Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Clarke, Stanley

Stanley Clarke's signature slap on the electric bass is one of the most recognizable and copied techniques in jazz, as well as in funk and rock. Clarke brought the electric instrument into the jazz mainstream, and is also an accomplished acoustic bassist.

School Days

Clarke was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on June 30th, 1951. His first instrument was the accordion, which he studied at a music store owned by Russian immigrants. At age twelve, Clarke switched to the upright bass, which was appropriate for Clarke, as he was large for his age. Clarke studied the bass through high school, then studied at the Philadelphia Musical Academy for several years before moving to New York City to pursue a professional career in music.

Upon arriving in New York, Clarke played with a stream of well respected and known jazz musicians including pianist Horace Silver, drummer Art Blakey, saxophonist Joe Henderson, and composer Gil Evans. Within his first year of being in New York, Clarke met pianist Chick Corea. Together with Corea, Clarke formed one of the main fusion bands of the 1970s with Return to Forever. Though the band wouldn’t record their own record until late into 1972, the same band, with Tony Williams on drums, recorded with tenor saxophonist Stan Getz for his 1972 release Captain Marvel, which featured the same Latin rhythms and grooves as found on Return to Forever’s debut recording. Getz’s album featured the Chick Corea written song "La Fiesta" with Clarke on bass and Williams on drums.

In the fall of 1972, Return to Forever hit the studio in London to record their album Light As A Feather, which featured Chick Corea on electric piano, Clarke on bass, Airto Moreira on drums and hand percussion, Joe Farrell on saxophone, and Flora Purim on vocals. The band originally focused very heavily on Latin rhythms and compositions as heard on their debut. The album featured a number of well known songs including "500 Miles High," which showcases Purim’s vocals. Other compositions on the album include Corea's “Spain,” which has become a jazz standard. It should be noted that the band originally recorded for the European label ECM which released their debut album but it was only released in Europe at the time and didn’t hit the shelves in the United States until 1975.

Continuing with the trends of fusion and the ability of the music to reach a broader audience, the second installment of Return to Forever took on a more progressive sound that embraced rock and the funkier side of music. The group’s second release Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy, featured Corea and Clarke along with drummer Lenny White and guitarist Bill Connors and was recorded in 1973. The album still featured Latin undertones, but many of the song titles referenced Chick Corea’s embrace of L. Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology. Notable songs included "After the Cosmic Rain," composed by Clarke, which has a memorable opening bass line.

While still performing and recording with RTF, Clarke released his first solo album in 1973 entitled Children of Forever. He followed this with 1974’s Stanley Clarke, which boasted drummer Tony Williams, guitarist Bill Connors, and Mahavishnu keyboardist Jan Hammer on such songs as "Lopsy Lu." He followed this with Journey to Love in 1975 which featured the song "“Hello Jeff," written for guitarist Jeff Beck, who also appeared on the recording with drummer Lenny White.

Clarke’s most influential recording as a soloist may be 1976’s School Days. The album was heralded for its funk grooves as well as Clarke’s dexterity and visionary as an electric bassist. Clarke’s Larry Graham-influenced style of slap bass is heard all over the album and acts as the spine for an ensemble that included drummer Gerry Brown and keyboardist David Sancious. The group is heard on the bass anthem "School Days," which elevated Clarke into the elite company of electric bassists Alphonso Johnson and Jaco Pastorius, all of whom were reinventing the way in which the instrument was being used. Also on School Days is the song "Desert Song," which featured Clarke’s underrecognized talents as an acoustic bassist along with guitarist John McLaughlin and percussionist Milton Holland.

The 1970s proved to be a very active time. He remained a permanent member of Chick Corea’s fusion ensemble Return to Forever (RTF), and appeared on all of their subsequent releases of the decade. RTF released their fourth album Where Have I Known You Before in 1974. This album centered much more on rock rhythms and it featured a young Al Di Meola on guitar, who replaced Bill Connors. The album featured songs such as Clarke's "Vulcan Worlds." RTF followed this with 1975’s No Mystery. The album won the 1975 Grammy award for best jazz album by a group. The album featured the songs "Excerpt from the First Movement of Heavy Metal" and "No Mystery."

The group continued to compose and recorded and released Romantic Warrior in 1976. This album would be the last for Al Di Meola and Lenny White. In 1977, RTF released their second album for Columbia entitled Musicmagic, which retained only Corea and Clarke from the original lineups of Return to Forever. The album boasted drummer Gerry Brown and multi-reedist Joe Farrell. This same band toured and released the album Return to Forever Live, which featured the Corea song "Spanish Fantasy." The group disbanded following this release.

Clarke continued to stay active performing and recording with other musicians, including guitarist Jeff Beck, with whom he toured with in 1979, and with Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards in 1980. In 1981, Clarke teamed up with fusion keyboardist George Duke to form the Clarke/Duke band which released three albums in the 1980s. The group also had a surprise hit with the song “Sweet Baby,” which entered the Billboard Pop top 20 charts. In addition to his work as a musician, Clarke has scored television and films, including What’s Love Got to Do with It, Boyz in the Hood, and Romeo Must Die.

In 1995, Clarke joined forces with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and guitarist Al Di Meola for the album Rite of Strings which was recorded in Hollywood in April of that year. The group is heard on the songs "Topanga," "Indigo" and "Renaissance.

In 2007, Clarke released a well-received solo album, The Toys of Men. In 2008, it was announced that the original Return to Forever with Di Meola, Clarke, White, and Corea would reunite for a world tour. Clarke endorses Alembic electric bass, who produce a Stanley Clarke model.

Select Discography

As Stanley Clarke

Children of Forever (Polydor, 1973)

Stanley Clarke (Epic, 1974)

Journey to Love (Epic, 1975)

School Days (Epic, 1976)

The Toys of Men (2007)

With Return to Forever

Light As a Feather (Polydor, 1972)

Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy (Polydor, 1973)

Where Have I Known You Before (Polydor, 1974)

No Mystery (Polydor, 1975)

Romantic Warrior (Columbia, 1976)

Musicmagic (Columbia, 1977)

Return To Forever Live (Columbia, 1978)

With George Duke

Clarke/Duke Project I (Epic, 1981)

Clarke/Duke Project II (Epic, 1983)

Clarke/Duke Project III (Epic, 1990)

Contributor: Jared Pauley

Related Links

The Dozens: Essential Return to Forever Performances by Walter Kolosky