although I was able to find one at the University of Alaska Fairbanks which we got moved to the performance hall for him.

I met Chick and Béla in Fairbanks. One of the things I had always admired about Chick was he never got into a musical “rut”. He was always reaching out to new and exciting musical vistas and now here he was performing a duo with a jazz banjo player. Can any good thing come from a banjo!!?? After hearing Béla play, I can reply with a resounding YES!

Béla and I were about 16 years younger than Chick. Béla is a very warm relational guy. The kind of guy with whom you like just hanging out and having a beer. Béla told me one night that every time he and Chick went out on stage for a soundcheck Chick would start playing the most complex obscure jazz song he could think of and leave Béla to either figure out something to play or go back to the dressing room. Béla took it as a fun little challenge…..as did Chick. Although, I must say, Béla often had a serious look of consternation during soundchecks while Chick was usually smiling mischievously.

Béla also related to me one night that the only reason he became famous was that he was just dumb enough to try and figure out how to play jazz on a banjo when no one else had ever tried that. He said there were no books anywhere to learn jazz banjo! He finally joked if he had just played jazz guitar no one would know who he was!

Our concerts in Fairbanks and Anchorage were mostly uneventful except for the amazing music these two musical icons were producing. However, once we landed in Juneau things changed a little. I got off the plane in the Capital City and headed straight over to the auditorium at the Juneau Douglas High School. An older Steinway D concert grand piano resides there. Now keep in mind that I had spent an entire day voicing, regulating, and prepping this piano for this concert about a month earlier and I had serviced this piano numerous times for concerts and events over the years. I knew this piano well and while I knew Chick preferred a Yamaha, whenever available, I really thought he would be happy with this Steinway.

Chick and Béla arrived just 30 minutes before the doors were to open for the concert to do their soundcheck. There were about 8-12 stage techs milling around including myself standing back in the shadows. Chick sat down at the piano and began to play. One of the more amazing things about Chick was that unlike any other pianist for whom I had worked he still had incredible dexterity and technique at the ripe old age of 72.

After playing a couple of chords and arpeggios Chick abruptly stopped playing. My heart skipped a beat. He looked around and said, ”Is the piano tuner still in the house?” I reluctantly stepped out of the shadows and said, “Yes Chick, I am right here.” In a very animated tone, Chick said, “I need you to take this thing down as low as this establishment will let you! Can you do that?” I said, “yes, I can.” What Chick was asking me to do was make a wholesale change to the “tone” of the piano which he found very offensive.

Now I had been a concert piano technician for about 10 years and I felt quite comfortable with the tone on the piano AND it sounded very much like the other pianos he had played if not a bit mellower. At this point, I had about 20 minutes before the house doors would open which was not nearly enough time to do what he was asking of me. I began to sweat as I reached for my tool bag and opened it. Just about that time a guy hopped up on stage and put his arm on Chick’s shoulder and asked him what was wrong. He was Chick’s sound technician. Chick very dramatically played a few chords and told the tech he couldn’t play this piano in its current condition.

Everyone on stage was very tense. The tech said very calmly, “Chick, the piano sounds great out here in the auditorium.” Chick paused for a moment with a look of puzzlement on his face. He made a “humph” sound and reached into his pocket. He pulled out a small remote and began nervously pushing buttons on it. Chick had forgotten to change the setting on his implanted hearing aids (which I had no idea he even wore). He played a few chords and said confidently, “Oh, this sounds MUCH better! So sorry, Dan.” I heard a few chuckles around the stage. I looked at Chick as he smiled at me. “Chick”, I said, “You almost had me ruin a perfectly good Steinway grand!!!” He chuckled, looked at Béla, and started playing some obscure beautiful song I had never heard and from the look on Béla’s face, he had never heard of it either. RIP Chick. There will never be another you!

Image Credit: Ragesoss, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Written by: Dan McElrath

Dan McElrath has performed concert-level piano technical services at Universities and Performing Arts venues for over 20 years. He has had concert training at the Yamaha school in LA and Steinway factory training in NY. He has been a Registered Piano Technician with the International Piano Technicians Guild for over 20 years and will bring a unique perspective and skill set to any piano he services.

February 15, 2022

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