Stanley Clarke is a 4-time Grammy winner largely known for his pioneering work in jazz fusion with Chick Corea and their Return to Forever band. As a leader, Clarke is unique in having songs dominated by bass licks. I caught up with Clarke after he played the last show of the Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival, electrifying an enthusiastic crowd as he played “School Days”.
Jack Austin (JA): You are considered one of the founders of jazz fusion because of your work in the 70s for Return to Forever with Chick Corea. Do you feel this designation ever limits you to playing that type of music?
Stanley Clarke (SC): No, I don’t think a genre necessarily limits anybody. It depends on what your boundaries are, you know what I mean. If you’re a country musician than your boundaries are some chords or some lyrics, that’s what it is. It depends. Genre doesn’t control the music, people control the music, so what we do, we do a lots of different types of music. Some things require more exploration, some things like our encore, we’re only interested in what makes people feel happy. So it’s also important to experiment.
JA: You have worked with a number of artists I appreciate, like Pharoah Sanders, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Art Blakey, and Horace Silver. To you, who was the most impressive bandleader you worked with? Who was the most fun to tour with?
SC: My favorite band leader was Art Blakey. He had a band called the Jazz Messengers and many of the great[s] of jazz came through his band. So we are all very proud to call ourselves Jazz Messengers. It’s one of the things me and Chick Corea have in common. Wayne Shorter. Freddie Hubbard. Reggie Workman. I learned a lot playing with Art. I think that in jazz that is my greatest achievement, playing with Blakey.
JA: How would you say your music has evolved over the years?
SC: You know, it all evolves. The degree that it evolved, I leave it up to the people. It’s always evolving. It’s hard to quantify something like that, that you can’t measure. We’re not, you know, playing sports, where it’s 4 seconds more or something, you know. It depends on who is listening, how much it will evolve with them.
JA: What is the key to longevity as an artist, as a musician?
SC: I think it’s have a good diet, exercise, always practice, remain humble, and keep as many weird people as you can, away from you.
JA: So you looked like you were having a lot of fun out there on the stage. What were you feeling in that moment?
SC: I was having fun, I always have fun. The day I stop having fun, I’ll stop [performing]. I doubt that that will happen cause I enjoy it, it’s what I do, it’s my life. And I enjoy making people happy.
JA: Forever, the second album since Return to Forever reunited won the Best Contemporary Jazz album in 2011. What did that mean for you?
SC: You know, those awards are always nice. They aren’t the end all of everything for someone’s career, but it’s a nice accolade. It’s a nice acknowledgement.
JA: Who have you heard at this festival that you really like?
SC: I’m a big fan of Charles Lloyd. I was hoping to see him, but we got here, we took a red eye from Los Angeles last night so I was just sleeping all morning. Literally got up from my hotel, and came over here.