The Bassist Talks History, Practice and Landing in Telluride
TELLURIDE – Simply put, Stanley Clarke is one of the most important musicians of all time. Clarke was barely out of his teenage years when he exploded onto the New York jazz scene as the bassist for the fusion group Return to Forever, quickly becoming regarded as a pioneer in jazz-fusion by his mid-twenties.
He altered many critics’ perception of the electric bass by playing intricate compositions and developing a truly unique tone. Through constant practice and star-studded collaborations both in and outside the jazz world, Clarke almost single-handedly brought the electric bass to the forefront of music, paving the way for future bassists Victor Wooten and Les Claypool to continue pushing the musical bounds of the instrument.
In addition to winning countless awards and honors, Clarke became the first bassist in history to sell out worldwide headline tours and craft albums that achieved gold status. Even today, Clarke’s solo album School Days is an anthem for many bassists, including the author.
Clarke returns to the Telluride Jazz Fest, his first appearance since 2010, on Saturday, Aug. 3, at 7:50 p.m. The Watch had a chance to speak with him before his arrival:
Q: What made you want to play the bass?
A: In those days, the mid to late 60s, if you played the bass, you played acoustic bass. I think I was around 13. I showed up late to band class and was asked to choose an instrument. One of the only instruments left was an old acoustic bass. This is where it really began. At the time, there was no way to study the electric bass because it was viewed as an instrument you had fun with and didn’t use to study serious music theory. A couple of years later I found myself at neighborhood parties playing the electric bass. It’s more conducive to that kind of atmosphere. The acoustic bass has a history that goes back hundreds of years whereas the electric bass came to fruition in the 40s and 50s. We’ve seen a quantum leap in electric bass playing since then.
Q: How has bass playing changed since you were a kid?
A: The first time I saw an electric bass player was Bill Wyman and the Rolling Stones playing on Ed Sullivan. He didn’t look happy; he just played in the background with a stoic look on his face. I like to think that guys like me, Jaco Pastorious, Victor Wooten, Marcus Miller, Jeff Berlin – lots of different guys have written really interesting music for the bass and brought the instrument to a completely different place. It’s really evolved.
Q: So you think you guys changed common perceptions of the instrument?
A: You could say that. It really is a legitimate instrument these days. Guys like Victor Wooten now lead summer camps teaching kids how to play the bass. When you go to college you can actually major in electric bass. I still teach at the college level when I get the chance and I always get a little smile on the inside when guys come to my classes with high-end basses and quality cases because I knew guys back in the day that wouldn't even put them in a case, they didn't cost too much and they weren’t anywhere near as intricate or delicate as they are now.
Q: Do you still practice?
A: Yes, of course. I will always practice. Practice to me has taken a different turn over the years; I practice completely differently than I was younger. Eighty percent of my practice was gaining knowledge: learning to play scales, phrases, passages and so on. So now I have lots of theories under my belt. These days it's the opposite. Now I practice for maintenance. I practice a lot because I like seeing the younger guys struggling to catch up with me.
Q: You've gained notoriety by playing the electric bass, but what bass is your preference when you just want to sit down and play?
A: Secretly, guys I play with know that I'm really an acoustic bass player at heart. But I was fortunate enough to embrace the electric bass when I was a kid, and in turn it embraced me. But in my soul, where my heart is, I’m really an acoustic bass player. If I come home and want to relax with an instrument, I'm going to go to the acoustic bass. My mother was really serious about getting me acoustic bass lessons and music theory classes and it really helped me get closer to the instrument.
Q: So after playing years of the bass guitar, how did you get together with keyboardist Chick Corea?
A: After learning the acoustic and working on the electric, I get a call from Chick Corea saying I should come to New York because there are lots of great musicians and even more girls. Then I compared that with my original goal of being the first African American in the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, wearing a tuxedo and sporting a big Afro. Needless to say I chose to go to New York.
Q: So you went to New York, what happened?
A: Well Chick and I played with guys like Stan Getz, Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Gil Evans and many other musicians. I think of these guys as the Founding Fathers of jazz. It was really amazing playing with those guys.
Q: So you had been playing with Chick and other musicians, but how did Return to Forever form?
A: After a while, Chick and I enjoyed playing together so much that we decided to get a band going. We both agreed we wanted to do something a little different than what was out there. We had a 10-year age gap between us and we had different ideas. But the whole jazz rock movement was essentially that: guys in their twenties or thirties joining up and coming up with new ideas. We met many musicians along the way and eventually formed Return to Forever.
Jazz critics would criticize us because we didn't play what they called ‘pure jazz’. We always laughed at the critics but we were more honest than most because we always listened to stuff like Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, all the Motown acts, and asked, ‘Why would you put that music out of your life only to be called a purist?’
Q: Return to Forever had such an impact on the jazz scene. What was it like to be both young and also so influential in that world?
A: It was great to spearhead a music movement. I mean, there were only a couple of major jazz bands at the time. You had Miles Davis, Weather Report, Herbie Hancock, Return to Forever and only a few other major jazz bands that would travel and sell out huge venues and stadiums.
Only a few people experience something like that, being at the front of a wave like this, an artistic wave. It’s similar to any other art, writing, painting, other musical genres, when you're doing something that hasn't been done before there are only two types of people: those that love you, and those that just absolutely hate you. They really wanted us dead. We got some threats from people that were so venomous when we read them. We use to crack up when we got those threats; it never bothered us because I was so enamored with being at the top of this wave.
But like all waves, they eventually break and hit the shores where the water spreads and becomes less powerful. But legends were created in that time. There’s always a lot of nostalgia when Chick and I get on stage together these days. He and I recently toured in Japan as an unplugged duet: acoustic bass and piano. Japan was the first country to really embrace Return to Forever. The fans are extremely loyal there. I’m sure many of them that just saw us were at the first Return to Forever shows in Japan back in the 70s.
Thoughts on returning to Telluride?
A: I’m really looking to returning to Telluride. It’s an absolutely beautiful town. When I go to Montreux, Switzerland, to play at the jazz festival, sure it's beautiful but I always tell them, ‘We have some stuff over there that's seriously beautiful...’, and then I tell them about Telluride. I also really enjoy playing on that stage, it’s a very intimate surrounding and the fans are always great.
The boot store for another. Bounty Hunter I think it’s called. I got a thing for their custom cowboy boots. I own a couple pairs and absolutely love them. I’m actually staying in town just so I can go back down to the store.
But I don't care for the plane landing. I actually have footage from the last time I was in Telluride of my drummer who thought the end was coming. The video from the plane ride shows him near tears and praying. But he wasn’t acting irrationally because it really is a scary landing. The pilot once told me ‘you just need to ease off the instruments when you’re landing – don’t fight it, just roll with it.’ He wasn’t kidding: last time we landed the plane was blowing side to side, up and down. Really scary stuff but it’s always a thrill.