One on One with Jazz Legend Stanley Clarke

Exploding into the jazz world in 1971, Stanley was a lanky teenager from the Philadelphia Academy of Music. He arrived in New York City and immediately landed jobs with famous 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. [Ivan Bodley]

Now 58, the dynamic bassist has recently released his first acoustic bass album with sidemen Lenny White (drums) and Hiromi Uehara (piano). I had the pleasure of asking Clarke about personal development, the music industry, and jazz in general as he toured to promote his latest album, Jazz in the Garden [Heads Up International Records].

DT: How was your gig in Minneapolis with Hiromi and Lenny White?

SC: Gig was great, I really like this place [Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis, MN] because it’s a real jazz club. When I was coming up in the 70’s there were 6 times as many serious jazz clubs like this as there are now, where you go and stay a couple days and you play, then go to the next place and play a for few days. That’s kind of how we did it. You’d play a week in Philly, a week in NY, a week in Baltimore, a week in Chicago, a week in Detroit, you could literally walk across the US east to west, or vice-versa, just playing.

But a lot of the acts around the time I was coming up, we got more popular so therefore we had to play more concerts, every night a different city. But it’s nice to go some place and stay a couple days, its better for the music.

DT: How have you seen the industry change since the 70’s when you were starting out?

SC: Everything changes as time goes on. Since the 70s, the industry’s changed 4, 5 or times. Where it lands, I can’t tell you. The artists my age, we just continue and do our thing and don’t have much say in how the business is set up. The guys that run clubs and promoters, for the most part, their purposes are in commerce, to make money. But most people come out (to be artists) because they have something to say, a legitimate idea or even a beef. I used to love the early hip-hop music because these guys had beef with their surroundings, what they were doing, how people looked at them…they projected that in music. That genre was a creative act.

The artists have an art purpose. There are a lot of really cool promoters and club owners who love music and they do it for the music. The typical jazz club, like [the Dakota Jazz Club] does it for the music. The best club owner is one who recognizes the kind of music that he wants to promote, and he builds his business around the best and most effective way to get this music out there, so guys like me can have a club.

Where it ends up and how it changes is up to those guys. It’s not that were at the mercy of these guys, but kind of in a way you are.

DT: You’ve done some soundtrack and composing work, how do you balance your work as a jazz musician with more commercial opportunities?

SC: Where I come from, I don’t really think about music in styles or genre. When I grew up, the musicians I played with were called jazz musicians. Whether it was Stan Getz, Miles Davis, Art Blakey…that’s my language. I don’t wake up and say, “Yeah I’m going to play jazz today,” that’s just what I do. If somebody wants to embrace it in the pop world, great. But I don’t really sit down and think about it.

DT: This is your first acoustic bass album as a leader [Jazz in the Garden, Heads Up International]. What kind of energy has your experience with acoustic and electric bass brought to the performance?

SC: Again, when I started out I played mainly acoustic bass. It’s natural for me, I don’t think analytically about the differences in what I’m playing. I understand why you’d ask the question because you’re outside asking the question.

For example, you’re a saxophone player. So let’s say you play the shit out of the sax, you’re considered one of the great saxophone players of our time. You’re not going to be sitting at home thinking, ‘well am I going to play in a pop band today? Am I going to play jazz?’ If your stuff is that good, people are going to call you and whatever situation you find yourself falling into, that’s it. You’re not going to sit and think and debate if you want to take the gig, the opportunity shows itself.

Learn your instrument. That’s the advice that I give to anybody that’s young and out there trying to do something. You can waste your life trying to figure out what group you’re going to fit into. If you are a trumpet player, you play the shit out of the trumpet. Period.

And believe me, if you’re great, the genres and the people will find you. The point is, you don’t sit there while you’re learning music and think, ‘I’m going to learn how to be a jazz trumpet player, I’m going to learn how to play rock saxophone.’ That’s such a thin, shallow way of learning the saxophone. Just learn to play the damn saxophone and go as far as you want to take it, but be the best at it.

DT: How did you choose Hiromi Uehara for this album?

SC: I’ve heard about her from Chic Corea, and she’s good. She’s good at what she does, she’s tremendous. Tremendous technical ability, that’s exciting for me. I like to be with what’s happening, and when we get on stage shes very unpredictable. The only thing I know, that I can predict every night, is that she’s going to be exciting. What kind of excitement, one never knows.

But she’s a very accomplished classical musician, she’s one of those [classical musicians] I really like who took the time to study theory and get into other things. She’s really done a lot of homework to be so young, a LOT of homework.

DT: You talk about not being genre-specific, but suppose a classically trained violinist who has never been taught jazz now wants to learn? How does he learn without thinking ‘I’m going to learn jazz?’

SC: For me, if you’re going to be a great violinist, you have to include Jean-Luc Panty in your training. Jean-Luc Panty the French violinst, and Stéphane Grappelli from France, those guys redefined, or defined, jazz violin. If you’re going to play violin and you want to be a great violinist, you need to have them as part of it.

For me, a guy who plays [strictly] classical violin may come into my world as a great violinist, but to a jazz musician he might not be looked upon as a great violinist. He’ll be looked upon as a guy who plays classical music extremely well. He plays that concerto that he’s been working on for 20 years, great. But then if you ask the guy to play on a Bb chord, to an a minor7 to a D7 to a gm, he’s going to be lost in space and won’t have a clue what to do.

But what I’m finding, guys that the young guys that are your age (23) and even younger, it’s really encouraging to see those players embrace other music. I know a lot of classical violinists that like to play in rock bands, or love to play bluegrass because its build for the violin. Just learn your instrument and everything around it.

DT: What advice can you give about being a bandleader and choosing the right people to play with?

SC: For me it’s an ongoing learning experience. I’m always fascinated at what happens to me when I come and play with somebody new. Even playing with Hiromi, she’s like an amazing racehorse piano player. Some people can’t even fathom having half the technique that she has. That does something to you, it makes you step up your game.

What I get the most out of playing with other musicians is how they affect me. The way I play and what I do, how I see music is how I see and how I play. But when I play with other people, I am always affected in a positive way.

DT: What’s some other advice and practicing and joining bands, and finding your unique sound

SC: First of all the concept of finding your unique style, people should never even mention that, you should never even say those words. Psychologically it gives you a wrong item in your brain, as if you need to find a unique style. You don’t have to find anything; it’s already there and just has to be developed.

There’s a common denominator of all these great musicians that I’ve known, and its that they’ve fully developed themselves as artists, and they’ve gotten over the majority of the mental hang-ups they’ve had.

One of the really big components of being a unique musician is courage. Some guys, just naturally play weird. If you’re in a position in a band and people are putting you down because you look weird, or sing or play weird, and you buy into it, you’re done. You’re probably throwing away millions of dollars because maybe if you continue…even pop bands or bands on MTV, you may look at these guys and say this guy is weird, but these guys were always out there. It’s just that they didn’t give a shit about what somebody else said was music.

The way you play is the way you play, and you have to develop yourself. No two people play the same unless they’re trying to.

If you are looking for a unique sound, already it’s almost an oxymoron in concepts. If you’re looking for something that’s unique, in a way you’re saying that its there already. Why would you be looking for something if you don’t think its there? So if it is there, that [sound] was already created by something or someone. So therefore, the argument is won – the sound or style is not unique because it exists already.

You should want to develop something that’s not really there. If you look at yourself like you’re a gemstone and you have all this dirt and shell and this cocoon of mess around you, you just need to pull this stuff off and that’s what practicing does, you shed all the bullshit and feel good about yourself. All these great musicians [Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis] have a great sense of well being because they’ve shedded a lot of bullshit and psychologically they’re in a place where they say ‘this is it, this is what I do.’ That’s the beautiful thing about art.

That’s my place. To young people, forget about looking for something unique. Just pick up your instrument, get up and practice, have good thoughts and be positive, and try to spot as many assholes that are in your life.

DT: What advice to you have for playing in bands/with other people?

SC: I think that when you’re young, I think that the best bands to play in are with the guys that you get along with the best. Because when you’re young, you’re impressionable and don’t have the armor of a guy my age who’s been kicked around a bunch, you want to be with someone who you can grow with.

You don’t have to play with the greatest virtuoso, you might grow much better at a faster rate with a guy who really likes how you play, you like how he plays, and at the same time you want to get better so you’re listening to records, going to classes at school and studying…I grew up with a bass player names Charles Fambro, and we went all through school and we studied together. I thank him and actually credit him for my playing. He’s not a virtuoso bass player, but he was there for me. We listened to all the records together. If he was an asshole, I probably wouldn’t be the player that I am today. You don’t want to be fighting people when you’re young, that’s my point. You need to really keep it cool.

You’ll have plenty of time to be fighting, but you want to be really good before you do that.

DT: What did you practice when you were young?

SC: When I was younger, I practiced a lot. I practiced as many hours as I could as day. During school times, I practiced 3 or 4 hours a day. I was not a very good student. When I went to high school, there was one school in New York called School for the Performing Arts, and that’s where I should have been, but that didn’t exist in Philadelphia.

I was doing chemistry classes, years of calculus, endless classes that have nothing to do with what I’m going to be doing in my life. I should have had strait English, History, Math, and that’s it, maybe a basic Science class. So I used to cut classes to practice, but I had a music teacher who understood. But I passed because I excelled in music.

There’s a lot of power in excelling, in having excellence. I always tell musicians, if you want to be really respected in the world, you could have just two cents in your pocket…If you stand in a room with Donald Trump, and next to him is Miles Davis or Vladimir Horowitz, and you look at the respect meter, it’s going to go to Miles and Vladimir Horowitz, they’ll be neck and neck, and Donald Trump has more money than these guys ever had.

For me, the respect game is important. It’s a nice feeling to be respected for something. You’re given a certain pass because you’ve put the work in and someone recognizes that you’ve sacrificed a lot to be good at something. And man, there’s nothing like it, not all the money in the world.

For more information on Stanley Clarke, click this link to go to his website. His Album Jazz in the Garden can be purchased here.

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