Jazz series part III: Spotlight on Stanley Clarke

Stanley Clark
Stanley Clark

Jazz is an important part of America’s musical history. Detroit, in particular, has a strong link to jazz and has been a required tour stop for legendary giants over the years – some even got their starts there. The MSR, in an occasional series, will feature conversations with several jazz artists.

 His sound is unmistakable. He’s an artist, performer, arranger and film score maker. He’s a jazz-fusion pioneer. His latest recording is Grammy nominated, and if he wins, it will be Stanley Clarke’s fifth in his legendary career that spans as many decades.

He was introduced to jazz by his mom, who played big band records in the house, said Clarke said during an interview session with Voice of America commentator Russ Davis last year. “The records I listened to…and the record that really caused a major psychological stir in me musically when I heard the record [is] A Love Supreme, by John Coltrane. Of all the jazz albums I’ve listened to, it was something different about it spiritually than some other music.”

Motown and other music were influences as well, continued Clarke. “I have a lot of affinity for R&B musicians, funk musicians, rock musicians — personally I don’t believe in genres,” and such labels are often assigned for commercial purposes, he notes. “The idea or thinking that you can’t play together because someone put a title on you is stupid. All music is valid, whether it’s James Brown or Marvin Gaye.”

He landed gigs almost immediately after his graduation from the Philadelphia Academy of Music in 1971 with Horace Silver, Pharoah Saunders, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon and Stan Getz among other notable bandleaders. “The most significant among the teachers I had was Art Blakey. I learned a lot from him, and also Stan Getz was a great teacher. And Horace Silver was like a high school principal — he was real tough,” recalled Clarke.

Clarke’s iconic School Days (1976), according to his website, “has since become a must-learn for nearly every up-and-coming bassist, regardless of genre.” It literally came about after Clarke heard his name announced on an awards show, he said. “Mel Torme and Ella Fitzgerald were the presenters. I got chills — I was so happy. Believe it or not, right after that I wrote School Days.”

To his credit, Clarke’s discography includes 21 albums as a leader, 10 with Return to Forever, 23 as a co-leader/band member, including three with his late friend George Duke. He has also produced albums for Natalie Cole, Rodney Franklin, Ramsey Lewis and Nancy Wilson.

Among his 65-plus film and television scores are The Five Heartbeats (1991), Boyz n the Hood (1991) and What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993). He got into film scoring when a friend who was working on a documentary asked him to write a soundtrack, Clarke said during the interview at the 2014 Detroit Jazz Festival. “I enjoy writing music about the human experience.”

During the audience Q&A, someone asked how he learned to play the bass with his thumb.  “Actually, the guy who showed me how to play with a thumb was a drummer, Lenny White,” responded Clarke to the questioner, who just happened to be Lenny White, a Return to Forever (RTF) bandmate (1973-1976).

White told the MSR afterwards, “I’ve known [Clarke] since he was 19 years old. He played with me longer than he played with Chick or anybody. We’ve gone 42, 43 years playing bass and drums together.”

Clarke co-founded RTF with Chick Corea, who he first ran into in his hometown Philadelphia in the early 1970s. “I’ve heard that he played with Miles Davis. That was all I knew.  We [hung] out and talked about music, and talked about the future.

“And Chick was always a step ahead thinking about the future. He talked about putting a band together and making some music. And I asked, ‘What kind of music?’ [He said], ‘I don’t know, but something in the future.’”

As a result, the two contemporaries discussed making music “with no restraints or technicalities,” noted the bassist. “We didn’t know how we were going to do it, but we were going to make sure that when a guy listened to it, they could see that it was something new. You may not quite fully 100 percent understand it, but it’s not something that would go by the wayside.”

When asked if an on-stage RTF reunion is in the offering, Clarke replied, “All I can say is that right now Return to Forever is not in the balance.”

He also talked about his friendship with “big brother” Duke, who died in 2013. “I had the most fun I ever had playing music with George,” said Clarke of the late producer, arranger and musician. “He was a serious guy, but for somebody to be that serious about music, at the same time [he did] not take himself so serious.”

Davis told the MSR afterwards that he wished he’d had more than an hour to talk to Clarke on his film work, RTF and Duke. “When you think of Stanley Clarke, you think of him, Chick, Al Di Meola, and the other members of RTF over the years,” said the interviewer. “You think about him and George Duke because they were like brothers. They were like family. They really were a special duo. They made music that was sweet…

“He is such a deep and spiritual kind of person,” said Davis of Clarke.

Clarke believes jazz is ideal for intimate surroundings, not stadium-like venues. “You can feel the audience,” he concluded.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com