Back to basics
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 1998 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.
Stanley Clarke’s shadow looms large on the electric bass world. He’s one of a handful of musicians that made the music scene acknowledge the instrument as a versatile and vital force capable of a kaleidoscope of colors, textures and percussive elements previously ascribed to more conventional lead instruments.
Clarke’s groundbreaking work on albums such as his eponymous 1974 effort and 1976’s School Days played a paramount role in establishing slapping, popping and strumming in the bass guitar lexicon. And while thousands of bassists followed in his footsteps, Clarke’s gift for bridging melody and rhythm in a single motion remains unparalleled.
Chick Corea took notice of Clarke’s talents early on when he recruited the bassist for Return to Forever in 1971. During its decade-long existence, the seminal fusion act scaled the heights of creative and commercial success. Along with contemporaries Weather Report and Mahavishnu Orchestra, the group helped ignite the public’s interest in jazz-rock and saw the genre through to its denouement in the late '70s.
Clarke still carries the fusion torch in his solo work, though it’s tempered by more pop and R&B elements. Many of his albums and collaborations from the '80s onward are a testament to his love of simple and direct song forms. However, Clarke still engages the jazz universe on projects with the likes of Al Di Meola, Herbie Hancock, Jean-Luc Ponty, and McCoy Tyner. He’s also participated in a couple of Return to Forever reunion tours.
Today, Clarke spends a lot of time focusing on his career as a soundtrack composer. He’s scored several high-profile films including Boyz n the Hood, Passenger 57, Higher Learning, and The Transporter. The lessons learned from his experiences in the cinema realm have significantly influenced the directions of his other work—something he expanded on during this conversation.
Your post-’70s solo albums take a sparser, more R&B-influenced approach than your classic fusion records. Tell me about that shift.
I think a lot of that has to do with my affinity for melodies. When I started writing music for film, I found it tended to draw out whatever ability you have in the area of melody. When you’re doing film music—if you plan to become any good at it—you have to go with the basics in your musical psyche. There needs to be a very strong melodic concept or it’s going to be difficult for you to write. Aside from rhythm, melody is what can drive a great score and bring life to a picture. In doing that, it kind of opened me up as a composer and a lot of my stuff in later years became much more melodic—even smoother I would say. My own personal playing as a bass player has reflected that too.
As for the fusion thing, that was a direct result of all of the music I was listening to, especially as a kid growing up. I was pretty much affected by music in the '60s and very early '70s. That stuff was jazz—as we knew it then—and rock and roll, R&B, Motown, and all the other stuff that was on the radio. I wasn’t much of a puritan in those days and I’m still not. I turned on the radio and if something felt or sounded good, I liked it. When I was young, it affected me in a certain way that would make me want to make music like that. I don’t want to sound like I’m defending what I did because I’m not at all. I’m just comparing that to some of the younger jazz musicians today who have figured out how to be real purists—especially the guys following in the footsteps of Wynton Marsalis. I mean, it’s amazing! I see some of those guys and they have these suits and ties on. I actually sometimes have my own little interviews with those guys and say “Don’t you get hot playing in those things? A suit and a tie? Imagine if you had some jeans on!” [laughs] Anyway, as far as I’m concerned, I liked a lot of different things and it came out in the music.
Your early solo work helped establish the concept of lead bass guitar. Do you feel the instrument has officially transcended second-class status?
I think the work has pretty much been done on the bass in terms of bringing it to the fore. I hope there are gonna be other bass players who make records and become bass gods or whatever the hell they’re called. I think there will be other guys who can stand on the edge of the stage and front a band like I do. I remember speaking to Charlie Mingus before he died. I hung out with him a bit. We were going to do a concert together at Carnegie Hall called “Father and Son.” Charlie really liked me. We would get together at this restaurant and man, watching him eat—that was an experience. They used to bring platters to him—a platter of rice, a platter of meat. [laughs] He was amazing and I really liked him. I didn’t study him as a bass player or a composer, but he was an icon for me—a jazz bass revolutionary. He stood in front of his band and demanded that the guys listen to him. He used to get quite violent sometimes. I saw him punch out a saxophone player at the Village Vanguard once. Charlie was a serious guy and he used to talk about the role of the bass and how some of the guys that were soloists didn’t have as much intelligence about music as he did in his little fingernail. He said it was ironic that just because of the instrument those idiots played, he had to assume a certain role to get certain gigs. He really instilled that into my thinking when I was very young. I haven’t got rid of that. He was really something.
Guys like Jaco Pastorius also came through, and other players like Jack Bruce, Paul McCartney and Larry Graham as well. Whether or not we were making a conscious effort, the bass is now a major thing. That’s evident in how many records have been made by bass players. I can’t say all of them are good and I can’t say all of the guys deserve to be standing in the forefront. Then again, I could say that about a lot of guitar players and saxophone players. The most important thing is that it can be done and it’s not looked at as strange. “Wow, you’re a bass player?” is what I used to get a lot. I remember playing for a promoter in Indiana one time after my Journey to Love album came out. The applause was big. People were really into it and it was exhilarating. This promoter couldn’t believe it. He said “Something is weird. You’re a bass player. I’m gonna have to see you again.” I almost felt the guy thought we had done something to the audience—gave ‘em drugs or something, like it was a big fake thing. It was really, really interesting. But anyway, the groundwork is now done in terms of making the bass like one of the other instruments.
You’re focusing more and more on acoustic bass. Why is that instrument speaking more loudly to you these days?
I really have a tremendous affinity for music from various parts of Africa, but I could never really figure out how to put it in the electric arena because it comes out sounding like those rock and roll guys who say “Oh, now I’m into African music.” The only instrument I feel good about trying to do something with that on is the acoustic bass. I’m really trying to develop some different things on it. We acoustic bass players pretty much play it within its European tradition as far as how we technically approach it. We use pizzicato, but I’m trying to figure out how to get more rhythmic without losing the melody concept I have for the instrument.
You worked with Art Blakey early in your career. How do you look back at your tenure in his group?
I played with Art for just under a year during my last year of college. We toured a lot between the end of '71 and '72. We made a record called Child’s Dance and I had a lot of fun playing with him. I felt connected to a time period that was much earlier—the '40s and '50s. He was the swinging-est drummer I had ever played with in my life. He didn’t know anything else but that. He was raw and a true jazz musician in every way—the way he talked and the way he was. I’m really glad I had that experience because there are things that I still use to this day that I got from him. He was a very proud individual. He was proud of the contributions that black people made to music and the American art form that is jazz. He always talked about that and really taught us. He made me feel that I should respect myself as a musician, and more so, as a jazz musician—a black jazz musician. I’m not saying he was racist or anything, but he did make that distinction. He hit on something you can’t just pass up—Charlie Parker didn’t fly in from another planet and just happen to be great. Art was really serious. He saw this as a definite thing and said “You’re part of it and you have a major responsibility to keep that going.” It was a great, great feeling.
You once turned down Miles Davis when he asked you to join his group. Why?
Yeah. I made a record with Chick Corea called Light as a Feather and right after that I got tons of calls from many different bands including rock acts. I got a call from whatever was left of The Doors. The piano player Ray Manzarek rang me at 4 a.m. and that was a weird, weird call. I said “No, I don’t think so.” [laughs] Anyway, Miles used to come see Return to Forever at the Village Vanguard. In those days, it was still done the way they did it in the '50s. They would just come to the gig and say “Man, I want you to play in my band.” I’ll never forget it. Miles came to the Vanguard in this weird, red leather outfit. It almost looked pre-Michael Jackson. Miles looked like a spaceman coming through there and he said in his Miles voice “You don’t want to play with Chick. Fuck Chick. You don’t need to play with him. Come and play with me.” But I was very loyal to Chick and the movement we were trying to create.
I looked at Miles and I looked at Chick and the bigger picture. I felt I could do more with Chick than Miles, although it would have been nice for the resume to play with Miles and experience that. So instead, I’d hang out with Miles and go see him a lot because we used to live near one another. The other offer that really sticks out is Bill Evans. He wanted me to play with him and that was the only thing I actually regret. It’s a regret because for the kind of acoustic bass player I am, the jazz trio format with someone like Bill Evans doesn’t get any better. I knew all the tunes and I listened to all the records. Scott LaFaro is a big influence in my life. Musically, it would have been just great. But again, with Chick, we were talking about bigger things than just music. We were really thinking about changing attitudes about jazz, instrumental music and saying that everything doesn’t have to be so pure and follow these rules. So I decided to stay with Chick, but that was a hard one.
How do you look back at your experience with Return to Forever in the ’70s?
I think one of the things that made that band work was its chemistry, or if I could say in a strange way, its lack of chemistry. There was an edge in that band that was naturally there with the personalities. Chick was this personality that put the band together with me. I was there in all of its different configurations. Chick’s 10 years older than me and all the guys were compatible in a lot of ways but not in basic life stuff. Me and Lenny White were close, and me and Chick were close. Al Di Meola was a different kind of guy. It’s amazing it lasted as long as it did. The music we did was really something. It was a very strong band live. It was very difficult to come see that band and walk away saying “I hated it.” It was hard even for guys like Leonard Feather. It was so funny when they would write bad reviews about us. They would comment about the mission and say things like “Oh, they are playing these instruments at this volume, but do they have to wear those clothes? Why is Chick talking like that? Who the hell is Stanley Clarke? But he’s a fine bass player. And there’s Chick’s great piano playing.” They would never put our playing down. It was very interesting. It had a classic break-up with the money, business, egos, and ingredients that are in all break-ups. It’s probably best that it took a rest. The whole Return to Forever thing I look back at as a university. We all learned a lot from each other.
Jeff Beck was a fixture on several of your early solo albums. How did you two hook up?
We met when I was living in Long Island in the early '70s. My attorney called me and said “This guy Jeff Beck is playing one of your songs in his live show and wants to meet you.” At that point, I had put out a solo album called Stanley Clarke and he was playing “Power” from it. I remember a big, long limousine pulling up in front of the house I was living in and this guy gets out with one of these rooster haircuts and it was Jeff. He’s a very English guy and it was one of those uncomfortable meetings. I didn’t know him, he didn’t know me, but the music sort of brought us together. He played me an album he was putting together or had finished—I think it might have been the Blow by Blow record. It was really good. Once we started talking about music, we became friends, did some tours in Europe and Japan and then recorded together. He played on some of my records and it was fun. He’s a great guy and a true stylist. It’s very rare for me to meet a musician that really has his own distinctive style.
Some critics have accused you of resting on your ’70s laurels when reviewing your later work. What’s your reaction?
It’s very difficult for a writer who really isn’t in any close proximity to an artist to really know what is happening to that artist. If you’re a critic and if you don’t really know what the artist is expanding into and what he’s getting better at, you have to go for the superficial. They see a concert and that’s it—that’s Stanley Clarke to them. He also may hear one concert in which an artist maybe didn’t sound that good. Maybe it wasn’t a good night for him. The writer maybe hasn’t seen or checked out my film composing. That’s something that’s taken me a long time to master and I’m very serious about it. I’m proud of what I’ve done. It’s not easy to write for an orchestra. Standing in front of an orchestra, understanding the nomenclature and thousands and thousands of details it takes to write a score and implementing it and breaking it down for 80 musicians is a challenge. It takes a serious amount of ability to do that. I wish I was the musician I am now back in the '70s. I’m a much better bass player now than I was then. I’m also a better person. I read more now and I take care of my family better than I did when I was younger.
It’s so funny. I read these things and say “That guy is talking about me?” But I understand what the critic’s job is and that he’s looking at one little piece of information and writing about it. He has to make a living. The phrase that still rings in my head from Miles Davis was “Man, that motherfucker’s gotta say something.” And Miles was really right. Miles told me these writers used to piss him off. He used the word ignorant when describing them. Miles really took a lot of flack. When he made the later records he did, he had some major writers and musicians saying negative things about him. They should be ashamed of themselves.
If these guys only knew what the musicians thought about them. I remember one time when me and Chick were laughing at a review a prominent jazz critic wrote about us. It was so funny, I almost fell down and broke my ass, man. See, the thing with a lot of these writers is that they have a pretty good grip on the English language. They can write something and sound intelligent. But these kinds of scathing, really ridiculous things come off much better if they’re written like normal guys talk. I actually respect that stuff better—someone who says “That shit from this motherfucker? He’s a sad son of a bitch!” [laughs] I’d get into that more and take it more seriously.
On the flip side of the coin, you’re still regularly referred to as a living legend.
It’s the weirdest thing. I absolutely don’t feel it. I have no visceral attachment to it. I don’t know what that is. I understand what it means—what the words mean and the concept, but I have no feeling for it. When I wake up in the morning, I don’t necessarily feel like a legend. I feel like I’ve made contributions. I know exactly what I’ve done for the bass and jazz music and what have you, but a living legend? I dunno. Maybe that is what a living legend is supposed to experience. [laughs] It’s something you can’t go to school to learn how to be. Nobody in their right mind picks up an instrument and goes “I want to be a living legend.” I’m sure there are guys out there though who are crazy and fucked-up enough to try and do that.
Jaco Pastorius pretty much had that idea in his head, didn’t he?
Probably. Look what happened to him, you know? Jaco and I were close friends. He was truly a crazy man I tell ya. But I really loved him. Jaco was very respectful of me and my family. He used to come to my house every September for my son’s birthday. For some reason, we always celebrated it together. My son has Jaco’s baseball gloves and one of his bats. That’s what he used to give my son for birthday presents—his childhood articles. Jaco was a funny guy. He just drank too much, did too many drugs and wasn’t ready, in my opinion, for fame and having that much energy thrown at him. Fame is a very interesting thing. You can actually feel the energy particles coming at you and you have to be ready for that. I don’t think Jaco was ready and it’s a shame.
To this day, you still play “School Days” during your concerts. Describe your relationship with the piece after all this time.
One of the things that used to bother me more than anything—but I’ve learned to live with it—is that damn song. It was just a song to me—not any big deal at all. It’s just some song about when I went to school and how it felt. I came up with a bass line and I recorded it and that was that. Now, it’s a kind of bass anthem or something. Everywhere I go, every city I play, there is someone out there yelling “School Days.” I tried one year not to play it and that was not a good idea. I finally realized I better play the song at a gig in Detroit. I was playing this place called the Masonic Temple. We’re getting ready to play the last number and people are yelling out “School Days, School Days!” I picked up the acoustic bass and when I got to a quiet part, this dude got up and said “Man, you gonna play ‘School Days’ before you leave this motherfucker!” He was from deep in the ghetto and continued “You don’t even think you gonna get outta here without playing it.” [laughs] That’s one of the few times I’ve ever played “School Days” on the acoustic bass. It’s hard as hell, but I played it man and people loved it. They just wanna hear the bass line. I’ve played the song so many times and it’s probably the most difficult thing that I do. It hurts me to play it because it’s not fresh. I would say out of every 10 to 15 times I play it, maybe four to five times I just won’t like it because I can’t find a new twist. I had a talk with Larry Carlton about this. He said “You’re lucky. Not everyone can say they have a career song.” So, I view it that way—a career song that I’ve done. It’s something I have to play because the people wanna hear it. It actually causes more harm not to play it. [laughs]