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Stanley Clarke: Back to Basics

The pioneering electric bassist talks about jazz in suits and turning down Miles Davis

Stanley Clarke’s shadow looms large on the electric bass world. He’s one of a handful of musicians that made the music scene acknowledge the instrument as a versatile and vital force capable of a kaleidoscope of colors, textures and percussive elements previously ascribed to more conventional lead instruments. Clarke’s groundbreaking work on albums such as his eponymous 1974 effort and 1976’s School Days played a paramount role in establishing slapping, popping and strumming in the bass guitar lexicon. Clarke still carries the fusion torch in his solo work, in addition to exploring the pop, R&B and soundtrack worlds. He discusses the catalysts that first drove him to bridge genres, sacrificing major opportunities to pursue his vision, and his obligations to his audience in this excerpt from my book Innerviews: Music Without Borders.

Describe the origins of your jazz-fusion leanings.

That was a result of all the music I was listening to, especially as a kid growing up. I was affected by music in the ’60s and very early ’70s. That stuff was jazz, rock and roll, R&B, and Motown. I wasn’t much of a puritan in those days and I’m still not. I turned on the radio and if something felt or sounded good, I liked it. When I was young, it affected me in a certain way that would make me want to make music like that. I don’t want to sound like I’m defending what I did because I’m not at all. I’m just comparing that to some of the younger jazz musicians today who have figured out how to be real purists-especially the guys following in the footsteps of Wynton Marsalis. I mean, it’s amazing. I see some of those guys and they have these suits and ties on. I actually sometimes have my own little interviews with those guys and say “Don’t you get hot playing in those things? A suit and a tie? Imagine if you had some jeans on!” [laughs]

You worked with Art Blakey early in your career. How do you look back at your tenure in his group?

I played with Art for just under a year during my last year of college. We toured a lot between the end of ’71 and ’72. He was the swinging-est drummer I’ve ever played with in my life. He was raw and a true jazz musician in every way-the way he talked and the way he was. I’m really glad I had that experience because there are things that I still use to this day that I got from him. He was proud of the contributions that black people made to music and the American art form that is jazz. He always talked about that and really taught us. He made me feel that I should respect myself as a musician, and more so, as a jazz musician-a black jazz musician. He said “You’re part of the story and you have a major responsibility to keep that going.” It was a great, great feeling.

You once turned down Miles Davis when he asked you to join his group. Why?

Miles used to come see Return to Forever at the Village Vanguard. In those days, it was still done the way they did it in the ’50s. I’ll never forget it. Miles came to the Vanguard in this weird, red leather outfit. It almost looked pre-Michael Jackson. He said in his Miles voice “You don’t want to play with Chick. Forget Chick. Come and play with me.” But I was very loyal to Chick and the movement we were trying to create. I looked at Miles and I looked at Chick and the bigger picture. I felt I could do more with Chick than Miles. So instead, I’d hang out with Miles and go see him a lot because we used to live near one another.

To this day, you still play “School Days” during your concerts. Describe your relationship with the piece after all this time.

One of the things that used to bother me more than anything-but I’ve learned to live with it-is that damn song. Everywhere I go, there is someone out there yelling “School Days.” I tried one year not to play it and that was not a good idea. I finally realized I better play the song at a gig in Detroit. We’re getting ready to play the last number and I picked up an acoustic bass. When I got to a quiet part, this dude got up and said “Man, you gonna play ‘School Days’ before you leave this place!” He was from deep in the ghetto and continued “You don’t even think you gonna get outta here without playing it.” [laughs] That’s one of the few times I’ve played “School Days” on the acoustic bass. Larry Carlton said “You’re lucky. Not everyone can say they have a career song.” So, I view it that way. It’s something I have to play because the people wanna hear it. It actually causes more harm not to play it. [laughs]

The complete interview is published in Innerviews: Music Without Borders book available from the Abstract Logix web site.

Originally Published