Stanley Clarke is an American jazz musician and composer known for his innovative and influential work on double bass and electric bass as well as for his numerous film and television scores. He is best known for his work with the fusion band Return to Forever, and his role as a bandleader in several trios and ensembles.
Early life and education
Clarke was born in Philadelphia. He was introduced to the bass as a schoolboy when he arrived late on the day instruments were distributed to students and acoustic bass was one of the few remaining selections.A graduate of Roxborough High School in Philadelphia, he attended the Philadelphia Musical Academy, (which was absorbed into the University of the Arts in 1985) from which he graduated in 1971. He then moved to New York City and began working with famous bandleaders and musicians including Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Dave Brubeck, Dexter Gordon, Gato Barbieri, Joe Henderson, Chick Corea, Pharoah Sanders, Gil Evans and Stan Getz.
Bands and collaborations
During the 1970s, Clarke joined the jazz fusion group Return to Forever, led by pianist and synth player Chick Corea. The group released several albums that achieved both mainstream popularity and critical acclaim. In 1981, Clark and George Duke formed the Clarke/Duke Project. Their song “Sweet Baby” was a Top 20 hit. In 2006 Clarke reunited with George Duke and toured with him for the first time in fifteen years.
Stanley Clarke was also a member of The New Barbarians, a band Ronnie Wood (The Rolling Stones) had assembled in 1979 to play gigs in the US, Canada and UK. Other band members included Keith Richards, Ziggy Modeliste (The Meters), Ian McLagan and Bobby Keys. This version of the New Barbarians played their final concert in the Knebworth Festival, 1979. To date three official live recordings have been released of the New Barbarians 1979 tour. These all include Stanley Clarke as bass player.
In the late 1980s, Clarke and drummer Stewart Copeland, of the rock band The Police, formed Animal Logic with singer-songwriter Deborah Holland. In 2005 Clarke toured as Trio! with Béla Fleck and Jean-Luc Ponty. The U.S. and European tour was nominated for a 2006 Jammy Award in the category of “Tour of the Year.” He has also played with Jeff Beck, Ron Wood, Larry Carlton, Billy Cobham and Al Di Meola.
In 2009 he released Jazz in the Garden, featuring the Stanley Clarke Trio with pianist Hiromi Uehara and drummer Lenny White. The following year he released the Stanley Clarke Band, with Ruslan Sirota on keyboards and Ronald Bruner, Jr. on drums; the album also features Hiromi on piano.
Clarke started his solo career in the early 1970s and released a number of albums under his own name. His best known solo album is School Days (1976), which, along with Jaco Pastorius’s self-titled debut, is one of the most influential solo bass recordings in fusion history. His albums Stanley Clarke (1974) and Journey to Love (1975) are also notable.
Clarke released The Toys of Men in 2007. This was his first release in five years, on October 17, 2007. The first week of release it went to No. 2 on the Contemporary Jazz Chart of Billboardmagazine. The album examines the subject of war, and it includes performances by Esperanza Spalding, Ruslan Sirota, Paulinho da Costa and Mads Tolling.
TV and movies
Since the 1980s, Clarke has turned much of his energy to television and film scores. He is credited for the scores for the ABC Family Channel series Lincoln Heights as well as composing the theme song for the show.
Clarke began with TV scores for ABC’s short-lived series A Man Called Hawk and an Emmy-nominated score for Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Clarke then moved on to work as a composer, orchestrator, conductor and performer of scores for such films as Boyz n the Hood, What’s Love Got to Do with It, Passenger 57, Higher Learning, Poetic Justice, Panther, The Five Heartbeats, Book of Love, Little Big League, and Romeo Must Die. He also scored The Transporter and Remember the Time a video by Michael Jackson directed by John Singleton. In the 2000s, he composed music for Soul Food on the Showtime Network.
BET-J launched a series hosted by Clarke entitled On the Road with Stanley Clarke in June 2006. The series consists of seven episodes titled “Origins of Black Music,” “That Philly Sound,” “Jazz Beyond the Classroom,” “Black Music in Film, Television & Theatre,” “Jazz,” “Black Music in Film – The Next Generation:” and “Bass to Bass.” His guests included Terence Blanchard, Marcus Miller, George Duke, the Tate Brothers, Gamble and Huff, and academicians Dr. Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje and Dr. Cheryl Keyes from the Department of Ethnomusicology at UCLA. On the Road with Stanley Clarke episodes were re-broadcast on BET-J in 2007.
Early in 2007, Clarke’s own Roxboro Entertainment Group released a DVD entitled Night School: An Evening with Stanley Clarke and Friends through the Heads Up International label. The 90-minute presentation documents the third annual Stanley Clarke Scholarship Concert, recorded at Musicians Institute in Hollywood, California, in October 2002. The group offers scholarships to students in financial need who excel in music. The Night School DVD scholarship concert features Stevie Wonder, Wallace Roney, Bela Fleck, Sheila E., Stewart Copeland, Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Wayman Tisdale, and Marcus Miller. Night School captures performances that range from jazz to fusion to a twenty-two-piece string ensemble.
Electric bass technique
When playing electric bass, Clarke places his right hand so that his fingers approach the strings much as they would on an upright bass, but rotated through 90 degrees. To achieve this, his forearm lies above and nearly parallel to the strings, while his wrist is hooked downward at nearly a right angle. For lead and solo playing, his fingers partially hook underneath the strings so that when released, the strings snap against the frets, producing a biting percussive attack. In addition to an economical variation on the funky Larry Graham-style slap-n’-pop technique, Clarke also uses downward thrusts of the entire right hand, striking two or more strings from above with his fingernails (examples of this technique include “School Days”, “Rock and Roll Jelly”, “Wild Dog”, and “Danger Street”).
Clarke has long been associated with Alembic basses, and much of his recorded output has been produced on Alembic instruments, particularly a dark-wood-colored custom bass in the Series II body style. These basses are handmade neck-through-body instruments made from a mixture of exotic woods and a proprietary-active-pickup system that is powered from an external power supply. A Stanley Clarke Signature Model bass guitar is produced by Alembic. Clarke also utilizes full-range amplification for his basses, including two QSC 2050 amplifiers, more in keeping with a keyboardist’s rig than a bassist’s or guitarists. To extend his melodic range, he also plays on tenor and piccolo basses. Clarke’s are usually short scale (78 cm or 30.75″), four string, Carl Thompson or Alembic.
In the late 1970s, Clarke was playing Rick Turner’s first graphite neck on his Alembic “Black Beauty” bass, and he decided to have an all-composite bass made. He commissioned designer/luthier Tom Lieber to design and build this bass, having purchased one of Lieber’s Spider grinder basses in 1979. In 1980 Lieber and Clarke formed the Spellbinder Corporation and produced a limited run of fifty Spellbinder basses. One left-handed bass was built as a gift from Stanley to Paul McCartney. After the run, the molds were destroyed. In 2007 Clarke once again teamed up with Lieber and Rick Turner to reform the Spellbinder Corp. and produce a limited run of 125 of the Spellbinder Bass II, which he played on the RTF reunion tour. Clarke has also played a Ken Smith BT Custom, and a German made Löwenherz Tenor Bass. His current pedalboard consists of a TC Electronic G-System, an MXR Bass Octave Deluxe and an EBS Bass IQ Envelope.
Clarke is a member of the Church of Scientology. After a period of time, during which Clarke had been departed, he again appears in official church publications.His earlier musical productions would often reference L. Ron Hubbard on their LP sleeves.
Awards and honors
- Jazzman of the Year, Rolling Stone
- Best Bassist, Playboy, for ten straight years
- Gallery of Greats, Guitar Player
- Key to the city of Philadelphia
- 50 most influential people, Los Angeles, 2004
- Lifetime Achievement Award, Bass Player, 2006
- Tour of the Year nomination, Jammy Awards, with Béla Fleck and Jean-Luc Ponty, 2006
- Honorary doctorate in fine arts, The University of the Arts, 2008
- Grammy Award, Best Contemporary Jazz Album, Stanley Clarke Band