When the topic of great bass players is raised, the name Stanley Clarke invariably comes up. The multiple Grammy-winning living legend has been a musical force of nature for four decades, playing both the electric and acoustic upright bass with equal virtuosity.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Clarke co-founded the seminal jazz-fusion group Return to Forever along with keyboardist Chick Corea and drummer Lenny White. He has also collaborated or shared the stage with an astonishing list of musical giants, including Bob Marley, Miles Davis, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Herbie Hancock, The Police, Quincy Jones and many more. Heck, he’s even invented his own bass guitars, to fit his ever-expanding style.
Catch Clarke performing with two keyboard players and a drummer on Sunday, March 16 at Jazz in the Gardens. He talked about the show, how growing up in Philly influenced him, and the time performing with another musician actually made him a bit nervous.
This festival is skewed a bit toward hip-hop, pop and R&B – what attracted you to it?
I like playing all gigs – whatever it is. Even sometimes when I play gigs where maybe the audience might not be familiar with me, like I remember years ago, myself, Jean-Luc Ponty and Bela Fleck did a couple bluegrass festivals. I had never played in a bluegrass festival before, and we came on right after Earl Scruggs. And I thought it was amazing. I had a great time, and they loved us. People are just people – you know, if you have some good music, and someone sees that you’re talented, most of the time people go, “Yeah, yeah, that’s cool.”
Do you have an idea yet what your set will be like?
Lately I’ve been doing stuff from the Clarke/Duke Project, with me and George Duke. When George passed, one of the things I said I was gonna do was play a lot of that music this year. Our stuff was like progressive funk – I won’t say funk for the thinking man, but funk for the man who’s almost thinking [laughs]. Music that feels good, and we’ll have a good band, so that’ll be nice.
Was the bass your first instrument?
Yeah. Well, it was the first instrument that I really got into. I mean, I picked up the violin and messed around a little bit with the cello, but it was very brief. Bass was the first real thing that I did.
Watching you play, one would get the impression that you would also be a very good drummer, because your style is so percussive. Are you?
Let’s just say that in my studio I have a very good drum set. When I do play, all my drummer friends make fun of me [laughs]. But then again, all my drummer friends have a great sense of humor, and are from all genres of music. And they usually supplement my drum set – they’ll bring me cymbals, or sticks or this or that. It’s kind of fun having friends that are drummers.
Do you prefer the acoustic to the electric bass, or do you love them equally?
Well, I’m mainly an acoustic bassist – that’s what I started out on. But in my soul, I’m like an acoustic bass player that got famous playing electric bass. I studied both of them, and whatever’s required is what I do.
When you play with other virtuosos, like Chick Corea or whomever, is it sometimes difficult to figure out when to give each other space, or is it something intuitive?
It’s pretty intuitive. When you’re playing with guys that are really at a high level of performance, they’re gonna have this other ability, too, which is their listening skills, the skill of listening to another musician. It’s very high as well. So when you’re playing with masters, the last thing you have to worry about is that. And really, it’s more like givingness. If a guy has played with a long time and with a lot of people, that kind of desire to assert yourself or prove something really goes away.
And some people have even thought that maybe that’s not a good thing, because when you’re young, and you have a lot to prove, that produces a really cool effect within musicians and even sports people. It’s like a certain kind of energy, and it just comes off of you. But I think in music, once you get to that point, if you remember to just keep your intensity up, but with all the graciousness that you’ve learned, and all the respect for other musicians, there’s a balance there. And most of the guys have that – when it’s time to play, you seriously play. When it’s somebody else is there, you’re very respectful.
You’ve collaborated with just about every musician worth playing with. Has anyone ever made you nervous?
No, no. Hmm, oh yeah – when I was really young, probably 18 or 19. I went to record with the saxophone player Dexter Gordon, and he’s like – you don’t get any more traditional than that. And I remember I was in the studio in New Jersey, standing next to this piano player, Hank Jones. And he was the sweetest guy, and he knew that I was a little nervous. And Dexter came in through the door, and he looked – even though this record was made in the early ‘70s, when Dexter walked in, it just made everything look like we were in the ‘40s or the ‘50s. He had on one of those porkpie hats and a long coat and the sax to the side. He even had a bottle in the other hand. I felt like, “Man, I don’t think I’m gonna get any jazzier than this – I think Charlie Parker’s gonna come through next!”
And Hank realized it, and said, “Stand next to me, son, and don’t worry, everything’s gonna be cool.” And the first thing Dexter said was, “Where’s this youngblood?” And that was me. And yes I was nervous, and what was funny is I made two records with Dexter, and I never really listened to those records, still to this day. I just won’t listen to them, because I was so young and I thought I sounded terrible. Fear is not a friendly thing in the area of music.
Is there anyone you haven’t played with that you would love to one day?
That’s a good question. Hmm… no, nobody comes to mind. I’ll tell you one of the most exciting things I did was I was in Philadelphia and there was a movement called Artists For Heat – it was winter and a lot of people didn’t have money to pay for fuel to heat their houses … My favorite thing was I played with Public Enemy. And Questlove was on drums, with The Roots. And what I liked about it was, I didn’t realize how much of a fan and how knowledgeable Flavor Flav was about music. I mean, he looks crazy and all that, but he’s not. He knew all our records and all the Return to Forever records, and I knew that Chuck D was really knowledgeable about music, but Flavor Flav was way up in it. There’s a great video on YouTube. I had so much fun.
How did growing up in Philly influence your style?
Well, it was a great place to grow up for music. A great place. I mean, so many important jazz musicians came from there, and so many great, important R&B and pop musicians. I think a lot of it was because all through the ‘60s, Philadelphia had a really vibrant musical culture within the school system. I think every school had enough instruments for an orchestra and a band, and a choir. I think when Ronald Reagan came in, I remember my music teacher coming to California saying, “Man, they took my violins.”
Out of all your awards, is there one that means more to you than the others?
I recently won this award in Montreal, called the Miles Davis Award. And there’s only like 24 people that have won this award, and it’s a pretty esteemed list of people. The kind of awards I like, even more so than Grammys and Oscars, are the kind of awards that only a few have won. Don’t get me wrong – I like Grammys and all that, but it’s pretty common right now.
What music do you love that might surprise people?
It’s a complex answer, because I like all kinds of music. If a country song comes on and it really is good, then I’ll listen to it and I’ll like it as much as I like something else, you know? I was lucky in that when I grew up, the guys that I hung with would listen to a lot of different kinds of music, and we weren’t so much into, “Well, I’m into funk,” or classical or jazz. We just liked everything. If it was good, we liked it.
What inspired you to invent the piccolo bass, with strings an octave higher?
Yeah, it’s like the first four strings of a guitar, or the first four strings of a bass, up an octave. That’s it. One of the reasons I did that was because when I would do movie scores and I didn’t have time to call a guitar player, I’d play it myself [laughs].
So why not just play a guitar?
I wish I could – my hands are so damn big! Playing a guitar is like playing a little toothpick or something. For me, I can’t even play a C chord on that thing. The tips of my fingers are so wide from playing acoustic bass that I hit one string and I’m hittin’ three! [Laughs] Can’t do it.