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Eric Clapton: Extra Cream

Electric guitar legend Eric Clapton has more than a passing acquaintance with jazz in its pre- and postbop forms. He’s a longtime fan of the music on his own and also as a member of the recently reactivated English power-trio Cream.

That band’s extended blues-rock jams introduced a generation of young fans to fiery, jazz-inspired improvisation and intricate instrumental interplay.

During a BBC TV special last year, on the eve of Cream’s first reunion concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall, bassist-singer Jack Bruce cited Ornette Coleman as a prime inspiration for him and drummer Ginger Baker during Cream’s first run from 1966 to 1968. However, Bruce noted, he and Baker neglected to inform Clapton of their freewheeling jazz inspiration or the guitarist’s unwitting participation.

“That sounds like Jack,” the guitarist-singer said by phone from his London office. “They never told me that, but that sounds quite appropriate.”

Bruce elaborated on his remarks in February 2006 in Los Angeles, where he was on hand to accept Cream’s Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. (Clapton and Baker did not attend.)

“It was a kind of a facetious way of trying to explain the truth, which was that we thought we were a jazz rhythm section, and Eric wasn’t a jazz musician,” Bruce said. “It worked pretty well, because we sold shitloads of records.”


More activity is expected from Cream after Clapton completes the first leg of his world tour with an August 3 concert in Moscow’s Red Square. In the meantime, here’s what he had to say about his lifelong passion for jazz and its impact on him.

In photos from 1964 with your first band of note, the Yardbirds, you wore a sharp suit with a skinny tie that strongly evoked the way the Modern Jazz Quartet used to look on their Atlantic Records album covers. Was your fashion sense at the time influenced by jazz?

That was the idea then. My state of attire in those days was Ivy League, and I was a big jazz fan. And buying albums by Lee Morgan and John Coltrane, and seeing some of the album covers and the way those guys got dressed up on them was very powerful for me.

Nathan East, your longtime bassist, has told me that you are a fan, as you just mentioned, of Coltrane and Morgan, as well as of Thelonious Monk. But you’ve rarely discussed the music’s impact on you, perhaps because no one’s asked. How do you feel jazz has shaped the music you make, directly or indirectly?


Growing up, I was listening to them, blues and jazz, at the same time. I remember going into a record store in Richmond, outside London, and they only had blues and jazz, no pop records at all. So I’d be buying an acoustic blues album by John Lee Hooker, alongside albums by Monk or Clifford Brown. And, to me, listening to it, I couldn’t actually make any distinction between the two things. I had no real idea that there was supposed to be any division between the two things.

And the way the music scene existed [in England]; people would play in the same clubs. Ronnie Scott’s [a jazz club in London] would have Rahsaan Roland Kirk one week, and then Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee the following week. So it seemed like the same tree to me, or, rather, it sounded like different branches on the same tree.

Could you talk about the musical impact of jazz on your own playing? Obviously, you couldn’t run the changes the way Coltrane did on the saxophone. But how did hearing him influence what you did on guitar?


I think just the atmosphere and the spontaneity, the creativity of it, was kind of what we drew from when we got onstage in Cream, [with] a lot of that free-form stuff, although it was still pretty limited in its tonality. And everything I was playing was only coming from the blues scale and moving out of blues and rock phrasing. But the atmosphere and intention was to try and escape [the confines of blues and rock]. And a lot of that came out of the listening I did to early Coltrane.

I bought a few Red Garland albums recently, with Coltrane on them. He was young and was playing like a lunatic; he was wailing and it was almost ugly and showing off, and I don’t think that was his intention. But he just couldn’t contain himself. It was crazy playing, but it was something akin to what we did in Cream.

The last time I interviewed John McLaughlin I asked him what he thought his musical strengths and weaknesses were. And it was very humbling to hear someone who is as great a player as he is respond that he was frustrated that he couldn’t play all the things he could think of. What do you think are your strengths and weaknesses?


[Laughs] I’m probably the opposite of John, in that he can probably think of things he wants to play and can’t, and I can’t think of anything at all! My playing far outreaches my ability to play what I can think. That’s why I could never be a jazz musician, because I can’t hear it in my head. I play from somewhere else, where it simply goes to my hands. I’ve tried a couple of times to sing along while I’m playing, and I can’t do it. Now and then, I’ve been able to, but most of the time I’m severely limited in that respect.

Actually, don’t you do a bit of scat-singing in unison with your guitar playing on “So Tired,” the opening cut on Back Home, your latest solo album?

That just kind of evolved. It’s one of the few instances I’ve done that.


In 1997, you did a Europe-only tour with a band that teamed you with Joe Sample, David Sanborn, Steve Gadd and Marcus Miller [now available on DVD as Legends Live at Montreux]. I’m curious what the nature of that band’s music was, and if anyone was the leader or if you all met in the middle?

Well, the person who was the leader was Marcus. It was his vehicle and he was out front; it was like a bass-guitar band, and it was fun. And he doesn’t have any problem taking that role. He leads from that area of the rhythm section entirely, and that’s what you’re going to get. And I knew that going into it, and it was great. We all fit in around that. The only person I thought was a little overshadowed, simply by the nature of his gentility, was Joe Sample because it was quite a raucous outfit.

In 2003 you played with Wynton Marsalis at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, in a benefit concert for Jazz at Lincoln Center. What songs did you do together?


Yeah, I was a guest at one of his benefits. I did Bessie Smith’s “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” and a Louis Armstrong song. Hmm. What was it called?

How was it to play with Wynton and his band?

It was a little nerve-wracking. I mean, Ray Charles was on the same bill and he was making mistakes in rehearsals and even during the show because Wynton comes up with some pretty intricate arrangements. I had to almost ignore the arrangements and just plow on through. It was great to listen to later [on tape], and he’s a lovely man to work with.

Do you anticipate doing more collaborations with him?

I think so. I can see that we get on very well.


I’ve always found it intriguing and ironic that Europeans have usually been far better informed, and reverent, about American blues and jazz than many Americans. Art Blakey once told me that the first time he toured Japan in the late 1950s, he was stunned to find that fans there knew more about his career than he did. And Robert Cray told me, after his first tour of Brazil, that he heard more blues and R&B on Brazilian radio than he’d ever heard on any American radio station.

Why do you think it is that you and an entire generation of young English people embraced blues in the late 1950s and early 1960s, while Americans had all his great music in their backyard and largely ignored it? Or at least they ignored it until bands like the Yardbirds, the Stones and Cream started singing the praises of B.B. King, Robert Johnson and all the other blues greats who were under peoples’ noses here in the United States all along?

I think it’s quite fundamental and simple, really. We never recognize things in our own front yard. We had the same thing here where I would talk to, for instance, Greg Phillinganes [a noted African-American keyboardist and longtime Clapton band member] about our roots. And he was motivated not by Ray Charles but by the Dave Clark Five! And that shocked me to my core. I realized that in the ’60s even black R&B musicians were in awe of the Beatles, so it goes both ways.


We were able, in England, to see the situation in America in a way you couldn’t. And we didn’t have to deal with civil rights issues and the political situation, which probably overshadowed your communities, because it would bring in too many ambiguous and difficult issues. When I started listening to radio here, everything that was fun and good was from abroad. I didn’t like anything being made here-Cliff Richard and Billy Fury and Marty Wilde-and these people were crap, as far as I was concerned about it. Because they were English, I didn’t like them. I liked Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry and Fats Domino. When I first saw a picture of Chuck, I thought he was Cuban or Mexican! I had no idea what the political ramifications were with any of these people. I was just free to hear the music; nothing hinged on politics or social issues at all. And you had all these great artists like Muddy and B.B. who you could listen to and learn from.

How did your perspective change after meeting and befriending Muddy?

It didn’t change my appreciation at all. I’ve always been a bit cautious about meeting people I admire. Because if you like a comedian then when you meet that comedian you feel like you have to say something funny. It’s very difficult to strike up a relationship with people I admire because I want to retain that [awe] and keep them on the pedestal.


And the minute it looks like we’ll become equals, I feel very confused! [Laughs] So, meeting Muddy, I always tried to keep him at a distance and treat him like a father figure, and it’s a position he felt comfortable with.

How about your relationship with B.B.?

Well, me and B.B. get on fine and he treats me like an equal, but I don’t see it that way. He’s like a father figure and uncle. He’s this genius artist to me. I can’t ever see myself as being in the same league with him.

B.B. King once told me that until the mid-1960s, when various rock bands in England began singing his praises, he thought of himself as a singer who played guitar, but that now he thinks of himself as a guitarist who sings. How do you think of him, and does the constant focus on you as a “legendary guitar hero” diminish the fact that you are also a gifted and soulful singer?


Well, I’ve always thought of B.B. as a singer who played the guitar, too. But really I think when I heard his early stuff it seemed the guitar playing was just to complement the vocals. Then I heard his live albums, like Live at the Regal, and realized it was a whole different ballgame. Finding out what people are like live, when you see some of the great R&B and blues people live, you get a different picture, and sometimes it’s more accurate.

And it’s the same for me. When I’m making a record, we’re trying to preserve the perspective of the piece-that’s the most important prerogative. Onstage I have a much more open approach to it; it can go anywhere and I think it needs to go anywhere. When the audience is sitting in front of you, it doesn’t show any respect to them to confine it like the record. And that’s the point, onstage, where we become musicians, when we learn to play off the songs and off each other.

Out of curiosity, did you ever meet Miles Davis? And if so, do you have a favorite Miles anecdote you’d like to share?


I only met him once, in the Rome airport. And funnily enough, what he said was pretty funny. He was surrounded by his musicians-we were both in transit-and I summoned up the courage to talk with him. Because I’d had a very brief liaison with one of his wives, Betty [Mabry] Davis-we kind of hung out for a while-and I didn’t know who she was, or that there was a connection between her and Miles. When he found out, he got pretty upset and said some mean things about me in the press.

So, years later, I bumped into him in Rome and plucked up the courage to talk to him. And he had been sick for a while so I said, “Miles, it’s Eric Clapton. I just wanted to come over and say hello and that I hope you are feeling better.” He said, “What do you mean, ‘better’?” And I said, “Well, I heard you were sick recently.” And he said, “Yeah, I was sick of my band!” He wasn’t particularly friendly, so I said, “Nice to meet you,” and I backed off.

Originally Published

George Varga

George Varga began drumming in bands at 12 and writing professionally about music at 15. A Louisiana native who grew up mostly in Germany, he has earned three Pulitzer Prize nominations as the music critic at the San Diego Union-Tribune. In 2002, he created and taught the UC San Diego Extension course, “Jazz in a Post-Ken-Burns World.” Varga’s latest project is Acid Reflux & The Wardrobe Malfunctions, a free-jazz Ashlee Simpson/Janet Jackson tribute band.