Stanley Clarke

Interview by Dennis Morgillo

An Interview with Stanley Clarke
by Dennis Morgillo

Stanley Clarke is the premier Bass Guitarist of our time. Stanley brought the Bass to the forefront as a spotlight instrument and rose to fame spearheading the Jazz Rock Fusion genre with Return to Forever and his solo albums. He has played with everyone - Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, George Duke and Miles Davis. He is a Producer, Musician, Band Leader, and Film Composer. We recently had the opportunity to talk to Stanley on the NYC leg of his current tour.

Madhouse: I just saw that you are participating in the new opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African History and Culture in Washington D.C, so that sounds like a great honor tell us what’s going on with that.
Stanley Clarke: It’s a part of the Smithsonian museum that deals with the history of the African American scene going all the way back to slavery until now and it has a lot of important documents and stuff and the other thing that is really nice is that is has the music from that point until now… You know someone could walk in from a different planet and could figure out who these people are we call African Americans.  You could go in there, it’s a great narrative using physical objects and written documents.  It’s a huge display too!  So I’m really excited to be a part of that platform.

Madhouse: So you were born in Philly and you studied the acoustic bass.  Now this was during the 60’s so were you strictly a jazz guy or did you do any Pop and Rock?
Stanley: No I was mostly a jazz player but to be honest I started out studying classical musical on the acoustic bass.  I was attempting to become a classical bass player in an orchestra.  But like other kids during my time I studied Motown and I was influenced by Rock guys like Jimi Hendrix.  You know honestly I don’t think there is any 100% jazz player.  As you get older you realize all the guys from my time were multi-genre musicians and you were only labeled as one when the media tried selling you.  I listened to all genres on the radio, whatever I had access to.  But Jazz for me was a study.  I could play Motown and I could play rock but jazz was more complex so you really had to sit down and listen to those jazz records in order to play them.  

Madhouse: Now to get your level of playing how much time did you put in as a kid ‘cause you know I heard Charlie Parker he practiced 12 hours a day, 7 days a week for like 3 years to get to his level.  Did you put in that kind of time or was it more natural?
Stanley: Yea I was a pretty intense guy when it came to practicing.  I used to practice everyday, 5 hours a day for a good amount of years of my childhood.  Solid practicing.  You know when you’re a musician and your practicing and your habits and your time is based on what your goals are.  If you wanna sound better than this guy or that guy, like Jimi Hendrix or Miles Davis, you gotta put in some serious hours of practicing.  Even playing, you gotta play with other people.  That’s 50% of it all.  You can’t sit alone all day practicing scales you have to go and experience playing with other people.  I spent a lot of time doing that.

Madhouse: And what about today do you still play everyday?
Stanley: I definitely don’t practice as much as I used to but I’m definitely a better student today.  I can pinpoint what I don’t know, so if I need to know something I can go right to it and I have an understanding of how I can get to it/learn it.  So I’m good at that but you know as you get older you have a lot of information or as they say “a lot of money in the bank.” You can never know EVERYTHING but you can also be somewhere and know something.  Especially as a composer you could write anything, I mean I’ve written things I can’t even play, but then I sit down and learn how to play it.  I mean you have to think of a composer as someone completely different than who you are.  You compose something regardless if you can even play it or not!

Madhouse: Now that you have brought up the composer thing, you are currently involved with music and TV composing and I understand Pee Wee Herman was responsible for getting you into this in a way?
Stanley: Yea I’ve done probably 70 feature films and movies so far and the first thing I ever did wasn’t a Tv movie but it was “Pee Wee Herman’s Playhouse.” A guy called me, he was with Barry Manilow and he was on a tv jazz special so I performed on that and then director asked me if I had ever composed for television and I said, “nah I never really thought about it” but he sent me some clips from the movie.  It was heavy on trying to teach children about childbirth in a very benign way and they wanted some weird music, but not too weird, so I did it and then I got this Emmy nomination (and I didn’t even know what the Emmy’s were at that time) so I did that and then never looked back from that point.

Madhouse: So you’re living out in L.A doing all of this for movies and stuff and you’re basically a Hollywood celebrity yourself, do you get to go to these fancy parties and events while you’re out there?
Stanley: No I was never at the fancy parties I was always at the crazy parties.  Those parties don’t exist anymore (Thank God!) but I live in a mountain town called Topanga so I hardly ever go into the cities anymore.  

Madhouse: So you mentioned these crazy parties back in the day and you were involved with the New Barbarians and Keith Richards back in 1979 so how did that come about and was that a crazy time or what?
Stanley: Yea it was crazy at a minimum.  You know they called me and something had happened to Keith up in Canada so he had to do a makeup concert or he’d go to jail so he did the concert.  But the problem with those guys is they can’t just gear up for one show cause it’s so expensive for them to do one show so they had to do like 10 shows.  So we did a bunch of shows and it was actually a lot of fun because I got to know those guys different than what people think.  Like I talked to Mick Jagger for a long time one night and I was amazed about how much he knew about music.  He talked to me about my albums, the different tracks on my albums and his favorite jazz musician was Sonny Rollins.  You know those guys even though they played one genre they listened to it all.

Madhouse: Yea I’ve always found that the best musicians are well rounded and appreciate and/or like all different types of music.  Is there anyone you wish you could have had the opportunity to play with?
Stanley: I never got to play with Ravi Shankar.  I met him in India and I was playing with a real famous Indian violinist and Ravi was at the side of the stage.  It was an amazing gig, it had all these drummers playing in all of these time signatures.  I was in heaven man.

Madhouse: Let’s go back to the beginning for just a little bit here.  You graduated 1971 from the Philadelphia music academy, you moved to New York and it seems like you were embraced right away by all the old guys like Stan Getz, Miles Davis.  So how did you get in with these guys?
Stanley: You know sometimes I think about that too like did these guys like me? Did they like my playing? What was it?  Cause it did seem like I kind of just walked in the door and everything was easy but I realized I was really prepared when I came to NY.  I could read music well, I was a pretty decent person, I was young so I wasn’t jaded yet, and I was open to everything and I think that’s important.  If you have those qualities as a musician you know you’re prepared well musically, you’re nice and you’re flexible and open minded chances are you’ll be accepted pretty easily.

Madhouse: Yeah absolutely and I mean that must have been the most exciting time ever.  You were doing Romantic Warrior, your solo albums etc.
Stanley: Yea that was a great time because it was something new.  We were spearheading a new thing, you know the Jazz Rock fusion and it was really nice because it was something new.  And I can’t explain how amazing it is to be apart of something that is groundbreaking.  Really really exciting, always have people talking about it, always people gawking at us like “what are they playing?” We became friends with other rock bands because our music was just as loud and powerful as theirs, we just had different information.  Funny, I used to play a lot with this keyboardist Patrick Moraz and I hadn’t seen him in a while but then I saw him recently and we talked about how when I was doing my first solo album (I haven’t told a lot of people this story) I was sitting with my wife in my house in Long Island when this long limousine pulled up.  He knocked on my door and I had never met him before.  He came in with his rooster hair cut and he said I got your album and I’m playing this tune off your album called Power.  He came in, we talked for a little bit and he goes “Great I gotta go play hope we can play together someday” and that was that.  That’s what I loved about him, he always just showed up.

Madhouse: Now there’s one thing that you did that I loved it was the “Clarke Duke Project” back in ‘81.  I have the album right here and I saw you guys on that tour that year.  There was just so much good stuff on there like your version of “Brother Louie” and “Wild Dog” and “Sweet Baby” was beautiful.  Did you get any flack from like jazz purists saying “oh that’s pop music you shouldn’t be doing that”?
Stanley: You know we probably did but i gotta really be honest with you man...I never really listened or cared.  We were young and we had that feeling of invincibility that comes with being young but we also knew that no matter what nobody could ever say that we couldn’t play our instruments.  As long as you have the basic skills, what you decide to do with that is nobody’s business but yours.  Cause if that were the case we would not have so many great artists like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix or Miles Davis.  That’s what bother me about the music business today.  I don’t think we’ll ever have another Prince or anything like that again.

Madhouse: Yeah well we can hope and pray something like that comes along but it’s not looking too good so far.  But you are going to be on tour and I am going to be seeing you in New York, September 21 Highline Ballroom.  And you are also doing Europe which you seem to do a lot.  What’s your favorite place to play?  
Stanley: Well even though it’s been kinda dangerous to play there I love to play in France.  They have a lot of music festivals in the summer.  You can go to a small town to play and the whole town will come out to here you.  And the food is just unbelievable!  But now because of the terrorism there are a lot of places I can’t play anymore like I used to love to go and play in Turkey.  But there a lot of places to in the world to play like I just came back from China and they have the most beautiful jazz club in the world in Beijing and they just built it.  Now they’re just trying to work with the government to publicize on a national level.

Madhouse: Did you know that it is the 40th anniversary of “Romantic Warrior” and “School Days”?
Stanley: You know what man, I just realized that.  But I’m playing School Days on my tour and I’m hoping I get to play something from the Romantic Warrior album that would be cool.  And I know Dimeola has been out there a couple weeks ago.

Madhouse: So now of all the awards you’ve won, and you’ve won like every bass award there is, what award were you most honored with getting?
Stanley: Well my favorite award, and I never thought I would say it but it’s actually for a couple of reasons is I got this award at the Montreal Jazz festival and I believe only 24 people have it.  It’s called the Miles Davis award and it’s a really prestigious award where the whole festival is in honor of you.  And that award is absolutely the heaviest award ever.  I remembered the guy handed it to me and I said “man this is heavy, there’s no way I’m going to take this on the plane with me it’s as heavy as a bag!”  But it really is a beautiful award and I’m happy to be in that company.  Heavy as shit, but beautiful.

Madhouse: Madhouse Magazine is giving you the award for the best bass player to ever live.  So congratulations on that too.
Stanley: Oh thank you my friend!

Madhouse: But in all seriousness thank you for the music you’ve given me, you’ve given me a lot of joy and I wanted to thank you for that.  You’re an amazing musician and a wonderful and nice guy!
Stanley: Well thank you man it was wonderful talking to you too!  I’ll see ya!

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