Part three of my exclusive interview with Stanley Clarke. Read part two here.
Billy Sheehan has performed with you in the past. How would you describe your relationship with him?
I really like Billy, you know? I see him sometimes. I’ve been in Scientology for a long time and I see him sometimes; he takes courses. What I like about Billy is that he’s a guy that’s really distinctive and has his own style—I couldn’t begin to tell you how he does what he does (laughs), I’ve tried and said, “Man, I don’t want to hurt myself like that.”
I know what you mean. I’ve seen the man’s fingers.
I don’t know how he does it. I remember one time—I have a foundation, and I raise money for kids here. And one year, one of the things that we did was have eight or nine bass players on one stage—Billy, Patrice Rushen, Marcus Miller, Bunny Bruner, Michael Thompson, Flea, Stewart Hamm, and a few other all-stars. They all said, “We want to play ‘School Days.’”
I have a DVD called Night School, and I remember one section, we played the longest “School Days,” and I let everybody take a solo; each guy had eight bars, you know? (Laughs) And when Billy came out there, aside from what he played, I liked his stance—he has a heavy metal stance, his legs were wide, and he’s playing this thing, the hands were like spiders and sh*t—it was great. I really like him; he’s a good soul, man. And I see him every now and then. I know he tours a lot; I think he might be on tour right now. He’s definitely a good guy.
What was the inspiration for “School Days”?
[In 1976] Return to Forever was winning a Grammy, and it was for Best Instrumental Performance by a Group; the Grammys were very simple back then. I’ll never forget—this sounds like some sh*t out of the ’40s, but the [presenters] that were giving away the award were Ella Fitzgerald and the singer Mel Tormé. Now, [back then] I didn’t know much about the Grammys, I’ll be honest with you. The Grammys were something that was for other artists that I didn’t know about, but anyway.
I happened to turn on the TV—Chick had called and said, “Yeah, man, we’re up for a Grammy,” and I said, “What the hell is that?”—and then I turn it on and this guy, Mel Tormé, says, “And the winner is, Return to Forever featuring Chuck Corea.” (Laughs) So everyone was laughing that they called him Chuck, and Ella said, “No, Mel, it’s Chick”—she knew Chick. Anyway, right after that I got really happy, like, “Goddamn, we won an award on television.” It was rare that they had anything like that; they didn’t have MTV or that kind of stuff, so to hear anything about musicians on TV back then was a rarity.
So right after that, I picked up my bass and, just like magic, banged out the riff to “School Days.” And then I banged out a second riff, and I said, “Wow, that really sounds good.” And there was some paper there, so I wrote it down—and I still have the original—the lick, duh-duh-duh, you know, the main lick, and then the B-section, the melody, duh-uh, duh-uh-uh. And the next morning, I said, “I’m going to put that together,” and I woke up and then I kind of strung it together and made it into something, and then just put it away.
Shortly after that, I was making the School Days record and I said, “Yeah, I’m going to try it.” And a little bit of trivia on that, John McLaughlin was supposed to be the guitar player on that song. Gerry Brown shows up at the studio, David Sancious shows up, I was there. I was a guy—I didn’t like to wait for people for some reason; I’m still like that. So I’m there going, “Where the hell is John?” [and] Lenny White shows up with this young kid, this guitar player, Ray Gomez, and I said, “Man, I’ve been waiting for John and we’re all here” and [Lenny] says, “Ray can play.” He had his guitar with him so I said, “Come on, let’s go.” We went in there and hit it, and that was that.
Where did the title come from?
The title came later when I was trying to figure out—I was always bad with that; I wasn’t really a lyric writer, so I never really was into titles so much, you know? So I talked to this guy who was a manager for Chick Corea at that time, his name was Ron Moss. And Ron asked me, “Well, what does it sound like to you? What does it feel like?” I said, “Well, I get kind of the feeling I had, the freedom I had when I was in school. The bassline is very heroic; a lot of freedom, like you’re breaking down the walls and all that kind of stuff. It’s just like my days in school.” He goes, “School, school…‘School Days.’” And I said, “There it is.”
If I could ask, what kind of a role does Scientology play in your life today?
Scientology is probably one of the most misunderstood things, and it’s sad that it’s so misunderstood. I take courses in Scientology; they have business courses, they have courses that help you with your marriage, they have a great course for drug rehab called Narconon. And a lot of people that do it; you’d be surprised how many people take Scientology courses.
I just took a course recently because I’m starting my new record company—I have a record company called Roxboro Entertainment. Two artists have been released. I’ve got two more coming by the end of the year, I’ll have six. And in life, I need to get my business chops up. They have great, great courses for that. And that’s what I do.
The guy that put it [Scientology] together, L. Ron Hubbard, was a genius, and he wrote a lot of books. I don’t know anybody’s who’s written more stuff than this guy, you know? It’s really nice. But people who want to know what it is, they have a website. And they’re actually much better now at explaining who they are and all that. In the old days, it was [seen as] this mysterious thing like a cult and this and that, it’s bullsh*t. It’s just people trying to help other people; that’s all it is.
You and your Heads Up label mate Esperanza Spalding had some big Grammy wins earlier this year. Career-wise, what kind of an impact does a Grammy win for jazz have on an artist these days?
When you win a Grammy, it links a certain prestige and importance to you, you know? People want to talk to you. And also, the major impact that it has on you is acknowledgement—you spend a lot of time making a record, and you get acknowledged for this Grammy, for us musicians, it’s like the Oscar—there’s no award that’s any bigger than that.There’s some other awards, like I was told this year that I’ll be getting the Miles Davis Award from the Montreal Jazz Festival, which is a really prestigious award from Canada. It’s like I have to wear a sash or something. Only a few people have gotten it, like Chick Corea, Dave Brubeck, Sonny Rollins.
For me, with this Grammy, I got off more for what it did for the young guys in my band. All of those guys, the majority of them were under thirty, and it’s really rare, man, for a jazz musician to be young and get a Grammy. We won the biggest jazz award, which was Best [Contemporary Jazz] Album, and that’s a group award, which means that all the players, the producers and the engineers all get Grammys, you know? And so it’s pretty big. We had a lot of people on that record, too; It was a really nice thing. And for me, the piano player Hiromi was there, too, and she’s like the fourth person in the history of Japan to win a Grammy…she was really freaked out; she couldn’t even believe that we were nominated, so when we won she was completely blown out.
It just gives you something that’s with you your whole life; it goes on your resumé. If you really wanted to be a stickler about it, you could come on the stage for the rest of your life: Grammy Award-winning bass player Stanley Clarke, or any of the other guys in my band, you know? Like my drummer, Ronald Bruner Jr….it’s just like the Oscars; it distinguishes you from other people.
I don’t think it has much to do with whether you’re better than any other guys; it’s just that that day, some individuals thought that you had the better thing. That’s really all it was.
It was also great to see the Japanese rock guitarist Tak Matsumoto win that night for his album with Larry Carlton. Billy Sheehan has played with Tak’s group B’z in Japan.
They love Billy in Japan.
They’re paring down the jazz category for next year’s ceremony. Does that make it a more crowded field, or does it streamline things?
Obviously, it’s going to be more competitive….Let me put it this way: I think that, if anything, it’s kind of out of control. Number one: you don’t see the full Grammy show. I actually believe, years to come, very few people are going to watch it on TV; they’re going to stream it online. At the show, my wife and two of the guys in the band went up to collect the award, because I was in Australia—that’s how I watched the show. I think that’s going to happen.
Did they have too many awards? Probably. And the show is so big that they can have an eight-hour show. And again, they have to put in the—they call it the showcase, with these artists; every year it’s the same. They have the singing; they have the Michael Jackson stuff in the back, some kind of theme. I can’t believe every year it’s the same, you know? It’s just really something.
I think it’s turned into a show where the majority of the people want to see performances, maybe. Because it’s going out all over the world, they want to see Kanye West get up there and rant about this and that, and have Lady Gaga come up there with some Michael Jackson dance steps on the side. I do think that it’s a shame when they took the Latin category out.
Whenever they make these big changes, I don’t know what they’re thinking.
They’re thinking in the box; they’re not thinking out of the box. They’re looking to balance…demographics in this country. They’re just looking at what’s going to make the best show from their point of view, which is just entertainment. Maybe the same thing can be said for the Oscars, although that show is totally different because people can kind of sit there and watch awards being given and have it be exciting. I think that the producers for the Grammys think that it would be exciting to have an hour of just performances…if somebody just sat down to figure something out, you could probably get everything into the mix. There’s too many songs for me, and I actually don’t even watch it anymore.
Is paring it down a step in the right direction?
They’re going to still have the same amount of songs. It’s two different things: there’s the show, and then there’s the awards ceremony. See, the awards ceremony starts in the afternoon, and probably what they’re looking at is the bottom line—all decisions, one way or another, come from the bottom line. So, for instance, they have the show that’s not aired, with all these people getting these awards that they have to pay for, and they’re figuring, wait a minute, we don’t have sponsors, so everybody’s been getting that show online for free and we’re not making any money from that. But you make money at night, when they show Kanye West, Lady Gaga or whoever else.
So what they’re saying here is, let’s pare down these awards, and all the awards that they’re taking away, the majority of them, are awards that are shown on the pre-airs of the program, the stuff that just goes out online. So what they probably want to do is shrink that down, because that takes quite a few hours to do, seating, renting the place, limos, this and that. So they probably want to cut that down in half, and the only way to do that is to attack the awards. Get rid of awards so they’ll have a guarantee. Next year they’ll have one hour for the pre-telecast thing and it goes right into the show, guaranteed. To save money, that’s all.
And I think there’s some people out there, maybe some Latino guys out there who are trying to make this into a racial thing. I don’t think that that’s the case. I think that bottom line, it’s about money. If anything, maybe somebody needs to go and talk with the producer about the problems [beyond] trying to save money.
In your opinion, how does Esperanza Spalding’s win as Best New Artist relate to the future of jazz?
I actually think it’s good. When you look at all the artists, even though Justin Bieber was designed—if you could design a better new artist—he had everything, like everything was in place for him to win that award. But if you really look at it, he was in place to win that award from some point of view of a pop category, but it’s the Best New Artist. And if I remember correctly…it [covers] all categories. And the voters for NARAS [the National Academy for Recording Arts and Sciences] are not dummies; I know quite a few of them.
And if you look at Esperanza, Justin Bieber and all the other guys, she was the better one. Her music is better, more sophisticated. She’s a player; she plays bass and she writes…[Bieber] may affect more people. I use a comparison for cars: I mean, Chevy’s a great car, but the Rolls-Royce may not sell as many cars as Chevy. I used to own a Rolls-Royce, and believe me, it’s a much better car. That’s kind of how I look at that. People got really upset and [his] fans got really upset, but it’s natural. I totally understand that thing and she was indeed the best one.
How it helps jazz, there’s probably some people that are checking her out, and hopefully they’ll check somebody else out. There’s probably some people that will hate jazz even more (laughs).
I’ll be seeing her show at Town Hall, which is a pretty big place for someone early in their career.
I think that a Grammy for her is a great thing. She’s a bass player, too, and Town Hall is a good thing for her; it’s great and I’m happy for her.
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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