Part two of my exclusive interview with Stanley Clarke. Read part one here.
How has the bass changed as an instrument since you started recording in the 1970s? What about its impact and perception from music fans?
I actually think that bass is probably the instrument that has evolved in a quantum leap compared to other instruments. It’s the instrument that’s evolved the most, especially with how it’s perceived. And even how it’s played, and how it’s viewed from a point of view of commerce, like with the music industry. When I started playing electric bass and I made my first solo records, there were a handful of bass players that had records out, maybe two or three guys, and this was way before Jaco Pastorius, too. When Jaco came, I really enjoyed what he did. Aside from us being friends, he kind of legitimized what I did, because there was another guy that did it.
Something that was really cool was Michael Jackson at the time; a completely different sound and a completely different thing….Michael at the end of his life was what he was, but it’s nice when you do something and then someone else comes along and does something really different, but it’s very significant. It makes both guys’ legitimacy rise.
To be quite honest, I remember when I went out seeing solo bands out there, I was standing in front of the band as a solo artist, and the fans used to love it because it was something different, it was something new, it was something fresh, and it wasn’t the typical guitar player hanging out there or the typical guy with a microphone singing a couple of songs or a jazz band like a trumpet player or a saxophone—it was a typical melodic instrument with a guy out there on the piece banging the hell out of that thing, playing stuff that they’d never heard…writing songs that actually featured those techniques that hadn’t been done before.
And now, moving forward from just a handful of guys back there to now, all over the world there’s probably thousands of bass players that make records. And they’re not all great, either, but they’re not all bad. The point is, technology has empowered so many musicians, you know? You can go on YouTube, and you see guys playing bass solos, and writing songs on the bass—there’s thousands of guys out that that consider themselves artists, and not just a guy who’s sitting back behind a guitar player or a singer waiting to get a chance to be lucky enough to get a solo one night or something—it’s not about that anymore.
When you go see a band and the bass player doesn’t play a solo, you wonder, is something wrong there? It’s definitely an asset in a band today; people love the bass. They love to hear it. Just like you wait to hear that one drum solo, but then again the key is, can the guy play good? There’s a lot of guys that probably shouldn’t be recording (laughs). What I like about it now is that opposed to when I was coming up, is that the technology allows everyone—even the worst musicians in the world can record. And to me, I like that.
I remember—I was born in ’51, and being seven or eight years old, there was a piano, and many people had pianos in their houses. The neighborhood that I lived in always had a neighborhood music teacher, you know? The guy that had a little neighborhood storefront and taught music; piano, accordion, trumpet. This guy usually could play all the instruments, and it was nice. It was part of the culture of this country, I believe, and other countries, too—it was that music was something to enrich the family.
So I think that what happened was the view for a while there in the ’70s, I remember that it was difficult; not everybody could make a record. In order to make a record, you had to have a record company say that you should make a record, and you had to have music, and you had to travel to certain studios and get an engineer and rent equipment. It was all these different things just to get the music recorded on some of the formats like tape. And there were only a few guys who owned their own 24-tracks; I’m talking about few, like needles in a haystack, that kind of thing.
But now you can go out and spend a couple of hundred dollars and get ProTools and a few other things, and you can record something in that same room. With that same computer, you can design a cover and you can actually probably take it someplace and sell it, right from that room. You can disseminate your art, and it’s all such easy access now. The upside to it is that more people are creating than ever before. The downside is that—maybe it’s not a downside because I’m an older guy—there are so many recordings out there now, that you have to really focus on the good ones, and we have all the file sharing stuff, which in the end doesn’t really bother me at all, it’s such a different scene now with music.
You know, you have the manufactured stars like Lady Gaga, she’s like the new Madonna, and that’s the music industry’s idea of what a young person should be into. I mean, do I know whether all these young guys are really listening to her music and getting the sort of enlightenment or imparting something that’s the same experience I had with the Beatles or Jimi Hendrix or Bob Dylan or Sam Cooke or something like that? I really don’t know. But it’s different now; it’s a whole different music…a different school of thought. It’s not something that handles our social ills in this country; it’s more entertainment now than it ever was before.
How did you get to score the music video for Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time”?
I’ve been working on quite a few films with the director John Singleton, and I think Michael told John to direct this video “Remember the Time”; it’s like an Egyptian dance video. So John brought me along, and I went to the set—an amazing set—and we had a meeting with Michael, who said, “I want some movie music,” which he said to me in a very high voice (laughs). And it was cool; he was a really talented guy, you know? There aren’t enough words to say he just got it. I sat down and watched him work, and he was a real perfectionist, working hours and hours on the same thing to just perfect it. It was really something, because we put that together and I then ended up mixing that video. It’s funny, when I see it I remember being with the engineer—what the hell was his name, he used to be an engineer for Quincy Jones…
Bruce Swedien, yeah. We were mixing this Michael Jackson video (laughs) you know, and it was a cool, cool thing. It had fun and music, and all these [cameos] like Iman, Magic Johnson, Eddie Murphy and all the other people in there. So I created this movie-kind of fantasy music, and it was nice. We took it into the studio and mixed it, and there it was. That was the funny thing about it—we had finished it, and we were waiting for somebody to come, some producer or somebody to come in and mix it, and we just said, “Why don’t mix this thing?” and that’s it. It was a funny thing, and I realized they were expecting us to do it anyway. It was a cool project, and I really liked doing it.
What are some of your personal highlights from your film scoring work?
I really enjoyed scoring the Tina Turner movie [What’s Love Got to Do with It?]. That was great and I really admire her story. I remember on set for that movie, Ike [Turner] actually came down to the building on one of the sets signing autographs for people, and me and Larry Fishburne [Fishburne played Ike Turner in the film—ed.] go way back, we’re friends. So I was sitting there talking to Larry and then Ike comes in, and I just wanted to say, God, I wonder if he really knows how he’s being depicted in this movie. I wanted to go up to him and say, “Man, you need to talk to this director here or read the script or something, man!”
So that was a funny experience, but I really loved doing the first three John Singleton movies, because for me, they were groundbreaking movies, especially Boyz N the Hood, which gave the American public a view into the hood and the life of the African American male. It just seems that a lot of people have no clue that that subculture in this country existed, you know? So that was nice.
I really like sometimes to do action pictures; I get a really big kick out of doing those. And I would say that my two favorites are The Transporter—the first Transporter—which kind of set the stage for all the other ones, and I did this movie with Jet Li called Romeo Must Die; I really enjoyed that. But then there’s another movie that more socially than anything—it was Wesley Snipes’s first action movie, and it was called Passenger 57.
And this movie was really significant, because it really changed Wesley’s life. He hadn’t done anything quite like that before, and it was kind of the first young African American actor action picture—there really weren’t too many others at that pont, you know? I think it cost somewhere between 10 and 15 million dollars to make, and it looks like a 25-30 million dollar movie, and I give all the credit to Kevin Hooks, the director. He really worked hard, and I really worked my ass off on the score, just trying to give it as much as possible. And it was difficult, you know?
If you had an African American theme in those days, you’d have Will Smith and Denzel Washington and all those sorts of things, but Wesley Snipes was sort of just coming out at that point, so the budget was low, but they put in the extra ten miles to make it look and sound like a big action movie. We did the best we could, and that movie still holds up when I see it on TV every now and then; I look at it and I kind of remember all the pain that we put into making that thing happen.
And of course that movie has the classic line…
“Always bet on black.”
Always bet on black, man, that’s right (laughs). It was good, it was really—the thing that I liked about that movie is that it wasn’t an African American movie; it was an action picture. It just happens that this guy, Wesley Snipes, who has dark skin, was playing this part, and that’s what we had set out to do. I mean, you didn’t see guys in dashikis running around; there weren’t all these kinds of subliminal messages. The closest one was “always bet on black,” and that was it.
They weren’t doing Shaft with this film.
I don’t know whatever happened to that guy [Bruce Payne] that played the terrorist, Rane. Man, he had a great look.
We talked about Jaco Pastorius before. Could you tell us where you first met him?
Jaco used to come to hear me play when I used to play with Pharaoh Sanders down in Florida in different places…you know, even though were the same age, I was the guy who’d seen a little bit before him, a few years before. When we formally met, he was playing on an Al Di Meola record [1976’s Land of the Midnight Sun], and we were down at [New York’s] Electric Lady Studios and I was recording in one room and Al was recording in another room, and he brings Jaco over and we hung out, and it was really cool.
And me and Jaco actually became really cool friends. I’ll tell you a little story. It’s really funny that writers—which is understandable—guys like to fan controversy. Jaco was like a boxer. If you sort of compare us to Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier behind the scenes…Joe Frazier came to help Muhammad when he didn’t have money, but then in the end Muhammad was a little nasty toward him. Anyway, Jaco used to say these things—“I’m the greatest in the world”—and a lot of the press went for it. And for a jazz bass player, especially, we thought that the press really—how could you say that he’s the greatest? Ron Carter is alive; Charlie Mingus was still out there, and all the other guys. But I was just aware at that time that the press was changing. It was a younger crowd that was out there, and they were just new jack press guys, saying whatever the hell was in their head and sounded great.
So me and Jaco also used to play a lot; we used to see each other and one of the things that’s really funny, and I don’t think I’ve told too many people this, is that he used to always be over my house every September 16th every year in a row, because of my son. He really liked my son Chris. What he used to do, Jaco was a real serious baseball nut: he played baseball and all that stuff. And every time he came to the house, he used to bring a piece of his baseball gear, whether it was a baseball bat, a hat, his shoes.
So my son actually ended up when he got older—he still does—he’s got Jaco’s glove, he has something else of Jaco’s. And it was really cute, because years back, his sons came up to my son’s house and they played basketball. Apparently, they were trying to see if they [could win] the game and get the glove back or something, even though my son’s a pretty serious basketball player. That never happened, but it was all just fun. I really loved Jaco, you know? He was a great guy, and I have some great pictures of me and him together.
And it was just a great time because the music—you know, the whole idea of the instrumental musician—had changed, had shifted the paradigm, and it went from the older bebop cats to these younger guys that loved bebop, loved classical music, loved rock and roll, loved soul music, loved funk. And so the music that was, initially it was called jazz rock and went to fusion. And it was really a lot of fun, even though a lot of the critics used to say we were not being honest and we were selling out or something. And finally, when Wynton Marsalis came by just wearing suits and ties, the critics went, “Oh, now that’s a real jazz musician.”
But in actual fact, we were much more honest than Wynton and those guys, because I know a lot of those guys, and they grew up dancing to Sly and the Family Stone. I’ll never forget that, you know? The critics used to say, “Why are these guys doing this?” and we were just being so honest playing the music that for me—I grew up listening to Miles [Davis], Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Stravinsky, I loved listening to Beethoven. And so when I did my music, it had a little bit of all of that stuff. So that was a really good time.
Jaco was like that, too. If you listen to Jaco’s first record, he’s got all that Sam and Dave kind of sh*t. He loved Charlie Parker music, he loved this, he loved that. It was really a great time, you know? I kind of miss those times. The state of instrumental music today, I’m not sure it’s as healthy now as it was back then, but—I know there’s a lot of guys, there’s more guys around, but I’m not sure whether it’s as healthy as it used to be.
Did you and Jaco ever discuss plans to tour together?
Yeah, we were planning. I actually have some cassettes; one of these days I’m going to get them and—I believe they’re transferred to digital. Before he got sick [Pastorius was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1982—ed.], we were planning on doing a duet tour, and we had some rehearsals and talked about a lot of music and doing it. And what I liked was that we talked about it, and that was like a really controversial thing, although later I did it with Miroslav Vitouš. But me and Jaco were definitely going to do that, and it would have been great.
But Jaco, it was just unfortunate. There was nothing wrong, really, with Jaco. The only thing that was a problem for Jaco was that he was not in a position to see that he shouldn’t have consumed all those things that he used to consume, whether it was drugs or alcohol or whatever. But he himself, he was a great, sweet guy, and he really loved music and furthering the bass, himself, and his friends, you know? He was a really cool guy, but you have to—I try to tell young guys today that it’s very important that in life, you’ve got to be able to see what’s not good for you and what’s good for you. Some people, they can drink until the cows come home and they walk home and they’re fine, and the next day they get up and go do their job. But some people can’t. Some people can’t.
Read part three here.
Stanley Clarke’s 60th Birthday Celebration will be held May 24-29 at the Blue Note Jazz Club, 131 West 3rd Street (between Sixth Avenue and Washington Square West) at 8:00 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Tickets are $30 and $45. Go to www.bluenote.net for more information. Visit Stanley online at www.stanleyclarke.com and www.return2forever.com for their North American tour dates beginning in June.
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