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An Interview with Stanley Clarke

Stanley Clarke by Guillaume Laurent
Photo by Guillaume Laurent

When bassists list people who constitute legends, there is one name that is continually mentioned: Stanley Clarke. There are very few bassists who have been as innovative, who have crossed styles and musical barriers, and who have changed the way we approach the bass in the way that Stanley has over his still-flourishing career. Was this an intentional guided evolution? Oh yes. In the first moments of our interview, Clarke admitted he was on a musical-mission and proclaimed, laughing: “I am proud to announce the bass is liberated.”

We met Stanley Clarke in the backroom of the House of Blues, Cleveland Ohio, before Corea, Clarke and White took the stage. He and Lenny White were relaxing before the show, telling jokes on the couch with empty take-out boxes and 60 Minutes playing on the TV. Stanley was very warm and was happy to share a bit about his life and his hopes for the bass in mainstream music.

When the opportunity to speak with a living legend arrives you try to get as much insight as possible. Clarke’s eloquent responses did not disappoint – a genius teacher passing wisdom and challenges onto the future generations. Clarke identifies with music on a completely different level – when asked about finding his style he said it was more just who he was than a conscious choice:

“I really got into just playing jazz music… My heroes were Miles Davis and all the bass players that played like Mingus, Richard Davis, Ron Carter, Paul Chambers. So that’s kind of a… that music is like a tradition. I don’t look at it so much as a style. It’s more like you ask me if I’m African-American. I’m African-American. The jazz thing is close to that. I wasn’t like ‘well let me see what style am I going to play’. That’s more for now because there’s so many different genres of music that are out there, you know, so you can say well I’m going to be a rock musician, I’m going to be a jazz musician. When I was coming up, I really … I almost didn’t have a choice, it’s just what I did.”

He recalled watching the Rolling Stones on TV when he was 13: “Everybody was having fun except Bill Wyman, who was playing bass and he looked so bored. And I thought ‘what the hell is wrong with him?’ And I said I would never want to be like that.”

He certainly never was. Clarke was very deliberate in his musical career and was not afraid to push the envelope. He was the first person to headline venues as a bass player in modern American music.

“Well, it wasn’t really that easy for me. There were a lot of promoters that would actually hire me to play their place, but they didn’t….to some degree it was slightly illegitimate, meaning, I remember one time I was playing in Indiana, it was after an album I had called Journey to Love and it was like number 30 in the pop charts, you know like a bass player jazz album. So I went to Indiana to this sold out place – a 2000 seater – and this promoter just said here’s this guy, he didn’t know me from Adam, this guy that sells tickets playing a bass. So, when I got done, coming off the stage, you’d think that the promoter would say ‘Man, it was great! You sold this place out, thank you.’ He says, ‘You know, I still don’t believe this.’ You know, it was like something not quite legitimate about it, because I was the only one. A lot of times, when you are the only one, there’s a slight illegitimacy to it, you know, so when you get more… I was happy when Jaco Pastorius came on the scene. Later, you know, you got the Marcus Millers, the Victor Wootens, and all those types, now it’s more legitimate, you know, real legitimate, you have the bass as a solo instrument, like, it’s like apple pie, and, you know… normal.”

Bassists headlining gigs and producing solo albums has certainly become a normal activity. What is not normal is a band reunion where every member has had a successful solo career. Clarke said being back together with Corea and White is just as electrifying – he’s known them since he was 19. Is the chemistry still there?

“Oh yeah,” Clarke says, “because we have a language that we all know. We come from the same root that goes back to you know, Charlie Parker, or even back to Louis Armstrong. It’s like it’s a tree, you know, it’s really there – really strong. It’s hard to explain, but it’s just there and it’s just it.”

Clarke’s mentioned before how physically demanding upright bass is – beautiful, but very cumbersome. There is a lot of adaptation that a player needs to go through to really get inside the instrument and find what works well. His own journey started with classical training:

“Well, you know I was fortunate enough, I had a little tiny Italian bass teacher named Mr. [Eligio] Rossi, and he was probably 2 feet tall. I used to call him my little Roman friend.” Laughing, he continued, “He’s more responsible for me. He just passed away at 95 – a long life, and he was like the greatest teacher. First of all, at the time when I was coming up he was training me to be a virtuoso on the bass. He said ‘we’re going to play solos on the bass’ and even in those days it was uncommon, even in orchestras for African-American bass players to get into the symphony system. He never put that in my head like some other teachers I had. They would just tell me ‘forget it, just do this and don’t do that…’ But he trained me, you know, I got the same concertos and sonatas as all the other guys, I guess because he felt that I had natural talent or something, he just really spent a lot of time with me. And all the techniques and things, I still use a lot of his techniques. You know, he was a tremendous teacher.”

What is Clarke’s perspective on the bass world as it stands today? Did he expect the bass “explosion” that has occurred in music?

“Well, you know, it’s kind of like with a lot of things, when things expand, and for the first time you never really know what to say or even if you think if it needs to be controlled or needs to be thought about. Let’s put it this way – there are thousands of bass records out. There are people, you know, they’re like leaders as bass players. Are they all good? No.” Looking at Lenny and laughing he says, “You know you can say the same for drummers that have records,” before adding, “you know, it’s all fine, it’s all moving forward.”

Continuing in that vein we wanted to know who Clarke was listening to now – bassists who he appreciates as a musician.

“Well, some of the bass players I like – Victor Wooten, I think Victor Wooten on the electric bass is like a culmination of a lot of things, you know, all the guys that came before him. He does all that popping, slapping, thumping, double pumping… You know, all that,” he says laughing. “You know, he does it all, and then he’s musical. He just has to get his compositions together. You know, as he gets older he’ll learn how to write. When you write for the bass you don’t really write for the bass. You just write good music with good melodies and you adapt it to the bass. You know that’s kind of what you do there. Acoustic bass players, I like this Israeli bass player Avishai Cohen. I like Christian McBride. I don’t like that he’s got his 20 year anniversary, like he’s some old man,” he says with a smile, “he’s still a kid to me.”

Getting back to Clarke’s mission – liberating the bass – he leaves us with the following challenge for the next generation of bass players: “Write good songs.

He passionately continues on what the bass community needs (and it’s not what you think):

“For real, you know, [to] not just rely on the whole popping and slapping stuff. It’s all been overdone. It’s to a point where there’s bass players where that’s all they do. I go on, sometimes as a kick, I’ll go on YouTube, and I’ll see some bass players doing stuff and they’re looking too much at technique, you know, and I feel like I’m a little responsible for that… But underneath my technique, you know, is a real… I would like to say it is a real sound musical foundation. I know tunes, I know scales, I know theories, I’m a composer, I can write music, and I can read music, all those important building blocks to becoming a solid musician. I mean, forget being good or bad, just be solid. Even a very solid bad musician still has to have those foundations. You can write like shit, your melodies can be horrible but at least the guy can write. At least he can put it down on paper, you know?”

As we wrapped things up everyone is preparing to go on stage, for what is going to be an awesome show. What’s on the horizon for Clarke? “Well, I got a new album, more tours, I’m launching a new web site that’s kind of interesting, having to do with education, and you know, just moving forward,” he says.

Moving forward indeed. Clarke continues to be innovative on the bass and will keep pushing our societies musical boundaries with his art. We’ve got his challenge – write good songs – and now we, as bassists, must also move forward with that in mind.

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robwaxman

robwaxman

Stanley continues to be The Man. I don't know how many times I've seen him over the last 35 years. Thanks for a nice interview with him.

robwaxman

robwaxman

Stanley continues to be The Man. I don't know how many times I've seen him over the last 35 years. Thanks for a nice interview with him.

Carlos G

Carlos G

This was a GREAT interview, I look forward to meeting the man eventually…and I for one WILL take him up on the mission..write GREAT songs!