As the Artist In Residence at the Detroit Jazz Festival, Stanley Clarke turns reflective for a career-spanning interview
Deeply honored by being Artist in Residence at the 2019 Detroit Jazz Festival, Stanley Clarke was in a reflective mood when he sat down to chat with us just after the event. We soon learned why, as he expounded upon the festival experience, his long and winding film-composing career, and his bandstand and tour-bus mentoring of young musicians.
How would you describe your experience this year being the Artist in Residence?
It was amazing. First of all, Detroit has had a big impact on me and every jazz musician because of the greats who hail from there — Ron Carter, Paul Chambers, James Jamerson, the Jones Brothers, Tommy Flanagan, Ralphe Armstrong, the list goes on and on. Second, Detroit is such a unique jazz city in that everyday, working people are very knowledgable about the music and the artists, and they come out in droves. Last, it’s a true international jazz festival, not one watered down with R&B acts and smooth jazz artists. I got the chance to see the fullness of the festival as the Artist in Residence, and it made me proud and happy. I don’t really get a chance to look retrospectively at my life because I’m constantly moving forward, so it was nice to hear from fans and in interviews, “Remember this record?” Or, “Remember that group?” Or, “Can you sign this album?”
You played with your band the first night, and an all-star group the second night.
Yes, for the first night with my band [pianist Beka Gochiashvili, keyboardist Cameron Graves, drummer Sharik Tucker, violinist Evan Garr, and Sala Nader on tabla] we played a wide range of my catalogue: early songs like “School Days,” material from the middle of my career, and some new music — everyone was in fine form. The second night we had Lenny White on drums, Beka on piano, Wallace Roney on trumpet, and Emilio Modeste on tenor sax. He’s 19 and a tremendous player; in a lot of ways he reminds my of myself at that age. We played older, pre-fusion songs by Miles, Wayne Shorter, Stan Getz, and Horace Silver. Recalling that period, and my coming up with Stan and Horace, was a great feeling.
The last night was an epic performance of your Boyz n the Hood soundtrack, with you conducting a 60-piece orchestra and also playing, as the film showed on a big screen. Can you take us through the process?
It was an idea I had years ago after seeing John Williams perform his scores that way at the Hollywood Bowl. I thought, no one has ever done this with urban movies in urban areas. My old manager didn’t grasp it, but when I got with my new manager, Valerie Malot, who owns 3D Family, she understood. She said Boyz is very big in Europe, and she had some interested orchestras over there. While we tossed it around, the Detroit opportunity came up, and she took it upon herself to make it happen. The next step was to find my scores for Boyz, and I remembered that when you score a movie in Hollywood, part of the delivery requirement is to give the studio everything related to the score when you’re done — every recording, file, all the notated music. So I called Sony and they had it all, right down to my scores with spaghetti stains on them! I also asked them for a copy of the film without the score, so we could play to it, and they said sure, we’ll give you the broken down elements of the film and you put it back together the way you want. So I had to revise the full orchestral score and then re-edit the movie. It took me two months.
How did the playing component figure in?
I had this idea to have a small band with Lenny White, Wallace Roney, and a few others play live music based on the score in-between some of the scenes. So we created montages within the movie for folks to look at while we played. That meant I had to put the baton down, walk over to the acoustic bass on a crowded stage, play for four or five minutes, and then as the movie is rolling, walk back to bring the orchestra in at the right place. It all went perfectly, which was amazing considering all the technology and personnel. Five minutes before we started, I have to admit, I was pretty scared. And I forgot how important John [Singleton’s] movie was to people. With themes of gang violence, drug abuse, poverty, and family issues, it was ahead of its time, and it still resonates today. A lot of the people who attended had never seen a live orchestra. There were tears; it was a heavy experience, and the reviews were great. Now that we have all the material, I’d like to perform it a few times in 2020, and do it with some of my other scores, as well.
You also had Ron Carter featured at the festival.
That was a huge bonus. We did a roundtable, along with Wallace, Pat Metheny, and Danilo Perez, but I wish I could have also done a dual interview with Ron so that people could understand the impact he has had on the bass and music world. He’s probably the greatest ever at bass line construction, and his influence runs so long and so deep that there are cats who play his licks and don’t even know who he is. When you can affect players beyond your reach, that’s true genius. Fortunately I got to be in the upcoming documentary on Ron, and we are working toward doing some duo gigs together in 2020.
Let’s turn back to your film composing side: What was your experience being an early African-American film composer in Hollywood?
There were some challenges, for sure. Before me there were not many. You had Quincy [Jones], the late Oliver Nelson, and J.J. Johnson; Herbie [Hancock] did a few. What helped me was doing some TV scoring first. Barry Manilow was doing a TV special, and he wanted to play jazz with a real jazz band and singers, and I got the call on bass. The director, Steve Binder, came to me during the show and asked if I’d ever scored a TV show before. He said he had a special episode of Pee Wee’s Playhouse that was about childbirth, and he needed some music that was a little left of center, and he thought I’d be perfect. I was all but talking my way out of it, but he told me to get a DX7, Performer, and some MIDI gear. I did, and I wrote the score with that, and lo and behold I got an Emmy nomination.
As a result, agents started calling me, and I signed on with a great guy named Stan Millander. Based on my doing TV work, he thought he could break me into feature films, even though there were very few black film composers. He said he was going to send me on meetings, but he warned me that people were going to be skeptical and ask me stupid questions, and he was right. He sent me to do a sports-themed movie, whose title I won’t mention to not incriminate anyone. I did my homework, went through the script, showed up in a suit and tie, and I began outlining what music and ensemble sizes I thought would go with each scene. When I finished, one of the head guys says to me, “Now, Stanley, obviously you’re a great musician with a successful recording career; you have music in your head and in your heart. I get that. But how are you going to get it to other people? Like how are you going to get an orchestra to understand what you want them to do?” It didn’t register with me at first, but what he was essentially saying was, Listen, motherfucker, we know your black ass can’t read and write music! Fortunately, I knew one of the assistants, and I saw that she was winking at me. That’s when the bell went off in my head, and I realized what he was implying. So I said, “What do you mean? I’m going to write the music down on a piece of paper and hand it other musicians, the way people have been doing it for hundreds of years.” And he said, “Okay, gotcha.” And that was it. I went home, they hired me, and I did the score.
What was interesting was the early films I got were 75% urban, 25% mainstream. But in TV I was doing 80% mainstream stuff, like Murder, She Wrote and cartoons. Eventually my film work evened out to half urban and half mainstream. The other key was when black actors like Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes, and Laurence Fishburne became huge stars, that sort of transcended race. So Passenger 57 was not an urban movie, but an action movie with a black star. Romeo Must Die was not an Asian movie — it was an action movie starring Jet Li.
With a busy solo career, why did you want to get into film scoring?
For starters, to expand my compositional side. As I always tell young bassists, a key part of being an artist is to have a compositional makeup. Because if you look at all the greats — Bird, Trane, Jaco — how they’re reaching you is through songs. They’re not just moving their fingers fast. That was something Chick Corea cemented in me early on, when we were going to do Light as a Feather [1972, Polydor]. He had heard me playing piano, and he said, “I really want you to write something for this album.” I said, “Chick, that’s your category. I have no interest; you’re the writer in the band.” He said, “Listen, if you write something, it will not only give me a break, it will add another color to the music.” I understood, but I was still skeptical, so he said, “Look, if you write a song for this project I promise you I will name the album after it.” And he kept his word. He was 28 and I was 19, but here was a guy who already understood leadership — that you have to delegate. To be truly powerful, you have to make somebody else powerful. He gave me confidence, and that made all the difference. I became a composer and never turned back.
The other aspect, as I would soon learn, is when you’re writing for film, you have the opportunity to compose music you would never put on a record. You have to write music for some guy stabbing another guy in the neck, and he’s bleeding profusely, or for a chase scene. You don’t use that on an album. The records we listen to generally deal with only two or three dynamics: Love, sorrow, celebration — a slice of what happens in life. But in film you see everything, and you have to be prepared to write for that.
That sounds like a special skill.
It is, and if you asked me how I learned to do it, that’s a complete mystery to me. Some can do it, some can’t. Some of the greatest musicians and composers cannot write for film; they’re not able to translate the human experience that they’re watching. I don’t know why, but when I see something on a screen, I just know what to write. I can even do it in real life; I can score us having this conversation right now. I enjoy teaching young film composers, and most of it is technology and the political aspects. But when it gets down to the music and you have the footage in front of you, that’s when you realize whether you have it or not. There are 50 different ways to score a scene, but the bottom line is, can you get someone to understand what the scene is?
What was the inspiration for your latest soundtrack, Halston?
I was asked to do it by someone I met, and I knew nothing about Halston. But learning about him, the amazing heights he reached and the tragic fall, intrigued me. For a composer, that’s very meaty; it gives you a lot to write about. So I took it on and I really enjoyed it. The music came out of me very fast, because I understood everything about him, and there were a lot of layers there. I’m normally not the biggest fan of documentaries from a composer standpoint, but the way this was shot and put together was like a movie in how it told a story.
Stylistically your score ranges from acoustic and electric jazz to disco and rock.
That was all related to the time periods in the film, which I had to be stylistically accurate with. There were certain chords and grooves and styles of bass playing I couldn’t use, and that was a fun challenge. It’s funny — I was around New York back then, in the Studio 54 era, and I didn’t care much for that kind of music, but I knew how to write it for the score. There’s also a Miles vibe in some of it, reflecting how he was playing at that point. It worked because there’s a darkness and sadness to the overall story, but it’s almost a beautiful sadness.
You’re well known for hiring young musicians and being generous with them onstage.
It’s because that’s what was done for me. It’s really that simple. Bandleaders like Horace Silver, Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, and Dexter Gordon were very nice to me as a young player, and that opened the door for me to go for it. I can’t remember a single leader who tried to get me to change the basic fundamentals of how I played the bass. Now, in lesser situations, that’s when I would run into guys who might try to change you. So I always keep in mind that the truly great musicians are generous and very open-minded, because they recognize that’s the pathway to greatness. Another reason I work with young players is jazz music has historically traveled down the time track from before Louis Armstrong to now, through what is actually an African concept: You pass it on to the youth. If you’re a band in 1960 and everyone is the same age, that doesn’t work; you have to have young band members to pass it on to.
Do you recall any key lessons taught to you by a great when you were a young player?
Yes! I clearly remember being in Stan Getz’s band and having some trouble stabilizing my role in some music we were playing. Tony Williams was there, and he came over to me. He is not much older than me, but he’d already been gigging for years. He said, “Think about Ron [Carter]. Forget the notes he’s playing; just try to feel his personality. He’s very stoic, like a tree with roots that go deep into the ground.” He went on to explain that the whole Miles band revolved around Ron — where the one was, who defined the harmony and moved it along. And that’s when I had the life-changing realization that the bassist is the only one in the band who truly brings the rhythm and the harmony together. James Jamerson was like that. When you listen to a Motown tune, his bass defines the tonal center, and when you figure out how to dance to it and feel it, it’s from the bass, as well. Bass players hold a very powerful position in a band — to me, the most important one. I got all of that thanks to Tony. Another invaluable lesson was learning about how to swing from Art Blakey. He taught me about the three points of a beat: On the beat, in front of the beat, or after the beat. When you grasp his concept, you can create some different feels. That’s the kind of stuff that got passed to me, so I have a duty to pass it on to young musicians.
You’re not telling your musicians what to play as much as you’re guiding them.
Right, I give them those lessons. You interview guys who have been in my band, and they’ll say that I tell them stories and I pass on lessons I learned from Tony, Art Blakey, and others. I’m a drummer freak, so every drummer who’s played with me has been beat up pretty good, from Sharik, Mike Mitchell, and Ronald Bruner all the way back to Gerry Brown. I’ve played with all the great drummers — they haven’t, so I tell them what they need to know and who they need to check out.
Given your mentoring role, how do you feel about the direction of jazz?
Overall I think it’s healthy and promising. You have all of these talented young musicians who are both rooted in the tradition and forward thinking, and we veteran guys are not going away anytime soon. I do think one of the areas we’re a little behind on is bands. The history of jazz is rich with great bands. Now everyone wants to be a solo artist, so you have a lot of individuals. But not everyone is qualified to be a leader. I always encourage the young musicians who play with me to get together and create a group. Bands are powerful.
What’s your main mission these days?
What inspires me now is I have a lot of music in my head that I have to get out. I have a couple of electric bass albums I want to do, and I have some orchestral music I want to record to join some of my peers who have released big orchestral pieces. Touring-wise, I want to be more diverse — playing with my young band, with some veteran groups, and working with Ron [Carter]. I’m 68 and I can see the door that says 70 ahead, and it’s open a little bit, with some light creeping through. But I’m like an organism; I just keep going. When my time is up, I’m gonna go down swinging. –BM
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