Someone that has changed the entire jazz scene of the 70s; someone, like what his predecessors had done, that has brought up another phase in jazz history and someone who has revolutionized his instrument… It is difficult to talk about Stanley Clarke in a few sentences only. But we shall give it a try. He has done and achieved so many things throughout his life that it is not quite enough to describe the four-time Grammy award winning musician as “a recording artist, performer, conductor, arranger, producer, a composer for recordings and film and one of the most celebrated acoustic and electric bass players in the world”.
He has worked with the legends Joe Henderson, Pharoah Sanders, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Art Blakey, Gil Evans, Mel Lewis and Horace Silver in his 20s. He has co-founded one of the first jazz fusion bands Return To Forever with Chick Corea. He has changed the use and probably the essence of bass and turned it to a solo instrument, he is the first jazz-fusion bassist to headline tours. And he kept hopping between genres from jazz to rock, pop to hip-hop whilst maintaining his modern approach towards both his instrument and music even when it meant being on top of the criticism sometimes. Clarke is still working with musicians from all around the world and musicians of different genres, he has been sampled by rap musicians like Tupac and Jay-Z and is on a constant hunt for young musicians; playing with them, teaching them and getting inspired by them.
He is amongst the most important musicians of the older generation not only because of his musicianship but also because of the values and principles he stands for. Even though he says he also was a jazz purist at the beginning, his ideas eventually evolved when he realized he did not want to play like a dead man from the 40s and 50s but instead, see where his music would lead him when he had an open mind. He has strived for the new and what was more, resisted the tradition for that purpose and most of the time clashed with the traditionalists.
Stanley Clarke is currently on tour with his amazing band including musicians from Afghanistan and Georgia and aging from 19 to 30s. I got the chance to meet him at the backstage of Cemal Reşit Rey Concert Hall for his 5th concert in İstanbul and we have talked a little about this and that. Here it goes:
There’s a political issue going on in Turkey right now because of the military operation in the south. I was surprised that you still came despite of that.
We musicians, in most cases don’t have a lot of political issues other than human rights. You know, if there is war, there are reasons for war. But whoever really knows? But if there is loads of refugees and people that are hurt, you care about that. I donate to groups that help people. And that’s about all I can really do. I don’t really use the platform because I’m a public person, to discuss too much about politics because I’m not there. But what I’m interested in is to talk about the good news which is music. The beautiful thing about music is that it bonds people, brings people together, people that seemingly are so different from each other. But that’s kind of bullshit.
From what I heard Turkey is in a red zone right now. The bands are cancelling their concerts in here because people are scared. But you’ve been in İstanbul plenty of times and here you are again.
It’s not that its misinformation but it’s not complete information. This is so far. The whole country is not like at war. And these gigs were booked a long time ago. We would never cancel. Only if there were missiles flying everywhere but no, thankfully, not this time.
What drove you when you were feeling down and about to give up as a musician? What is your motivation?
It’s really simple. There’s something in you that’s very difficult to put in words. There’s something that drives a person to do what they want to do. And that’s all that is for me. It’s nothing mystical, I’ve been doing music since I was 7 years old. My mother was a semi-professional opera singer. So, she sang around the house, she brought a piano home when I was 6 years old. There was always music in the house. So, it’s kind of like a part of my DNA.
So the motivation was within you all the time.
Yeah. It’s kind of like what I am. If I stopped playing music, it would be like I lost an arm or a leg. And believe me, there were times when I wanted to stop. The times when I was just tired. Because I’ve been doing this a long time. I started at the 70s, toured in 70s and the 80s. And I wanted to stop in the 90s. Then I had an arm injury, my left arm kind of went dead at a certain point. I don’t know why; I was flying in from Moscow to New Jersey or something. I must’ve laid on it. I had to stop playing for about 8 months, so the nerves had to find their way back. Then it finally came back and I feel good. But I just love playing.
There is this never ending resistance towards the new in the history of jazz. Innovation and change tend to get criticized almost all the time. And you were at the top of that criticism as one of the pioneers of fusion and because of the bands you have played with. Now the younger generation is facing the same problem, just like what’s happening between Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper and Marsalis brothers. What would you say about this?
Well, just historically, it’s always been hard to shake tradition. It’s always hard since the beginning of the time. They criticized some of our greatest jazz musicians like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane; they thought they were crazy. Even in classical music, they thought Stravinsky was nuts. Tradition is an interesting thing because it makes people feel secure. If we happen to get famous by it and loads of people agree to it, it’s hard to shake it. Because for some reason people think when something new comes, the new thing wants to get rid of the old. But that’s not necessarily the thing. That is tradition and this is new. It has nothing to do with that, so it’s certainly fear based.
I want to link this to your constant search of the new. You are into social media and YouTube; you have found the drummer Mike Mitchell on the internet. So that’s crazy. Are you still doing that, what do you expect in young people? What do you want to hear, what do you want to see?
For me, what I like to see is just people in all countries that are involved in anything having to do with art whether it’s music, literature, painting. I think it’s important for people to find out exactly what they want to do. It’s so easy to copy and do things because you are at peer pressure and someone says “Well, you know, if you want to be cool you’ve got to do this…” But maybe that’s not right for that person. Because it feels good when you’re honest and do what exactly you want. Just like everyone shouldn’t be a jazz musician, everyone shouldn’t be a rock musician or a rapper. You find out what you like and that’s kind of the product of how you grow up. You like what you like because of how you grow up. I like a lot of things, it’s not just jazz but all kinds of things. Long as it’s good, I’m into it.
What in a musician catches your attention?
In the younger generation what really captures me is if I see a young musician who is aware of history. Someone could be a young trumpet player and he might play this way, but he is really aware of Miles Davis. It doesn’t necessarily have to be that but that fascinates me because I always ask “How did you find about Miles Davis? How do you know his name?”. It’s always fascinating.
You have worked with musicians from other genres, like Q-Tip. And you’ve been sampled by Tupac, Jay-Z and those kinds of artists. What do you think about this evolution of jazz and hip-hop right now?
It’s great. I see guys like Robert Glasper, definitely Kamasi Washington. See, Kamasi, the whole West Coast Get Down, all those guys I’ve known all of them since they were 14, 15 years old. It’s great to see them, nice to tell people about them, say “go check these guys out”. The guy who plays piano with me, Cameron Graves, is part of that. I love it. Anybody that explores or emerges their own type of music is great.
I wanted to talk about the categorization of music since it is still going on, and how hard it is to put one label on something especially with globalization and everything that’s happening right now.
It’s impossible. In our band especially, when we got a musician from Afghanistan, Georgia. I look at myself more like a world musician anyway. I’ve been around the world so many times and have so many influences from so many different people. It’s hard to say. It’s just Stanley Clarke music, the music that I play. And I find that true in a lot of things especially in young musicians. They have a lot of different things, different sounds, different ways; even lyrically different ways of approaching. And hip-hop generations are really great, it’s a great platform for people to speak about social issues. It’s social commentary music. I really like that.
I’ve always admired you and Herbie Hancock on this issue. You guys observe the younger generations; go there, see the process, be a part of what is coming out, give them advices and even take them with you.
That is very important because when I was young, I played with this one very important jazz musician. They don’t talk about him a lot, but his birthday was a couple of days ago. His name is Art Blakey. And Art Blakey was a guy that really made sure that he taught young musicians. And when I was with him, he always had young musicians. He really taught us, he would stop us you know and say “that’s wrong” with his gravelly voice. And that’s probably out of all the bands that I have ever played that I’m the most proud of. A lot of people don’t know that I played with him for a year and a half. Sometimes when you look at his history on the internet, some people don’t mention our names, but I was there for a year and a half. I’ve recorded with him once too. I am very proud that I was a Jazz Messenger. That’s a very important group in jazz history.
I thought your favorite was Joe Henderson’s band.
Yeah, for other reasons Joe was great. Well you really read up on me, that’s good.
Yes sir, I’ve done my homework.
Good. Leadership is little different in music. It’s like teaching someone. And as far as leadership, Art Blakey was the best.
Do you think music should reflect the times as Nina Simone once said?
Yes. Because then it’s honest. Unless you’re going to do a period piece, like you’re in today but you want to play blues guitar like some guy did in the 50s or 40s. And that’s fine too but I do think if a musician is fairly honest or is interested in the times, it’s natural that it’s going to come out.
Any advice for young Turkish musicians who really look up to you?
Play and travel the world. You’ve got to leave your home. You just have to. Traveling the world gives you the advantage of seeing other things, other musicians especially. I left Philadelphia, went to New York. And sometimes it’s just good to take a trip. Just go somewhere, see some guys playing, come back home. Because the more musicians you know and communicate the more possibility you have playing with people. And there is a higher chance for you to find something great that could change the world, could change music. But you’re not going to find it in your room.