Stanley Clarke Is the Reason You Love Music

The legendary bass player, who basically invented jazz fusion, speaks about his lengthy career—from collaborating with Keith Richards to Paul McCartney to Miles Davis.

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Dec 14 2017, 4:00pm

When you meet Stanley Clarke, the first thing you notice are his hands. These aren’t conventional palms and metacarpals, but flesh and blood phalanges as giant as foam fingers sold at sporting events. Oven mitts that could make a basketball look like a ping-pong. Or an electric bass shrunk to violin size. Do you remember that episode of The Simpsons where Bleeding Gums Murphy tells Lisa her fingers are too stubby to be a virtuoso? This is the exact opposite. Stanley Clarke was either predestined to be one of the greatest bass players of all-time or re-enact this photo.

We use “legend” these days to describe anyone with a modestly high Klout score and Gucci Goggles, but few adjectives feel more accurate to describe a man so musically inventive that Bill Evans, Miles Davis, and Ray Manzarek all wooed him to join their bands. If a real legend is someone who defined the time and influenced subsequent generations thereafter; Clarke’s picture might as well be in Miriam Webster’s–complete with the levitating afro of the Return to Forever Era.

While his visionary predecessors Scott LaFaro, Charlie Mingus and Ron Carter revolutionized bass playing for the post-bop era, Clarke teleported the instrument to the astral plane—the galactic warp expected when one of your most immortal songs is titled “Vulkan Princess.” Conventional hagiography rightfully insists that Clarke liberated the bass from the confines of steady rhythmic accompaniment. He proved the bass slap could be a lead weapon, as dynamic as the electric guitar wail. Yet that doesn’t quite capture the full scope of Clarke’s chimerical imagination.

Listen to his modern standard, “Lopsy Lu.” The bass lines dip and dive like an aquatic mammal who learned to swim on Soul Train, burbling and plummeting to abyssal depths and effortlessly soaring to perform dazzling aerial feats above the water. It’s rock, jazz, funk, R&B, pop, and occasionally proto hip-hop—which is partially why he’s been sampled by 2Pac, Jay-Z, Mos Def, Wiz Khalifa, Danny Brown, and DJ Shadow.

Among to the first to realize that that genre isn’t real, Clarke emerged as both the first of the fusion generation and the last of the classic jazz godheads. Before turning 25, the Philadelphia native had supported Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, and Pharaoh Sanders. He was slated to be the first to integrate the Philadelphia Orchestra before opting to form Return to Forever with pianist Chick Corea, which catapulted Clarke to crossover stardom, and laid the foundation for a revered solo career.

In between, full-length collaborations materialized alongside with his close friend, the late George Duke, and a stint in the New Barbarians alongside Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones. In the late 80s, Hollywood took notice and he composed the scores for everything from Pee Wee’s Playhouse to Passenger 57, Boyz N’ The Hood to What’s Love Got to Do With It.

Clarke’s canonical work has long been celebrated, but his mentorship to the younger generation of jazz greats is less known. He’s sustained the tradition of Miles Davis as well as any of his peers, constantly integrating precious virtuosos into his backing band, ensuring a sustained vitality and ensuring the lineage lives on. You can see that most clearly in his mentorship of Kamasi Washington, Ronald Bruner Jr., Cameron Graves, and other members of the West Coast Get Down. In particular, you can hear his impact most profoundly through the cosmic pulse of Thundercat.

“I look at Stanley Clarke as a sort of predecessor and I wouldn’t exist if I didn’t know about [him] like that,” Thundercat said in an interview several years ago. “I look at him also like an uncle and I’m always around him now too.”

In person, the avuncular vibe is readily apparent. We meet in his hotel suite several hours before a sudden downpour forces a cancellation of a Sunday night headlining set at the Detroit Jazz Festival earlier this year. Between his towering height and retired decathlete caliber physical fitness, the 66 year old jazz-fusion pioneer looks at least a decade younger than his birth certificate. In the course of an hour-long conversation, we discussed everything from what it’s like to collaborate with Keith Richards and Paul McCartney, to his early years in jazz, to his role in shaping the contemporary West Coast jazz scene.

Noisey: One of your earliest steady gigs was playing in Pharaoh Sanders’ band. What do you remember about that experience?
Stanley Clarke: I played with him about a year-and-a-half back in the New York days. I love playing with Pharaoh, man. It reminds me of the energy that Kamasi has now, because Pharaoh sold a lot of records [too], and kind of filled that void of what I call ‘Afrocentric, Spacetronic music.’

There’s always a void that has to be filled for that every ten or twenty years or so. Pharaoh was that guy back then. It was great. We used to travel and play a lot of colleges. I remember one time we did a show in Harlem out in the street, just in the street. A 3-hour show. We played like 2 songs

What was the jazz scene like in New York when you first moved there in the early 70s?
It was the tail end of the romantic New York vibe. Everybody was there. Miles, Herbie, Wayne Shorter, Monk was still alive. Everything was there. Any night you could go somewhere and see someone. Jazz was a real thing then, it was thick. There were like four, five major jazz clubs and then sort of the B jazz clubs—there had to be 10 of those—then another 10 of these other smaller places. And of course you had the big concert halls.

How was that different from the West Coast jazz scene of that era?
We kind of viewed them as a lighter version of us. We figured they had better drugs or something, just lighter. We would go out there, the music was a little more laid back. I mean a lot of that has to do with the environment too. New York was thick, congested, lots of people, quick, and so the music was a little harder.

What led you to move to LA in 1975?
Herbie Hancock. I think Wayne Shorter came out first, but Herbie Hancock came out right after, and when he came back to New York he looked so healthy. He had on a Hawaiian shirt. He was glistening and happy. He said something really funny, he said, “Man you get fresh orange juice out there in California.”

So then me and Chick [Corea] decided to come out and buy houses and it was kind of a shock for me. Everything was half tempo, and it was a greater distance to get to some places. At first I didn’t like it so much, but me and Chick, our band was always travelling a lot. So we came back and it was kind of a vacation. It was laidback.

What do you think about was about your connection to Chick that allowed for such a successful creative partnership?
It’s something that somebody could do a study on, but I think that it’s just one of the beautiful things about being a human being. Some humans, they just see each other, it has nothing to do with sexuality or anything. Sometimes you meet a person and you connect, sometimes you don’t. I think it’s the basic reason why really interesting creative things get done. Shit, it could be a smell for all I know.

Keith Richards once described his relationship with Mick as not being a friendship, but being a brotherhood and sometimes you fight with your brothers, but you’ll always be blood.
Me and Chick have definitely had those points where you wanna’ hate somebody and you can’t. It takes an effort to hate. I think about long marriages between men and women where there’s a bit of battering going on, on both sides, but you see them both at 80 and they’re smiling before they eventually die.

It’s that same thing. I have that with Chick. It’s good, we haven’t played together in about a year now, but then you start thinking, and oh shit we gotta play again together. It just happens, it’s just the way it is.

What was your experience like with Keith Richards?
I really admired him. Certain musicians I call soldiers. Their whole thing is about putting the music out. It doesn’t matter how rich or poor they are, when you talk to them you don’t even get a sense of materialistic things. There’s certain rappers, certain pop artists, certain types of entertainers you meet, and you get a sense, ‘oh he’s rich, he wants you to know he’s popular.’

And then there’s other guys like Keith Richards. Paul McCartney’s like that too. I’ve recorded with him, been around him, and he’s just like a normal guy sitting in a room. And we’ll be in a room with a whole bunch of other guys and not trip out. Like Prince, bless his heart, but he was a guy that was gonna’ let you know, he’s Prince, period. I’ve heard Elvis Presley was like that too. But some guys, it doesn’t really matter. Keith is like [the first type] and I loved working with him and all those guys.

Did you go down to Jamaica to record at his studio?
Yeah, I spent a couple years playing with those guys in the New Barbarians. We went to a lot of places. I think the first electric bass player I ever took notice of was Bill Wyman. He looked so bored. I said, ‘man I’m never gonna be like that. He looked so bored that I wasn’t even sure he was playing.

I started out playing acoustic bass. Electric bass was just something I played later to play at the parties in high school. Still to this day, when I pick up the electric bass, it’s more of a fun thing. Acoustic bass is more serious.

You originally had a very old world bass teacher as a child in Philadelphia, right?
Yeah, Mr. Rossi man. Old school Italian guy, you played a wrong note and he’d hit you with a paddle. He was that guy. But I’m glad I had him as a teacher because definitely my fundamentals were put in. I’ve taught my share of bass players. Sometimes kids will expect more things out of their teachers—whether it’s music, tennis, or football. There’s certain kids and I was like this, that would rebel against their parents. Not because of lack of love. It’s just something to do.

So if you were in football and you had a great coach or music teacher, you look for certain things. And sometimes if you were a good music teacher like Mr. Rossi was, he would spot these things and teach things a young kid needs to learn. Values. Commitment, discipline. And I passed it on to my students.

I remember one time I was doing an interview for NPR radio in Philadelphia, and I was talking about this and that and this and that, and a call came through, and it was from him. He was about 89, and he got on there and just shut me down. ‘Don’t get too big for your britches!’ I said, “Yes sir, Mr. Rossi, that’s right.”

So teaching in music is a good. I’ve taught a lot of bass players, a lot of famous bass players. Mr. Rossi used to tell me, ‘One day you’ll teach.’ It’s just something you gotta keep passing down to people. I just think it’s a good thing, it keeps the planet hopefully from blowing up quickly.

Who was your favorite bass player when you were younger?
Ron Carter. Just pound for pound, he’s the most recorded acoustic bass player, and there’s a reason for that and it wasn’t just because he was popular. You don’t record 5000 records only because you’re popular. You record because you can do the music. So he was not a specialist, like some guy who just plays funk or some guy who just plays...Ron played all sorts of things.

He was a great inventor of basslines. And he understood the function of the bass really well. Great sound. A very stoic kind of individual. Took me a long time to get used to him, he was like the high school principal of the year.

We just did a duet show at the Blue Note couple months, and I’ve really grown to really love Ron because he’s the kind of guy that you’d want to pattern yourself after if you’re a young musician. He’s got his basics in, his fundamentals are in, and he’s a good guy. A no nonsense kind of guy. I like that.

It feels like you have to know the rules really well before you break them.
Then you gotta just go. Charlie Parker said that best: study, study, study and then forget about it.

When did you fist learn to forget about it?
I was forgetting things probably from the beginning. I was preparing myself to be an orchestral bass player. Jazz was something I could do and I surely liked playing rock n’ roll and funk music and R&B music at that time. But I was really preparing to play in the orchestra, and actually Chick Corea talked me out of that.

Before I met Chick Corea, I was actually gonna audition for the Philadelphia Orchestra. And then, Chick says, ‘man, we can make our own group, we can write our own music. To hell with Bach and Beethoven, we’ll write our own stuff. ‘

I said, ‘they’re just composers, we’re composers too.’ It was a nice way to put it, a little extreme, but there was some truth in it. Somebody’s gotta compose new stuff, so we sure did, and that whole Return to Forever road was a lot of fun. It was really a mish mash or hybrid of all these things coming together. I kinda miss that now, but I think that has a lot to do with the musicians.

Because the record industry has collapsed so much, you don’t really see people taking a long time doing recordings anymore. Everyone’s rushing in the studio now.. Maybe they have to sign less people, and give more money to certain people… something, but their products have suffered.

Do you have a few favorites of your records?
I like the first one Return to Forever album. That was quick, it was done in a couple hours, but we had played around the world for about a year. And then the other record I liked was, Light as a Feather, the one that has “Spain” and all those other tunes, that was nice.

But we spent a long time doing that Romantic Warrior record, and that was like a million-selling record, and no one was singing anywhere on it. I remember when we finished that record we were hanging out with these guys from Yes in England.
They were playing their new record; we played our new record. And it hung with their record. They had a guy singing and we didn’t, but sound-wise it was right there.

But I remember we spent a long time doing it, and really got into the art of recording. And that’s gone, that’s totally gone, unless you wanna put your own money up. It’s very hard to get a record and go, ‘wow, that sounds amazing.’

How do you feel about the LA jazz revival?
You mean, The West Coast Get Down? All those guys were kids when I first recognized them. I remember I was scoring a TV movie, and they wanted some kids to do something live. I think Clint Eastwood had something to do with the production. Something called the Clint Eastwood Theater.

So I had this big call for all the young people to come in, and funny man, every one of those guys in the West Coast Get Down came. Kamasi [Washington], he was a little fat guy, Cameron [Graves] was little. They all came by. Ronald Bruner. And I got to know them, and I saw them grow up.

I’ve been telling people about them for a long time. I told a guy at Capitol Records, who had just signed Robert Glasper. I said he’s cool but you need to check these guys out. He was like ‘ehhhh.’ I knew it would eventually come around. Flying Lotus took notice of those guys, and Thundercat [became big].

There’s a few of them that are step outs. Like [Thundercat], he has not even begun what he can do. He just has to get his thing together. He’s very talented. And he’s a great producer and writer. And he did a lot of putting things together on that Kendrick Lamar album that was really nice. He hasn’t even begun, there’s some other kind of music that’s in him too.

I’m proud of those guys personally. Miles [Mosley] has been coming over for years too and I’m just really happy these guys are doing so well because it’s important for the music to continue.

It’s become arguably as critically and commercially relevant as most rock music.
It was the same thing with us when Return to Forever came out. The height of the fusion stuff in the seventies, we were more popular than 70 percent of the rock bands out. I remember we were playing this theater in New York, a 3000-seat theater, and we played two nights. Each night we had to play 2 shows, so you got 6000 people every night.

I remember the promoter for the Madison Square Garden said that he had this band over there called Styx, these guys with blond hair who were singing some songs. And he said, I should’ve put those guys over here and you guys in the Garden. But it just was not something you would think of, to put a band like ours in Madison Square Garden, but we could’ve done the Garden that night.

It’s interesting how when the West Coast Get Down got that Kendrick cosign, people’s perception shifted.
Yeah and they had to not stop. It’s so easy to give up in music. That’s why I was telling you earlier, there are certain guys who are soldiers, and they don’t give up. They fight until they win or die, so those guys are like that. Those guys were serious. They were like no, this is what I’m doing. I’m not gonna go work at Macy’s. Sometimes becoming a great musician is about how long you can starve at first.

This is neither here nor there, but I’m really interested in the stories that you’ve told in the past about your great-grandmother.
She was 102 or something when she died, and I was about 13. She was around at the end of the Civil War, and was coherent all the way up to the end. She was an African and [Native American] Indian woman. So she had an interesting way she looked at life—very diet-oriented obviously, to live that long.

She was just very simple and very spiritual. It wasn’t traditional Christianity. it was more like the gods. She said all this was bullshit, she said it’s all untrue. In her own way, she was saying everything is all surface, we’re getting taught surface stuff, but the reasons why certain things happen, aren’t often the true story. Like the Civil War—yeah, it was to free the slaves, but it was more about money. I could write books about her.

She predicted MLK’s assassination, right?
Yes, but it wasn’t really a big thing that she predicted it. It was just that she heard him on TV. We had just gotten a TV, and she was used to hearing mainly white people on TV. All of a sudden, she goes, ‘is that a colored man on TV?’

I say, ‘yeah, Martin Luther, the King! And she goes, ‘oh, they’re gonna’ shoot him dead.’ It was that straight Indian thing, just straight. No other stuff. It just wasn’t that difficult to predict, she just didn’t look at life with all the filters that I had even had at 12 years old. She carried food around in her stockings. She could see things.

Here’s what I believe. I believe that if you live long enough, you have enough information to make predictions because you have to have knowledge of the past.

So here’s a woman that’s thinking in her late nineties, and she has all this stuff, and all the stuff she heard from her mother, her African father, and Indian mother. She had 150 years of knowledge and was speaking with that sitting behind her.

What do you predict?
I think that the United States, and all these big countries, we’re just gonna’ keep going. We’re on a pattern. The guys who are behind the scenes are making money. We’re not gonna’ blow up the North Koreans. None of that’s gonna happen. It keeps everybody scared. That’s the biggest thing I can say in a couple seconds, that they keep all the people ignorant and afraid and up tight. That’s not good for music, it’s not good for art, it’s not good for thinking.

If you have fear in the universe, to that degree you’re blind, and politicians do it for a reason and they’re very successful at it. I do believe that one day, much more of the populist political party will come up. I don’t even think they’ll even call it a political party. It’ll just be an uprising of people who work.

I think the whole race thing is a really clever way of keeping people separated. I think something as simple as a DNA test will help people. I have relatives that look like you. I have relatives that look like Miles Davis. So I think that once that happens, so people take their attention off their bodies—because there’s way too much attention on these bodies, physical skin and color and all that stuff.

I hope I’m still alive when that happens. I hope you’re alive when that happens, but I’m in good shape. I’m just keeping my body good so I can see shit. I wanna’ see some of this shit because I do believe in another 20 years, some wild shit’s gonna’ happen.

You have your wars and skirmishes but a lot of that to me just has to do with the leaders wanting to have that on their resumes. Trump is trying to figure out what we can blow up, cause he has to blow some shit up. All of them. Obama, as nice as he supposedly was, still did plenty of warring. That’s part of that gig.

What are the things that have made you happy?
For me, at this point it’s really simplistic. When I come off the road and go home, I see my family and we live in the mountains, so I just sit and look at the view and see some animals. And just see the framework of life without the bullshit. There’s a framework of life, and it’s great.

We build buildings, problems, all these different things. I like to see just nature, see how life goes naturally. It’s fun and kind of relaxing to me. But I also like getting into the shit. I like getting in the mix, and mixing it up a little bit. It’s a game. Life is definitely a game for me. The dirty, the good or whatever, if you just keep yourself together and you’re smart, you can maneuver through it.

Jeff Weiss would like you to listen to more jazz. Follow him on Twitter.