Four-time Grammy™ winner Stanley Clarke is quite possibly the most celebrated acoustic and electric bassist in the world. As a performer, composer, conductor, arranger, recording artist, producer, and film scorer known for his ferocious dexterity and consummate musicality, Clarke is a true pioneer in jazz and of the bass itself. Unquestionably he is a “living legend,” lauded with every conceivable award available to a musician in his over 40-year career as a bass virtuoso.
Clarke’s incredible proficiency has been rewarded with: four Grammys, gold and platinum records, Emmy nominations, an honorary Doctorate from Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, and much more. He was Rolling Stone’s very first Jazzman of the Year and bassist winner of Playboy’s Music Award for ten straight years. Clarke was honored with Bass Player Magazine’s Lifetime Achievement Award and is a member of Guitar Player Magazine’s “Gallery of Greats.” He was even given the key to the city of Philadelphia.
Digging through the great multitude of accolades bestowed upon Stanley reveals an interesting phenomenon. It is difficult to remember how limited the potential career path of a bass player was before he came on the scene. Stanley almost single-handedly took the bass out of the shadows and brought it to the very front of the stage, literally and figuratively.
The traditional role of the bass was largely one of time-keeping that sonically filled out the spectrum. Clarke says: “Before I came along a lot of bass players stood in the back. They were very quiet kind of guys who didn’t appear to write music. But many of those bass players were serious musicians. All that I did was just take the step and create my own band.”
Certainly there were great and celebrated bass players before Stanley like Ron Carter, Scott LaFaro, and the pioneering composer Charles Mingus. But Clarke became the first bassist in history to headline sold-out world tours and have gold albums. He was also the first to double on acoustic and electric bass with equal virtuosity, power, and fire. By the time he was 25 years old, he was already regarded as a pioneer in the jazz fusion movement.
Clarke cites Mingus as a great influence personally and professionally. “The greatest moment in my life that changed me was having dinner with the great Charlie Mingus. He had the personality of a revolutionary that could have run a paramilitary group. He was very intense, heavy! That’s when I realized exactly what I wanted to do with the bass. I was going to approach my career completely like a revolutionary. Whatever was there, I was going to do the opposite.” The rest, as they say, literally is history.
Interestingly electric bass, for which Stanley is most renowned, is not his principal instrumental. His first passion, which carries to this day, is for the acoustic bass. “Electric bass is my secondary instrument. When I first started playing electric it was at parties and just for having fun. But I made records and got famous more as an electric bass player than as an acoustic bass player.”
In 1971, 20-year-old Stanley Clarke exploded into the jazz world, fresh out of the Philadelphia Academy of Music. Arriving in New York City, he immediately landed jobs with bandleaders such as Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, Pharaoh Saunders, Gil Evans, Stan Getz, and a budding young pianist-composer named Chick Corea. Stanley says: “my original goal was to be a classical bassist. I wanted to be one of the first black musicians in the Philadelphia orchestra. Chick Corea changed my mind about that.”
Clarke and Corea formed the wildly influential jazz fusion band Return to Forever, a showcase for each of the quartet’s strong musical personalities, composing prowess, and instrumental voices. They recorded eight albums, two of which are certified gold (Return to Forever and Romantic Warrior). They also won a Grammy (No Mystery) and received numerous nominations while touring incessantly.
Clarke then fired the “shot heard ‘round the world” that started the 1970s bass revolution and paved the way for all bassist/soloist/bandleaders to follow. In 1974, he released the eponymous Stanley Clarke album which featured the hit single, “Lopsy Lu.” Two years later, he released School Days, an album whose title track is now a bona fide bass anthem, a must-learn for nearly every up-and-coming bassist, regardless of genre.
Aspiring bassists must also master the percussive slap funk technique that Clarke pioneered as well. Sly and the Family Stone’s Larry Graham first developed the rudimentary slap technique. Stanley took the idea and ran with it, adapting it to complex jazz harmonies.
Always in search of new challenges, Clarke turned his boundless creative energy to film and television scoring in the mid-1980s. He is now an elite in-demand composer in Hollywood. Starting in television with an Emmy-nominated score for Pee Wee’s Playhouse, he transitioned to the silver screen and now has over 65 credits to his name.
As composer, orchestrator, conductor, and performer he has scored blockbuster films: Boyz ‘N the Hood, What’s Love Got To Do With It?, The Transporter, Romeo Must Die, Passenger 57, Poetic Justice, and The Five Heartbeats. He also scored the Michael Jackson video Remember the Time, directed by Jon Singleton. More recently he scored the 2013 box-office hit, Best Man Holliday. He has been nominated for three Emmys and won a BMI Award for Boyz ‘N the Hood.
“Film has given me the opportunity to write large orchestral scores and compose music I’m not normally associated with,” says Clarke. “It has given me the chance to conduct orchestras and arrange music for various types of ensembles. It has focused my skills and made me a more complete musician.” His 1995 CD release, Stanley Clarke at the Movies, is a testament to this. Stanley promises that he will find time to release At the Movies Two compiled from the 20 additional years of film scores since then.
In addition to his own band, Clarke has always enjoyed collaborating with other artists. Stanley teamed up with keyboardist George Duke in 1981 to form the Clarke/Duke Project. Together they scored a top 20 pop hit, “Sweet Baby,” and recorded three albums. Stanley worked with George in various situations for over 40 years until George’s untimely passing in 2013.
Some of Stanley’s other notable projects as band member or co-leader include: Jeff Beck, Keith Richards’ New Barbarians, Animal Logic (with Stewart Copeland), Superband (with Larry Carlton, Billy Cobham, Najee, and Deron Johnson), Rite of Strings (with Jean-Luc Ponty and Al Di Meola), Vertu’ (with Lenny White), Trio! (with Bela Fleck and Jean Luc Ponty), and SMV (with Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten).
Clarke passionately believes in helping young worthy musicians. He and his wife Sofia established The Stanley Clarke Foundation in 2000, a charitable organization which offers music scholarships. In 2007 Clarke released a critically-lauded DVD entitled Night School: An Evening with Stanley Clarke and Friends chronicling the third annual Stanley Clarke Scholarship Concert with proceeds going to the fund. The concert features Stevie Wonder, Wallace Roney, Bela Fleck, Sheila E., Stewart Copeland, Flea from The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Wayman Tisdale, and Marcus Miller.
To this day Stanley Clarke remains as passionate about music as that young prodigy from Philadelphia with big dreams. His journey has already been epic and storied. Yet it is far from over.
-Ivan Bodley, New York City