One of the definitions of a virtuoso is an individual who possesses outstanding technical ability in the fine arts, at singing or playing a musical instrument. Another is a ‘master’ or ‘ace’ who excels technically within a particular field or area of human knowledge—anyone especially or dazzlingly skilled at what they do. Stanley Clarke is all of this-and then some!
If you refer to a bassist using only their first name, almost any bass player would know who you are speaking of when the name Stanley is mentioned.
Born in Philadelphia on June 30, 1951, Stanley began playing violin and cello in elementary school. As he grew older, his hands became too large for the violin and his legs too long to sit at the cello-he’s about 6’4” tall. The next move was to the upright bass where his classical studies continued. Stanley played in various R&B bands in junior and senior high school, as well as in the All-Philadelphia Senior High School Orchestra. However, Stanley was lured away from the rigid framework of classical to the improvisational nature of jazz when he attended the Philadelphia Music Academy.
Stanley undertook a full curriculum of modern and classical music studies while majoring in string bass. His influences at that time were varied and included Mingus, Paul Chambers, Scott LaFaro, Ron Carter, Richard Davis, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix (with Noel Redding and Billy Cox on electric bass), James Brown, the Motown sound, Wagner and Stravinsky. When he arrived in New York in 1970, he began paying his dues in the jazz scene, spending productive years with pianist Horace Silver, Saxophonists Stan Getz and Dexter Gordon, drummer Art Blakey, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, Gil Evans and others. His recording resume began to grow as well, highlighted by Gato Barbieri’s Under Fire, Aretha Franklin’s Let Me in Your Life, Quincy Jones’ I Heard That, Santana’s Barboletta, Deodato’s 2001 and many others.
The turning point occurred in late 1971, while he was on tour with Saxophonist Joe Henderson. It just so happened that they were playing at a Philadelphia club, the Aqua Lounge, and pianist Chick Corea had been hired for the week’s gig. Both Stanley and Chick sensed a mutual need to break away from their journeyman roles and a group concept, Return to Forever, was formulated.
Not only was Stanley’s career about to change-he would also immerse himself into studying and mastering the electric bass. He initially began to apply his training on the string bass to the electric. “It wasn’t long before I started playing it more like a guitar because it looked like a guitar to me. I was holding it horizontally and I realized this is a guitar-well it’s a bass guitar, but I’ll play it like a guitar. So I studied for about six months-I spent a lot of time practicing with guitar books and everything,” Stanley revealed in a Guitar Player Magazine interview. While he listened to various electric bassists, he did not try to emulate them. “I remember listening to Jack Bruce on something that I liked. But for some reason, I was always more into concepts that individual players. Without knowing it, Stanley would create a seismic shift in how the electric bass was played, heard and accepted not as a supportive instrument-but as the lead instrument in the band!
Let’s not forget that Stanley played upright bass before he incorporated the electric. Here are some clips displaying his virtuosity on this very imposing and demanding instrument (although it seems like a toy in his hands!):
How did Stanley attain such amazing facility on the string bass? By practicing eight hours a day until his fingers bled! It’s obvious that his dedication paid off!
With the formation of Return to Forever, which in my humble opinion, is the greatest group of all time in any genre, Stanley was afforded to go where no bassist had gone before-to state melody and propel the bass to the front of the concert stage. The group’s journeys into electric jazz/fusion were a showcase for each member’s musical prowess and astounding virtuosity. Although there were a number of personnel changes, the line up that became a force to be reckoned with consisted of Stanley on bass, Chick Corea on keyboards, Al Di Meola on guitar and Lenny White on drums. These clips feature both the electric and acoustic side of this amazing quartet fusing elements of jazz, rock, funk and classical music:
Stanley single-handedly started the “bass revolution” in the 1970’s plowing the road for all bassists/soloists/bandleaders to follow. His 1976 release “School Days”, with the title track being a lightning bolt that struck the bass world and is considered to be a bass anthem. Stanley himself acknowledges without conceit, “Anyone who seriously wants to learn to play bass has to buy that record and learn to play that song.” No arguments from me! He became the first bassist to headline tours, selling out shows all over the world, and having his albums certified gold. Stanley began to be known as a legend by the time he was 25 years old-only 25 years old. He was already recognized as a pioneer of fusion, was the first bassist in history to double on both electric and acoustic bass with equal virtuosity. If that wasn’t enough, Stanley also invented two new instruments: the piccolo bass (tuned one octave higher than the standard electric bass) and the tenor bass (tuned up one fourth higher than standard). He has won every bass player award including Grammys, Emmys, readers’ polls, critics’ polls, gold and platinum records, Rolling Stones first Jazzman of the Year and bassist of the year by Playboy magazine for ten consecutive years.
With all of his well earned accolades, there is still more to Stanley than bass. He is also a composer, producer, arranger and conductor. His numerous film and TV scores include Boyz N the Hood, Passenger 57, Pee Wee’s Playhouse, Poetic Justice, Tap, What’s Love Got to Do With It and The Transporter. Here are a few examples of Stanley’s film scores:
On the subject of composing for film, Stanley offers “Film has given me the opportunity to compose large orchestral scores and to compose music not normally associated with myself. It’s given me the chance to conduct orchestras and arrange music for various types of ensembles. It’s been a diverse experience for me musically, made me a more complete musician and utilized my skills completely.”
As far as this writer is concerned, Stanley is the greatest bassist in history. His almost inhuman command of both the upright and electric bass is unmatched, making him the greatest living bass virtuoso on the planet.
Stanley Clarke-often imitated, but never duplicated.
Guitar Player Magazine
Stanley Clarke website