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.

AAJ: The New York days, with Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, Pharaoh Saunders, Gil Evans, Stan Getz, and a young Chick Corea. Were you aware of the importance of those days? I remember interviewing Chick Corea when I was too young to appreciate that moment completely, and today, looking back, I know I was a lucky person.

SC: Ah, not really. I think, and maybe this is one of the reasons that will explain to you why, when you interviewed Chick Corea years ago, and you were like eighteen years old, you were not really aware of the magnitude of that moment; jazz musicians, traditionally—and I hate to use this word because it has been so overused—they kinda have this "underdog" mentality. But it's just kinda like you don't have an over reaching, flamboyant kind of thing, like a rock musician. If you remember Prince, when he first came on the scene, you never had a perception of Prince being anything other than what he is now. As a matter of fact he couldn't get any bigger; he was just big, even when he didn't sell a lot of records. A lot of musicians are like that. He came out, and part of the presentation was this "I am a rock star," and everything, down to what was said, done, and, of course, played—which can be the least thing on the list—is part of the package.

With jazz musicians, it's the opposite. I can actually say, and I know Chick never did, that I have never said or even thought "Wow, I'm a legend." I'm not even going to try to like that word. When people say "Oh, Stanley, you are a living legend," I go, "Really?..well..." [laughs]. The big thing that jazz musicians do, it's kinda like the guy that's in the back room and is really struggling to get this picture-perfect. He is not out there in the world letting it see what kind of pants he is wearing that day, and definitely is not letting the world know what he thinks about anything. You will never see anybody on TV ask a jazz musician, "What do you think of President Obama?."

I remember something this one time, I got a big laugh out of it, but I felt sorry for the artist. One time they had this interview, I think it was Britney Spears, and they asked her what she thought of George Bush, or something to do with George Bush, and you could see that she was totally unequipped, and didn't know what to answer, and had no clue what they had asked her. So she replied something, and the next day everybody was on it. I don't think it was her fault, I mean, that wasn't her job: she is a singer. I felt bad for her. But because those kinds of audiences are out there, humans tend to think that you know something they don't know. And it's not true.

The way this world is set up, it's just a business and it is for certain individuals to do this or that and to be presented a certain way. It has nothing to do with your intelligence. There are a few guys I know that nobody knows, and I may think they are incredible, and maybe they made one or two records, and they can have great conversations. I was very happy when Frank Zappa was getting interviewed a lot, because people started to see that he was a really articulate man, but because of his persona, no one would even think of asking him anything. They thought he was always on drugs or something, and I think he might have never done drugs in his life.

So, getting back to your question: as a musician, I was only interested in sounding good. It didn't matter, even in some cases, how much we were getting paid. We were just out there really trying to sound good and living up to the tradition of jazz music, and the guys that came before us. Like for instance, I didn't really realize how big Return to Forever was until the last reunion that we did a couple of years ago. It was huge; we could have played any of those places two or three times, and we didn't, because we said we couldn't do it. But that was a pretty important band, and all those individuals have their own history.

The great thing about Chick Corea, myself and [drummer] Lenny White, and not so much with [guitarist] Al Di Meola, is that we can go back to those guys. Chick and I played with Art Blakey; I played with Dexter Gordon, and we both played with Stan Getz; Lenny White played with Jackie McLean and a lot of older jazz musicians, so we had that in common. So whether we knew that was big, it's not something you thought about; if I would have thought about it at the time, I wouldn't have been with those people, I wouldn't have played the way I did. It's kinda like an oxymoron in concept, to have those two things together; a guy that thinks he is so big and there he is, playing at nineteen with Dexter Gordon. You're so scared you can't think of anything [laughs].
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