Stanley Clarke: Path Maker

Esther Berlanga-Ryan By

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Innovation is a cherished quality in any art form and, truth be told, some follow greatness while others create the patterns that make that same greatness possible. There are teachers, and then, there are students. In jazz, musicians skilled in all sorts of instruments tend to look at their older peers in amazement, and challenges within their very souls are triggered and fed by an almost supernatural need to be unique; for only those who manage to be unique will make greatness their lawful residence. Bassist Stanley Clarke is definitely part of that elite of innovators; the path makers.

At an early age, the Philadelphia native already knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. The bass was going to be his voice. He looked up to giants like John Coltrane and Miles Davis, and his first years were marked by musical contact with respected jazz musicians such as Pharoah Sanders, Art Blakey, Joe Henderson and Dexter Gordon. He was young and he learned well. The rest was just a matter of time.

With Chick Corea and Return to Forever, Clarke had his golden opportunity to explore new horizons within jazz in the 1970s that other bands like Weather Report and Mahavishnu Orchestra had also made their main priority. The journey was grand. The music was expanding, and jazz had, in these musicians, a new door to improvisation never explored before. Their influence lives on, and today they are still considered brilliant by most, with Clarke continuing to reign on an instrument that some believe he gave the ability to speak other beautiful languages.

In June, 2010 he released The Stanley Clarke Band(Heads Up, 2010), featuring pianist Hiromi, keyboardist Ruslan Sirota and drummer Ronald Bruner Jr.—a group effort, where he gave room to his musicians to grow while making one thing very clear: he still knows what innovation is all about.

All About Jazz: Who is Stanley Clarke today?

Stanley Clarke: Stanley Clarke today is a father, a musician, a guy who thinks he is younger than he really is [laughs]. A lot of things.

AAJ: What has changed since the days of the Philadelphia Academy of Music? Is there anything that when you look back to those days you think "Wow, that's different"?

SC: Well, I think I am always amazed at how simplistic and idealistic I was, and just in general how young people are when we are young, and just kinda how that changes. I think that I am less idealistic on certain things and maybe more on others right now. But you shift. There is always a shift when you get older, especially in the art world, when you have art endeavors, when you have things you try to do creatively. This society that we live in is not necessarily set up for that, is not necessarily set up to make it easy for the purest, for someone that has some sort of art that they want to share with people. It's not really set up for that, although there are things you can do with the help of others—lawyers, agents, etc.—that would give you the appearance that your message is getting through, and that makes it easier. But it is fascinating, actually, to see every year exactly what's happening out here.

AAJ: Anything that you would have liked to have stayed the same, personally or professionally?

SC: There was that girlfriend... [laughs]...[but] no, not really. I'm actually happy with all the changes and everything that I've done, particularly in music. I wouldn't trade it for anything, not even the stuff I was doing at the time and maybe I thought it was a mistake. I am glad that I did it just for the sake of knowing and understanding what things not to do. Definitely wouldn't do it again, but perhaps I could tell someone else about it to help them out. It's a very interesting thing and you spend a good part of your teenage years and then your college years really focused on something. Most people are not like that on the planet. They get out of school and they might get a job, and maybe that job is not exactly what they wanted to do, even if they like it. Some of us are very lucky; I do consider it in part to be luck. There is talent, but there is some luck too. To come out and actually do exactly what you want to do.

Most people are really focused on something, like I was really focused on bass, and I know some people that were focused on other instruments and things, and you spend all the time, in a lot of ways, just into this thing, and when you hit the real world you are not particularly trained or equipped for the kind of horrible things that can happen to you, if you walk into a blind world. You don't have all that. And it can be pretty shocking when reality hits you. You come out of college, and you're going to get married, take care of a family, or hell, maybe you just have to take care of yourself, or you have a message or something you want to put out artistically, not only musically, but also as a painter or as a writer, and you are in a particular environment and it feels like everything in that environment is against you or preventing you from doing what you want to do, and that affects your psychology, and all that, and you have to be able to maneuver all the time in the world of art. I think that's the biggest thing.



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