Our teachers come to us from so many places. The classroom is, of course, the traditional location for learning. I remember some of my teachers so well. Mrs. Marshall, of 4th and 6th grade, taught me how to think critically about what I do and what I say. My 5th-grade teacher, Mr. Krupa, taught me how to carry a football. Mr. Kleiman, my Hebrew School teacher in 4th grade, taught me how to read and write Hebrew. At Wesleyan, Rabbi Michael Berenbaum taught me how to read traditional and contemporary texts and approach the Holocaust.
But we have so many other teachers in our lives, people who have never met us but whose impact is profound and everlasting. The writer Ray Bradberry taught about the wonderment of imagination through science fiction. The philosopher, Richard Rubenstein, taught me about the deepest dimensions of Jewish life after Auschwitz. A guy named Elliot taught me how to open my car’s frunk off of a YouTube video.
And then there’s music. Some lyricists have taught me how to express the pain of losing love. The first time I heard the Beatles For No One from the Revolver album, I was 13. Now, what did I know of real heartbreak? Not much. Yet that song knocked me sideways, and it prominently featured in subsequent breakups. It gave me insight into the vocabulary of emotion.
I’ve never met Paul McCartney, and I never had the pleasure of shmoozing with John Lennon. But they gave me more than entertainment. They gave me insight into the reaches of the human spirit. Lennon and McCartney rank up there with my reading teacher of first grade: they provided me with tools for perceiving the Universe and how I fit in it.
Then there are my jazz teachers, and there are so many. Today I am thinking about Chick Corea, a foundational jazz pianist, and virtuoso, who died yesterday. His death felt very sudden, and it hit me hard. His fellow pianist, McCoy Tyner, died almost one year ago. He was another favorite of mine. He taught me about the way music tells a story without lyrics.
McCoy played with a kind of power and energy that engaged me at the very core of my being. He taught me how to let go of the linear and step into the rarified air of improvisation and dare to follow one line, then another, then another… and then return to Earth, safe and sound.
McCoy did not go for funk or fusion. He was an acoustic piano man. While he didn’t disdain other musicians or their choices of expression, McCoy had his wheelhouse and pretty much stayed in it his entire career. I experienced him as a rather formal character, who could sometimes be austere even when he was swinging hard.
Chick Corea, whose chops were deep and mighty, taught me about the beauty of music and how it inspires and honors the human soul. His music touched me to my core. Chick taught me something else, something about flexing to try new things and go other places. Chick created over 70 recordings and played on hundreds of others. His discography is jaw-dropping. He didn’t get hung up on labels. He played spectacularly intricate solos that pushed into avant-garde jazz. He played flamenco melodies. He played with Bobby McFarren. One of his last releases was a virtuosic recording of classical music.
My teacher, Chick Corea, taught me to transcend traditional boundaries. He pointed out that the unifying quality of music transcends the channels through which it flows. Chick could and did laugh and groove during a performance. He could also be very focused and intense.
Yesterday my teacher, Chick Corea, died of cancer. He was from Chelsea, MA. His given name was Armando Anthony Corea. He taught me all about the beauty and multi-dimensionality of music. He taught me that life is about revering traditional forms and then stretching to embrace as much as possible that is new and exciting. I will miss him.