Smooth JazzNotes

Stanley Clarke

Stanley Clarke has compiled an impressive list of gold and platinum albums in his career as an artist, composer, arranger, producer, bandleader, and film score composer. Along the way, his unique innovative style of playing the bass has influenced an entire generation of bass players. Considered a living legend he has earned the title while defining the genre known today as “Smooth Jazz”. In 1974, his first album, self titled, yielded the hit 45 rpm single, “Lopsy Lu”, followed in 1976 by “School Days”, cementing his role as a pioneer in establishing the bass as a lead instrument.

Born in Philadelphia in 1951, Stanley Marvin Clarke started out playing the accordion as a youth, switching to violin and then to cello before settling on the bass. As a teenager, he played with R&B and rock bands, until moving to New York where he worked with some of the best jazz musicians around, Horace Silver, Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, Pharaoh Saunders, Gil Evans, Art Blakley, Billy Cobham, and Stan Getz.  Stanley’s unique style became noticed and he was invited to be an original member of Chick Corea’s band “Return to Forever” and with George Duke in the “Clarke/Duke Project”, recording the groundbreaking album “School Days” changing the world’s perception of the bass forever! Venturing into the pop world, Stan & George scored a top-twenty hit with “Sweet Baby”.

Stanley Clarke became the first bassist in history to headline tours, selling out shows worldwide, and have his albums certified gold. Already a celebrated pioneer in fusion jazz music by the age of 25, he was also the first bassist in history to double on acoustic and electric bass with equal strength. Stanley has won literally every major award available to a bass player: Grammys, Emmys, every readers’ poll, all the critics’ polls, gold and platinum records, walks of fame, to name a few. He was Rolling Stone’s first Jazzman of the Year, and bassist winner of the Playboy’s Music Award for ten straight years.

Stanley not only plays, he produces, as well, and he is credited with inventing two new instruments: the piccolo bass and the tenor bass.  The piccolo bass, built to his specifications by New York luthier Carl Thompson, is tuned one octave higher than the traditional electric bass guitar.  The tenor bass is a standard Alembic (a company out of Santa Rosa, California) bass tuned up one fourth higher than standard.  With both of these instruments, Stanley’s melodic range is extended for playing in higher registers. 

In 1985, Stanley expanded his horizons into film and television scoring. He started out on television with an Emmy nominated score for Pee Wee’s Playhouse, and he progressed into movies as composer, orchestrator, conductor and performer of scores for such blockbuster films as: Boys N the Hood, What’s Love Got to Do With It (the Tina Turner Story), Passenger 57, Higher Learning, Poetic Justice, Panther, The Five Heartbeats, Little Big League, The Best Man, Romeo Must Die, Undercover Brother, to name a few. He even scored a Michael Jackson video release entitled “Remember the Time”. Currently, he is providing the score for the new ABC Family Channel drama, “ Lincoln Heights”.

Since the late 1990's his annual Stanley Clarke Scholarship has given opportunity to numerous young musicians from all parts of the world. The scholarship is highlighted by an annual concert that draw’s a lineup of high-profile musicians every year. The third annual Stanley Clarke Scholarship Concert, recorded at Musicians Institute in Hollywood, CA, in October 2002, presented by Heads Up International on DVD, was released on March 27. Guest musicians include Stevie Wonder, Wallace Roney, Bela Fleck, Sheila E., Stewart Copeland (Police), Flea (Red Hot Chilly Peppers), Wayman Tisdale, and Marcus Miller. The DVD is divided in 3 parts: full performance of the concert, interviews, and bonus features, and it includes Stanley’s signature song, “School Days”. Stanley’s bass party is joined by ten rebound bass players: Flea, Amand Sabal-Lecco, Bunny Brunel, Alex Al, Billy Sheehan, Stewart Hamm, Jimmy Johnson, Wayman Tisdale, Brian Bromberg and another legend, Marcus Miller.

SJN: Do you go by Stan?

SC: Yes, either way, Stan or Stanley, I don’t care.

SJN: When and how were to first introduced to music as a youth?

SC: Through my Mother. My Mother was an opera singer and painter, so she introduced me to art in general. Music and art went together, so she bought me a piano when I was around five. Later I got into playing acoustic bass. First I tried the violin and the cello, then eventually I got to the bass when I was about thirteen.  

SJN: When did you move into the electric bass?  

SC: Later when I was around 14 or 15 I started playing the electric bass because girls liked it a lot better.

SJN: You are credited with starting the “bass revolution” by playing the bass as a lead instrument with the release of “Lopsy Lu.”, and then School Days. Did you realize at the time that you were doing something that had never been done before?

SC: No, that was the furthest thing from my mind. What I was into, my mindset as a kid, I was just trying to do my best. I really wasn’t that intellectual about it. What made it good and cool for me, was that there was a lot of other people who also did things that were later innovative. I thought it was something natural, I thought everyone was doing it. It wasn’t calculated. It just happened, it just seemed like a natural thing to do. There were bands that I was in, that I was the guy with the most ability to organize the band, lead the band, write the music, or whatever.

SJN: You also have been credited with developing the widely popular style of bass playing called, “slap funk” or “slap bass”,

how did that come about?

SC: I heard another guy who played with Sly and the Family Stone, named Larry Graham, who was actually the first guy that really did that. What I did was I kind of made it available to bass players. I took the idea and expanded on it. Larry’s playing with Sly and the Family Stone was very simple and basic. It was the drummer I was playing with at the time, Len White, that said, “man that guy is popping and slapping, playing that bass like a percussion instrument”. I started doing it and I figured out how to do it in all the different keys and all the different styles and tempos and I recorded a lot of records with that style.

SJN: You are known to play acoustic bass with techniques usually reserved for the electric bass, such as slapping, popping and strumming. Is it difficult to adapt these techniques to an acoustic bass?

SC: I actually can do it on the acoustic bass, Now that’s kind of innovative, I haven’t seen anyone else do it quite the same. Everything I do on the electric bass, I can do on the acoustic bass.

SJN: How did you develop your musical style?  

SC: You know it’s funny, it’s not something that you sit down and intellectually put together. Actually, what happens is you kind of become yourself. You come of age, you evolve into a person, then you can actually develop it, or polish it off. One’s style usually comes from a combination of one’s background, emotional makeup, technique, and actual ability. For me, I had a heavy, heavy classical background. I was like going to join the LA Philharmonic or something. I was really serious about it. I practiced five hours a day, everyday. I went to great schools and conservatories. But I loved jazz and all of my experiences in my life led me to jazz.

SJN: One collaboration you have had repeatedly, for long periods of time in your career are with George Duke. What draws you back to creating music with George?

SC: George is like a big brother to me and I really enjoy playing with George. Many, many musicians that I play with who are friends, really good friends. With George, it’s like playing with your brother, sister, or family member. You go out and play and it just happens and it also happens that we get paid very well, so it’s a cool gig.

SJN: You have worked with many legends in the music industry, which of these incredibly talented people do you consider to have influenced you the most?

SC: I would say that there are two people. One was Horace Silver. He was kind of the quintessential small group bandleader. He had a five piece band, with a rhythm section, and the music was so organized, he was so organized, his thoughts were organized. He was kind of a mild disciplinarian. I remember one night, I didn’t have this one song together and he gave me this rather harsh look and said. “If you don’t have this together by Thursday, probably by Friday night you are going to be back in Philadelphia.” No anger, no hostility, just business. I learned a big lesson from that. I got the song together and I was still in LA on Friday. It was really nice that he had his music so organized. I learned at a very young age that the more organized and the more clear you are with your intentions when you are leading people, you will have a good product. The other person who influenced me a lot was Charlie Mingus and that was kind of by accident. I had the opportunity to have a couple of meals with him because we were going to do a concert together. He wanted to call it a Father and Son thing because I was the new kid on the block and I wasn’t established. We had these meals together and first of all, I was amazed at how much the guy could eat, it blew my mind. I never saw anybody eat that much. He was a big guy and a real revolutionary kind of guy. He could have been talking about taking over a country, I had never met a musician like that, and all this had to do with the bass and being a bandleader! I thought this guy is really over the top and serious. When I thought about some of the stuff he was saying I realized that at the time he had his band, he was the only bass player that had a band. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for him. I also got the feeling that he didn’t give a shit, he was moving forward and he was following his mission and that was it. That spirit went inside of me and I still feel that. Just the look on his face, he was a real tough, tough as nails kind of guy! I’m so lucky that I had a chance to meet him, he really inspired me.

SJN: You invented two new bass instruments: the piccolo bass and the tenor bass. Please tell us how this came about?

SC: Well, the standard bass by its nature has limitations, so I recognized a long time ago that bass players have ideas that go beyond the scope of what they could play. I thought for bass players who want to play melody, or bass players who want to have different kinds of sounds, there should be different kinds of basses. So the tenor bass is between the piccolo bass and a standard bass. It is a higher sounding bass. The piccolo is almost like a guitar. It feels and looks like a bass, but it sounds like a guitar or a baritone guitar. It is something to empower the bass player. Neither one of those instruments takes away from the standard bass; I would like to believe that a bass player would have a standard bass, piccolo bass and a tenor bass in his arsenal.

SJN: Besides making CD’s and playing gigs, you write movie scores, what gives you the most satisfaction?

SC: I always like the end of things, like the last day on the tour, or when we finally mix the movie score on the dubbing stage. I have a little ritual I do, I always smoke a cigar. I’m not a smoker at all, but after every film I do, I smoke a cigar. I have the same feeling about both things, like when I am finishing up a tour. My favorite thing is the feeling of accomplishment. I can’t say I like one over the other because in a lot of ways they are the same to me. There is music involved; it is just processed in a different way. It’s nice to be home, but then that gets boring and I still like traveling to different places. I will say that my favorite thing is finishing up something.

SJN: You have been in the business for a long time and have seen many changes, what do you think the future the music industry will be with the advent of the iPod?

SC: I don’t think it will affect the music as much as the business of making music. In one sense, it gives people more access to more things and in another sense it will probably hurt sales for some people. There is so much access out there to music and some of it people are paying for and some people don’t. We are in a big transition right now, technology has collided with the old school way. The five major companies that put out this wax and control everything, and control distribution, and have all of the power. A lot of artists make their own records, have their own record companies and they actually make more money now. The goal is to make money, they have their own records that they sell at the gigs and instead of giving 80% to a big company like Sony and they get 15 to 20%, it is the other way around. They pay 5 or 10% to the manufacturer and they keep the rest, so people actually have to sell less records to make more money. But, the downside is that they are selling less records, so less people get a chance to hear them. The big companies have the marketing, but people go online now so it is shaping itself into a new business. For me, I have a new record company and I have put out this new DVD in a partnership with Heads Up Records.

SJN: Yes, could you please tell us about it?

SC: For the last six or seven years, I have been raising money for scholarships for kids to go to music school or cash awards for excellence in music, that they can use for instruments, or clothes, or whatever they need. This DVD is from the year 2002 when I had a lot of friends who came to help out. All of the proceeds will go towards scholarships to send more kids to school and more cash awards. It’s a whole variety of musicians, different genres, a miss mash of different types of artists, we all work together and it’s a lot of fun.

SJN: On a more personal note, how do you spend your leisure time?

SC: I live in a city called Topanga, which is in the mountains above Malibu, in California. I live right up on the mountain and I have a bunch of dogs and a bunch of land. I live that kind of life because I’m an outdoors kind of person. I’m also kind of an exercise nut, I like extreme exercising.

SJN: Please tell us about your family?

SC: My son is 27 and I am on my second marriage, I’ll see if she will have me. The business is very tough. I’m at an age that I speak very soberly about this. Being a musician and deciding to have a family, they need to sit down and really, really think about what they are doing and the ramifications of the job. If you are a musician, nine times out of ten you are going to be on the road unless you become a studio musician. If you are a studio musician, you are home all the time you are recording in town, which is what I did when I was first starting out. Basically, you just really have to decide and plan together because if you don’t and there are just too many surprises it causes problems. It is a very temptuous environment to be in when you are young and you make a bunch of money and you start getting into drugs and drinking. My first wife was a musician and we didn’t actually get divorced for those reasons, but my second wife is not a musician, although her father is a very famous singer in Latin America, so she has other things with musicians. We have been married about seven years and of course, I don’t travel as much as I used it and I take her whenever she wants to go. But, I do remember being “young and dumb”.

SJN: What are your plans for this year and the future?

SC: This year I am going to put out my own CD in the fall and I’m going to put out some other products through my record company and I think I’m probably going to do one movie this year, although I haven’t decided which one. This summer will be the first summer in a quite a long time that I will actually be home because I am going to be recording a lot. It’s really nice where I am, so I am looking forward to it. Usually, in the summer I am traveling all over the place, so I am really looking forward to being home for the summer.

SJN: Stan, thank you so much for sharing your passion for music with us.


School Nights
March 27, 2007
Heads Up


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