An Interview with Mr. Stanley Clarke
by: Casey Pukl
When I got the word that Stanley Clarke was coming to Anthology, I did a little happy dance in my chair. Then I heard that he was coming on my birthday, and I squealed! And then, I was informed that I would be interviewing him, and I danced, paused, thought about the prospect, and almost threw up with excitement. For a solid week, I stressed about what to talk about. I have to admit that I wasn’t 100% sure exactly what I was going to ask Stanley Clarke in this interview even as I was dialing his phone number. Why? Seriously, put yourself in my shoes. Where does one start with a career that’s so diverse and accomplished? I turned to my Facebook and Twitter followers for a little guidance about what they might want to ask the most influential jazz bassist of our time (if not ever), and the majority of responses I received were either requests for him to play songs or, “Good luck with that one.” Thanks, guys.
Thankfully for me (and you), Mr. Stanley Clarke is one of those people who is just as comfortable talking about music as he is playing his bass. He has plenty of news, upcoming projects, and other thoughts and opinions that he was up for chatting about. Fortunately that makes for not only a great conversation, but also what I think is a great interview. Cozy up with your copy of School Days, and give this one a read.
CP: Let’s talk a little bit about what you’ve been up to lately!
SC: Well, I finished up a big, big, big, humongous tour with Return to Forever. I think all together last year we did about 90 dates or something like that, maybe a little more. That was huge. We went all around the world, and that was really something. The world is still there! (Laughs)
CP: (Laughs) I certainly hope so!
SC: That was really something. Then also, we got a Latin Grammy for our album, which was shocking to us. We were just going, ‘Why did they give us a Latin Grammy?’ We couldn’t quite figure that one out, but we accepted the Grammy anyway (laughs).
CP: You never want to turn down a Grammy!
SC: That’s right- never turn down a Grammy! It was exactly the same, it just says, ‘Latin Grammy,’ on it. So that was cool. So I finished all of that, and then kind of came back home, collapsed at home, and now I’m starting up this year. I’ve got a couple of records I’m going to put out. I’ve got kind of a “best of” record, and I’m going to re-release an older record of mine called “1,2, to the Bass”. And then I’m also working on an album I’m really happy about with drummer Lenny White from Return to Forever. It’s going to just be bass and drums, and I think it’s going to be a rapper’s delight. I think they’ll sample all of that stuff.
CP: That sounds awesome.
SC: Yeah, I think it’s a cool project. There’s a group in Europe, this group that’s just a bass player and a drummer, and it’s really cool what you can do with drums and bass. A part of it is the sound. It’s really rhythm oriented, and you can really dance to a lot of it. It’s just really cool to play. It sounds great. So we’re working on that, and then this year, I’m putting a band together. Stewart Copeland and myself are going to play all of the big festivals in Europe in July. So that’s going to be really exciting— we’ve got a really cool band for that project. And I’ll also do some duets with Hiromi, the Japanese pianist. And I’m not sure whether I mentioned my classical album yet…
CP: This is a lot to take in, and I’m super excited about this right now! What’s the classical project?
SC: (Laughs) Yeah, it’s going to be a really cool year. I’m really excited about it. I’ve wanted to do a classical bass album for a really long time. It’s not the kind of record for everyone, but people that like the bass as an instrument and what you can do with it I think will dig it. I’ve been working on these Bach cello suites for a long time, so I’m going to record some of those. Plus I’ve also got a record company called Roxboro Entertainment. We put out four albums this year. The first artist is Lloyd Gregory; he’s a guitarist— kind of a smooth jazz record. Then we did a record with a really interesting composer named Kennard Ramsey. And then we did a straight ahead record with a girl named Sunnie Paxson, and another record with a young singer/songwriter/pianist who plays with me a lot. His music is like a singer/songwriter meets Keith Jarrett, and his name is Ruslan. He’s an Israeli guy, really immensely talented. It’s a beautiful record. But we’ve got some great artists who are moving up and starting to make their own way and success, so it’s great.
CP: That sounds like a great line-up. I’m really intrigued by the singer/songwriter meets Keith Jarret. That sounds like my dream come true.
SC: I really like his record a lot. We haven’t started doing major radio promo yet, but you can get it on iTunes. It’s a really sweet record. It’s really something.
CP: I’m going to have to check that out immediately following this.
SC: Yeah, I think you’ll be surprised with it.
CP: Fantastic. Are you still doing a lot of work with the Stanley Clarke Foundation? I know you’ve always been really involved in promoting music education and scholarships.
SC: Oh yeah! See, I’m doing so much stuff right now that sometimes I need other people to remind me of everything! (Laughs). We’re doing our big event in April. We’re going to do a pretty big promotion on it starting in March. But our event is going to be really nice. We get a bunch of judges in the industry, musicians, artists, actors, and we have some people that play. It’s like our own mini American Idol. First prize winner gets a full scholarship. I think there are four prizes we give. But this is my 12th year now, and I’m really proud of it. I don’t make a big deal about it because I don’t gain any sort of, ‘Hey, wow, look at what Stanley’s doing,’ kind of thing. But it’s a really nice program. I recently saw a girl that we gave a scholarship to about five years ago, and she has her own record out today, and she came up to me just running at me! I thought, ‘Jesus Christ! Who the hell is this?’ (Laughs) And it turns out it was this girl we gave a scholarship to, and that was one of the best things that happened to me last year. It was just someone we helped having success.
CP: That’s great to see. I know you’ve always been really involved and passionate about music education, and that’s actually how I came to know your music. It’s great to hear that so many great things are coming from your work.
SC: I just think in general in society, a lot of our problems socially, can be fixed through education. It’s directly connected to how the economy moves forward and our social culture, how we think about each other, and the more educated we are, the better that’s going to be. It’s an important corner stone in any society. That’s one of the reasons I focus on that so much. I’ll be doing that for a long time.
CP: That’s great to hear. Now tell me a little bit about what you’re listening to these days.
SC: I like to stay up to date as much as possible. I’m 60, but I’m not a normal 60. I think guys that reach 60 now aren’t physically the same as they were 10 years ago. I like to stay up on what young people are listening to. My kids turn me on to a lot of stuff these days. But when I’m off the road, I like to cook, and that’s when I listen to music a lot. I have all these CDs in my kitchen, so that’s when I pull them out. But then I have my classics that are my older records that I listen to, and I don’t know if you do this or not, but there are just certain records that I listen to that remind me who I really am. It’s funny, I only have to listen to them once or twice and then I put them away for a few months. It’s almost like a weird medicine. There’s a Coltrane record I like to listen to, “A Love Supreme”, that I listen to once a year, but when I play it I really listen. There’s a McCoy Tyner record, Jimi Hendrix. There are a few bands who recorded some Bob Dylan tunes that I really like. I like his lyrics.
CP: I think we all have those few records that just make everything ok. I have that relationship with “Still Crazy After All These Years”.
SC: Yes, everyone has one I think. There’s also a few tracks on Ruslan’s album that I think are just really exceptional. I listen to those a lot. It was interesting in making his album. He was kind of in the middle of that quandary about whether he should just make a record as a jazz pianist or a songwriter, and I said, ‘Put it all together!’ I think it was just really interesting how he did all of that. I think that’s the music of the future. All of these genres, the partitions are coming down. You’re going to see a lot more people going from one to the other. There’ll be a country song next to a jazz song next to a hip-hop song.
CP: You can hear a lot of that in your latest album. It’s really cool to see all of the different influences.
SC: Well, I’ve always been like that! (Laughs)
CP: True, but this album especially feels like a big mixture of everything.
SC: Now I think the market is starting to catch up on it. But I was always kind of like that even when I was supposedly a jazz purist. I’d pull the electric bass out and have Jeff Beck play on albums. I think it’s just stupid to play the way that critics think you should play or because you have a title. I think it’s good for you to play what feels good and what you’re into. People need to get used to hearing different things. It’s good to challenge your audience. That’s my thoughts on that.
CP: Going backwards a little bit, something I find really interesting about your career is that you’ve done a ton of scoring for film and television. How did you get into that?
SC: Yeah, I’ve done a lot of that. Film scoring is something that I really fell into by accident. I just got serious about it. The first thing I did was a children’s show on Saturday afternoons called “Pee Wee’s Playhouse”. The director asked me if I’d write some music for it, and so I wrote for an episode or two, and then the episode I did was where they tried to explain childbirth to kids. It won some awards, and I got this daytime Emmy nomination. That was when people started noticing me— filmmakers and agents and such. I haven’t looked back since.
CP: And that’s just something that came really naturally to you then?
SC: Yeah. It’s an interesting ability. I think it’s one of the most interesting abilities out there in music. You can be the greatest musician technically in the world and at the same time not be a great film composer. I don’t want to say you can be an average musician, but you can be a good musician and be a tremendous film composer. It’s 50% musical ability, and you also have to have a fair knowledge of technology because it involves mathematics and measurements. If you have a chase scene that lasts for one minute, you’ve got to compose something that lasts exactly one minute, you know. That’s all you’ve got. It takes some doing.
Then at the same time you have to have a deep understanding of human emotion and how to translate that into music. You’ve got a guy that has a knife in his hand and he’s getting ready to stab another guy, and you have to know that you can’t have some little flutes playing a happy tune unless it’s a comedy. But if you’re really going for the guts there, you have to know what to do.
It’s an interesting subject for people to discuss and especially in interviewing film composers. It’s an interesting question to ask, you know, ‘Why are you able to do this?’ But I just think it’s a person who understands emotional tones. If you could imagine that there’s a tone scale for everyone that comes from being in apathy through death all the way up through nirvana, and then all in between there’s tone levels. There’s anger, antagonism. If you have an ability to spot those emotions on people when you’re writing music and then you have an ability to translate it into music, and then behind that have a repertoire of music. I played a lot of classical music when I was young. I have a big library in my head of music to draw from. Out of the 60 films I’ve done, some have been large orchestral things where the music is like classical music and others have been really funky, some are like avant-garde drones and suspenseful things. Then I’ve done a few jazz scores too. Film composing for me is a lot of fun because it’s just a very technical thing, but you can get some artistic value out of it.
CP: For sure. I went to a school that had a film scoring program, and I always thought it was a fascinating thing to teach and learn, and it did really appear that people either really got it or they didn’t.
SC: Absolutely. It has less to do with your musical ability, and much more to do with your understanding of the human experience. It has very little to do with the technique of playing music. I’d really love to teach a course on film composing at some point.
CP: Please do!
SC: One of these days I will. It’s a great career, and I think I’ve got it figured out. Some young composers get so wrapped up in thinking it’s about the music itself, when really it’s about everything else. It’s psychology. It’s a wide-open business now though, and while it’s not as lucrative as it used to be, it’s still a fun thing to do.
CP: Absolutely. Thank you so much for your time, Mr. Clarke. It’s been a pleasure speaking to you, and I’m really looking forward to your show!
SC: Thank you, and I’m looking forward to coming back there as well!
Be sure to join us for Stanley’s two shows this Saturday! In the mean time, enjoy his latest album, The Stanley Clarke Band, on Spotify with the link below!