Stanley Clarke transformed the electric bass from its accompanying role and showed the world its possibilities as a solo instrument. He is also a virtuosic double bass player and an accomplished film composer. Clarke is a five-time Grammy winner, with 15 nominations. Three of his Grammys were for his solo efforts, one for the Stanley Clarke Band, and one with the groundbreaking, Return to Forever band, for which he was a founding member. In April of last year, he was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master (Jersey Jazz, March 2022)
At age 71, Stanley Clarke is incredibly active today, writing, touring, and presenting his YouTube series Bass Nation. On March 25, he will perform at The Vogel in Red Bank with his band 4Ever, which features Jeremiah Collier on drums, Jahari Stampley , keyboards, Emilio Modeste, saxophone, and Colin Cook, guitar (photo above). “We have been together for some time, we toured Europe, and we just finished a remarkable album where we took some of Chick Corea’s compositions and reworked them. It’s a double album that will be out sometime this summer. We start touring at the end of March, and after a little time off, we pretty much go up until the winter. Which is something I am looking forward to. It’s nice to be out on the road and touring after the pandemic. It’s all good; it feels good.
Clarke was born on June 30, 1951, in North Philadelphia. “Eventually, we moved to Roxborough where I went to high school,” he recalled. “Music was always part of my household. My mother was a semipro opera singer and sensed that I would be a musician. I started playing piano, and after that, I played a little violin and then a little cello, but then, eventually, I saw the bass. It was an instrument that I knew I would be challenged to play because it was big, and no one wanted to play it in school.
“I grabbed it and plucked the string, and it had such a wretched sound you just knew it would be hell to play this thing. It was my quest to get a good sound on it –it still is. That is the basis behind my playing. Not so much the technique, even though I had gotten into studying technique and probably have more technique than I need, but the undercutting thing is to make the bass have a good sound and to make people pleased to listen to it. When you look back at the history of the bass guys who have great sound — like Ray Brown, Ron Carter, James Jamerson, Larry Graham, and Jaco Pastorius — it’s really the sound. You can study all of the scales and things and have all sorts of techniques, but if your sound is not good, all of that stuff goes out the window.”
As a teenager, Clarke picked up the electric bass, the instrument he would transform. “I tell people, ‘I’m an acoustic bass player who plays electric bass.’ I never envisioned being an electric bass God, or someone people admire. Some people know me as an electric bass player and never even realize I play acoustic bass. The electric bass was something to play at parties. I thought it looked cool, and the girls seemed to like me better when I held an electric bass instead of the acoustic one. It was kind of my attitude about it. I never really studied the electric bass. Now, people really study that instrument, but back in the old days, like in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the electric bass was like a secondary instrument. I always believed that the better electric bass players are guys who can also play acoustic bass. Acoustic bass has a way of grounding you and making you understand in a very acute way the fundamental purpose of the bass. If you want to be a serious bass player, pick up the acoustic bass.”
Clarke’s next move was to continue his classical studies at The Philadelphia Musical Academy. “My plan was to audition for the Philadelphia Orchestra. I wanted to be one of the first African-American musicians to be part of that orchestra, but when I met Chick Corea, he said, ‘You don’t want to do that. I get that they play the music of the masters, but we are composers, too; and we can write our own music.’ He was a very funny guy. He said to me, ‘There is Bach and Beethoven, but there is also Corea and Clarke.’ So, I dropped the idea of playing in a symphony, but I did study the acoustic bass classically. That was my training. I left school in my third year when I had the opportunity to audition for Horace Silver. I got the gig and went on the road with him. That might have been 1969-1970, really my first taste of being a traveling jazz musician. I learned a lot from Horace Silver. Then I was playing with Joe Henderson and Stan Getz. Chick was filling in on a gig for Joe Henderson, and then Chick Corea and I were together all of the time.
Corea and Clarke formulated one of the most celebrated electric fusion bands, Return to Forever. “After playing with Joe Henderson one of the nights, Chick and I were listening to this Coltrane record. I remember we talked about putting a group together that’s somewhat different. We just talked about music and different nuances. He had to go to England, and we put the band together when he returned. Then we involved two Brazilian musicians, Airto Moreira and Flora Purim. We made two beautiful records, Return to Forever (ECM, 1972), and Light as a Feather (Polydor 1973. It became somewhat of a collaborative effort that evolved, especially, when we did Romantic Warrior (Columbia, 1976), our biggest album. It was a platinum album that was rare for an instrumental band. Each guy produces his own track. Chick was always our fearless leader. You have to have someone to have the final say, and that was Chick. He was the oldest guy, so we figured he knew the most.”
Another aspect of Clarke’s career came as a composer. He wrote music as early as 16 and credits Corea for helping to encourage him to compose more. “I knew Chick was a masterful composer, and Chick said, ‘Why don’t you write something for this album?’ So, I wrote the song ‘Light as a Feather,’ and Flora Purim wrote the lyrics. I learned about leadership skills from Chick. He was a very generous guy. If anyone asks me what I have learned from Return to Forever, it is how to have a band and treat musicians to be sure you are getting the best from the group—you have to leave your ego at the door.”
While with Return To Forever, Clarke began recording as a leader and was one of the first to showcase the electric bass on an entire album. He considers Stanley Clarke (Nemporer 1972), his first true solo record. “I always wanted to bring in my feelings on electric music. I was hanging out a lot with Tony Williams and a lot of guys who were doing jazz-rock, which was basically guys playing very loudly. Some of the stuff was wild, but it was fun. I remember Tony encouraging me to put ‘Lopsy Lu’ on the record. We made a shortened single of that tune, and it did well. It was something that gave the bassist something to listen to that wasn’t typical R&B or rock. It was a new form of music, and it was different. There were no straight-up in-your-face electric bass records at the time, and I wanted to do that as a composer.”
Clarke’s most impactful solo album was School Days (1976, Nemporer), and the title track became an unlikely hit. On the playback, Clarke told the engineer, Ken Scott, that the bass was too loud. “He said, with a heavy English accent, ‘No, mate, the bass is never too loud when you play.’ That was the first time anyone had ever said anything like that to me. Every little note I played on that song was heard as if I were a vocalist, and that was really the key behind it. It came out, and I was amazed to see a big billboard on Sunset Boulevard promoting the School Days album. It climbed the charts (#34 on The Billboard Charts) and spread worldwide; it was everywhere. I was doing all of these gigs, and I had to put the acoustic bass to the side. I would bring it to the shows and at least play one or two songs on it, but I was turning into this electric bass guy, which was kind of weird. I am glad I did because now so many guys have made solo bass records, and it’s nice. I feel partly responsible and feel good that the electric bass has its place.
After Return to Forever, Clarke continued to remain active as a leader and as a sideman. He toured with the recently deceased Jeff Beck in 1979. “I spent a lot of time with Jeff. He wasn’t just a good friend but a cool friend. He was special. You meet certain guys, and you feel they are invincible, and you never get the idea that they will pass away. I figured he would live to 100 playing ‘Freeway Jam’. Same with Chick Corea. It saddened me when he passed because the guy was like a big light. He was a real instrumentalist. It didn’t matter if he played in front of 20 people or 20,000 people; he could excite an audience.”
Another successful collaboration was with keyboardist George Duke in the early ‘70s.
“I met George around 1971 or 1972, in Europe when he was playing with Cannonball Adderley, and we were friends from that point on. Then when I moved to California, we lived close by, so we hung out almost daily. We made a lot of records and had a lot of fun. When we started making Clarke/Duke records, we were surprised by the success. We recorded those things pretty fast, and then we had a hit with “Sweet Baby,” (#19 Billboard Charts), and we toured forever because of that tune. I remember George asking me; when will they get sick of this tune?”
Another major part of Clarke’s beginning in the 1980s was film scoring, and it all started with an episode of Peewee’s Playhouse, for which he was nominated for an Emmy. Other projects included films such as Boyz n the Hood, Passenger 57, What’s Love Got To Do With It?, and dozens more. “I have thought of myself as a composer since I was 16,” he said, “so being a film composer was a natural thing. I can churn out those things, and I can write really fast. Maybe it’s not all spectacular, but it will be adequate and good. I did a lot of films, and I really enjoyed it. It’s a great art form to mix music, literature, and visual arts.”—JAY SWEET