Stanley Clarke's prolific output can take you back to medieval times, soothe you with a gentle bow of the bass, or launch you into an interplanetary future. His playing holds a reckless abandon, clarity, and facility rarely heard on the low end.
Clarke, a 2022 NEA Jazz Master, spent his formative years in Philadelphia and came up playing with local saxophonist Byard Lancaster, who snuck an underage Clarke into the clubs. Soon, he was picked up by heavyweights like pianist Horace Silver, drummer Art Blakey and saxophonists Stan Getz and Joe Henderson. A lifelong friend and collaborator, drummer Lenny White, helped him get the gig with Henderson, which is also how Clarke would meet Chick Corea.
By that time he was playing — had mastered — the electric bass, and he and Corea co-created the album Return to Forever. The band capitalized on Clarke's ability to double on both acoustic and electric and catapulted his career far outside the confines of jazz. To date, Clarke has racked up more than 50 albums as a leader and co-leader, and more than 150 albums as a sideman with artists like Dianne Reeves and Paul McCartney, in addition to scoring films like Boyz n the Hood and The Transporter.
In this episode we hear from Lenny White, who says that playing on Return to Forever with Clarke was different because, despite the band borrowing from rock, the two had experience in straight-ahead jazz: "So it was like putting on a pair of [dress] shoes, and then taking us out and putting on a pair of sneakers."
The show also features a moment from Los Angeles-based pianist Cameron Graves, known for his work with saxophonist Kamasi Washington. Clarke says that it's a musician's duty "to find that special person that has some really, unusually tremendous talent and help that person." Like Byard Lancaster and Joe Henderson had with him and he later did with Graves, who he also brought into his own band. Now, to date, Clarke and Graves have helped mentor dozens of budding musicians through his Stanley Clarke Scholarship Foundation.
Full circle: Graves first saw posters of Clarke on the walls of his high school. "He looked like a rock star," Graves remembers. "He reminded me of Jim Kelly ... from [Bruce Lee's] Enter the Dragon."
We'll hear the two in an intimate acoustic arrangement from an NPR Music taping at the 2017 Detroit Jazz Festival.
"Bass Folk Song" from Children of Forever by Stanley Clarke
Stanley Clarke, bass; Arthur Webb, flute; Chick Corea, keyboards; Part Martino, guitar; Lenny White, drums
"No Me Esqueca" from In Pursuit of Blackness by Joe Henderson
Joe Henderson, tenor saxophone; Curtis Fuller, trombone; Pete Yellin, alto saxophone; George Cables, electric piano; Stanley Clarke, bass; Lenny White, drums; Tony Waters, congas
"After the Cosmic Rain" from Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy by Return to Forever
Chick Corea, keyboards; Stanley Clarke, bass; Bill Connors, guitar; Lenny White, drums
"Dayride" from No Mystery by Return to Forever
Stanley Clarke, bass; Lenny White, drums; Al Di Meola, guitar; Chick Corea, keyboards
"Romantic Warrior" (Live) from Returns by Return to Forever
Chick Corea, keyboards; Stanley Clarke, bass, Al Di Meola, guitar; Lenny White, drums
"Detroit" from the "Night Owl" NPR Music series
Cameron Graves, piano; Stanley Clarke, bass
Credits: Writers and Producers: Camilo Garzón and Alex Ariff; Consulting Editor: Katie Simon; Host: Christian McBride; Project Manager: Suraya Mohamed; Senior Director of NPR Music: Keith Jenkins; Executive Producers: Anya Grundmann and Gabrielle Armand.
Special thanks to 1504 Productions, Josephine Reed, and the team at National Endowment for the Arts.