The John Coltrane International Jazz & Blues Festival held on September 1st -2nd began with the Coltrane Youth Jazz Workshop. Every year they are always the festival openers. Following them were the 2018 Coltrane Jazz All Stars spearheaded by the director of Jazz Ensemble at North Carolina A&T State University Mondre Moffett. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band from New Orleans had the crowd on their feet with their funky big band grooves. Grammy nominated Jazzmeia Horn blew onlookers away with her incredible jazz vocals. The rain made its way in and even caused a brief break in the performances, but in the end it didn’t stop the music. Renowned guitarist Lee Ritenhour was everything fans expected. Gregory Porter graced the stage with his fabulous band and flawless vocals to end the evening. It was the perfect finale to a day of incredible music. The last day of the festival included vocalist and guitar player Jackie Venson, Michelle and Ravi Coltrane, Diane Reeves, and Pete Escovedo with Sheila E.
Photo cred for last 4 images: Garland Hancock
1. You’ve been referred to as a legend since you were in you mid-20s. When you hear the title “legend,” who comes to mind?
“Legend” is a funny term to me. I don’t pay it any mind. Famous, happy, great, ego, confidence are all feelings. “Legendary” doesn’t really seem to have feelings wrapped around it.
I have heroes like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Stan Getz and Charlie Parker. These are people I listened to when I was young.
2. You are undoubtedly one of the most accomplished bassists, prolific in jazz-fusion and jazz, and an inspiration for other musicians to emulate. As a young prodigy, who were your major musical influences?
My mother was a semi-professional opera singer and played a lot of classical music. My father really liked gospel. I was very fortunate in that music was always in my home growing up. My parents introduced me to all different styles of music and I have continued to listen to all types of music, new and old. I was not a person to get heavily into a particular genre.
When I started listening to the radio as a teenager, I loved Jimi Hendrix and the R&B music coming out of Motown. Someone gave me a John Coltrane album in my teens that I fell in love with. That motivated me to listen to artists like Miles Davis, Stan Getz and Charlie Parker. All are incredibly creative and innovative in their own way.
I began studying music around 12 or 13 years old. I first learned on the acoustic bass. I was blessed that the foundation of my career was a great musical education. My initial music education was very traditional and somewhat strict, but it gave me a strong base that I could build upon.
3. How was the transition fresh out of school from the Philadelphia Academy of Music to New York and into the company of musical bandleaders such as Stan Getz and Dexter Gordon?
I was very lucky in that when I came to New York to launch my career, I immediately landed jobs with famous bandleaders such as Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, Pharaoh Saunders, Gil Evans and Stan Getz among others. They were great role models, each in different ways. It was the best on-the-job training. One of the wonderful things about Jazz is the nurturing that takes place of young musicians by the masters. I now try and do this myself.
In Charlotte I’m going to be bringing along Beka Gochiashvili on acoustic piano, Mike Mitchell on drums, and Cameron Graves on keyboards. We’ve been playing together for the last few years. Beka is now about 19-years-old and Mike 20-years-old. They are already award-winning, extraordinary musicians. They are about the same age I was when I first started playing with some of the masters. Cameron has been around a bit longer and is a very talented musician.
4. Shortly thereafter, as a masterful jazz-fusion bassist, you had gold albums and were selling out shows as the headliner. Were you prepared for the success you were achieving by the age of 25?
My ultimate goal has always been to bring the bass out from the rhythm section to the front of the stage. I worked very hard to give the bass a distinctive voice and I could see the progress with each success. Playing in huge arenas was pretty heavy stuff and certainly different from my earlier jazz combo experiences, but, wow, what a great adventure. Specifically to answer your question, I don’t think anyone can really prepare for that kind of success and fame on a major scale.
Things were pretty different for a young musician 40 or 50 years ago. Probably the biggest thing is that we didn’t have the media scrutinization created by the Internet. I’m thankful I didn’t have to deal with that.
5. Throughout your illustrious career, Mr. Clarke, you’ve received countless accolades including 4 Grammy’s and are well established as a composer, producer, and film score composer, arranger, and conductor.
You had the honor of collaborating with some of the greatest artists in the world. The list–just to name a few–includes Jean Luc Ponty, Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten, Lenny White, and Larry Carlton.
Another one of those artists is Chick Corea. Together, you formed the electric jazz/fusion band Return To Forever. The band won a Grammy for Forever and recorded eight other successful albums. Describe what made that collaboration such a huge success.
Chick and I started playing together around 1970 with Stan Getz. Later we formed many different groups of which Return To Forever was one. A major one. It was great being able to spearhead a movement together. That movement was jazz-rock, jazz-fusion or just fusion…whatever one wants to call it.
One thing special about my relationship with Chick was that he was very encouraging about me writing my own compositions. I had never been challenged in that area before. Composing has become essential to my career.
On the whole, Return to Forever was like a traveling university. At the time the record companies didn’t know what the hell we were doing, but people were coming out to see the shows and we were selling records. Basically, we were as loud as rock bands, but we brought technique to it. It was a great time. We were experimenting with new concepts of uniting those genres. Fusion of jazz and rock was somewhat of an “exposure gateway” of the time. Fans of rock were exposed to jazz and jazz fans were exposed to rock. It gave listeners an appetite for discovery. It still does.
I think it’s interesting that jazz-fusion or jazz-rock has been assimilated into so many genres of music now. I hear it in Gospel, Rock, Pop, Country and more.
6. You also had tremendous success working with the late George Duke. You were known as the Clarke/Duke Project in 1981. You two recorded three albums and toured together in 2006, 2012, and 2013, actually, up until Mr. Duke passed. What was the highlight of working with George over the years?
Probably the best connection I’ve had on stage and off is with George. I loved George as a brother and had the highest respect for him as a man and a musician. I feel forever fortunate to have had him as a friend for more than forty years. The most fun I had touring was with George because we had such a good time together. So often on a tour the comedy doesn’t live up to the music. In our case it did. George left a huge footprint in our industry. He was a light, bright star with a certain unique skill set.
I always admired George’s sophisticated musicality. Few have the ability to walk through so many different genres as he did…R&B, Jazz, Pop, Rock, and Classical. He knew all well and didn’t have any weaknesses. Incredibly, he understood how to weave these all together. I strive for that myself.
In homage to George, I dedicated my last album, UP to him and made a conscious decision to include his music in every show and project this year.
7. In 2014, you produced The Stanley Clarke Band: UP which received a NAACP Image Award nomination for Best Jazz Album in 2015, and the song Last Train To Sanity was nominated for a Grammy in 2015 for Best Jazz Arrangement Instrumental or A Cappella. How was UP different from other projects?
UP is the most energetic, fun, rhythmic and upbeat album that I have ever done. My goal was to make a record with my personal friends. The entire album concept was experimentation. I wanted the creative process to be as effortless as possible.
Everyone came prepared and ready to play. All are fantastic musicians and there was an ease and naturalness to our sessions, especially considering the various genres everyone came from. The talent ranged from the great Michael Jackson session rhythm section of John Robinson, Paul Jackson, Jr. and Greg Phillinganes to my friends from rock like Stewart Copeland and Joe Walsh to my newer friends from the more classical Harlem String Quartet as well as so many more. They came to the studio to give everything they had and it was a creative process that I am grateful to have experienced.
8. Your own record label Roxboro Entertainment was formed in 2010. Aside from your own projects, it’s also home to other musicians as well as projects geared towards education in music. Has this been a goal of yours since the beginning of your career?
Not really. The music “business” is a whole different industry from when I started out. Then, major record companies ruled. Now we’re all trying to find our place. Access to new technology and the Internet has changed almost everything.
I launched Roxboro Entertainment Group in 2010. My business model includes music publishing for my own and other musicians’ work, as well as the development of various projects aimed at music education.
I chose a selection of artists whose work I personally liked, but had not had a lot of recording exposure. So far the roster includes guitarist Lloyd Gregory, multi-instrumentalist Kennard Ramsey, keyboardist Sunnie Paxson, Ukrainian-born pianist, arranger and keyboardist Ruslan Sirota, jazz piano prodigy Beka Gochiashvili from Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia and most recently singer Natasha Agrama’s CD, The Heart of Infinite Change. Natasha is my daughter and I’m very proud of her work and accomplishments.
9. In addition to your success over the years as an accomplished artist creating music that will live forever and establishing a respectful legacy, you and your wife Sofia established The Stanley Clarke Foundation over a decade ago. What is the foundation’s main mission?
It’s very simple really. In 2002 my wife, Sophia, and I created The Stanley Clarke Foundation. So far, we’ve been able to offer a generous amount of scholarships to the Musician’s Institute in Los Angeles. One day I’d love it to expand to other regions. There is certainly the need.
The foundation is something near and dear to our hearts. We strongly believe that those who have reached success in realizing their own artistic vision have a duty to help others in their struggle to emerge. I’ve always believed that “talent” and not one’s socioeconomic background should be the basis of an individual’s chance to go on to create artistically.
10. On November 6th, 2015, D-STRINGZ, an acoustic project, was released featuring yourself, violinist Jean Luc-Ponty, and guitarist Bireli Lagrene. How would you describe this album, and what sets it apart?
D-Stringz is entirely acoustic–drumless. I think the album will make listeners rethink how to listen to some of their favorites like: Blue Train and Mercy Mercy Mercy. I’ve been very pleased that reviewers have been very positive and seem to get the point.
We first played together as a trio at a concert last year marking Jean-Luc’s 50th year as a professional and agreed to record together. It was a treat and a true collaboration. Jean-Luc and I had toured on and off for years, but Biréli Lagrène, who is also French, is much less well known to the jazz establishment. Bireli, a guitar virtuoso very popular in Europe, comes from the classic French mold of Django Reinhardt-laced gypsy swing. But, he’s also good at dancing around the fringes of soul, blues, flamenco, jazz and whatever else can be played on guitar. I think people here will enjoy getting introduced to him.
11. Aside from touring, Mr. Clarke, what does 2016 look like for you?
2016 looks like it will be a wonderful busy year. I’m going to be touring in Europe starting mid-February. Over a break in Europe I’m planning to record my next Stanley Clarke Band CD in Brussels.
I have a movie I scored coming out April 15th. It’s the next in the popular Barbershop franchise, Barbershop: The Next Cut. This one is directed by my old friend Malcolm D. Lee. I’ve done several movies with him, the last being Best Man’s Holiday. Barbershop: The Next Cut stars Ice Cube, Anthony Anderson, Common, Nicki Minaj and others.
I’m also working on a documentary about my career and have some other projects up my sleeve.
I always have things going. I love to keep busy
12. Finally, if you could have a super power, what would it be, and why?
To be able to be physically in more places than one at the same moment….
The reason is that I would be able to get more things done.
Greg Chambers’ passion for contemporary/smooth jazz is very evident when you hear his melodies flow from one song to the other on his third cd release “After Hours.” He has been playing the saxophone since the age of 8. At that young age he wasn’t aware that he would be playing for a living. Following his love for the saxophone ultimately led him to UCLA where he earned a Masters of Music Degree in Saxophone. Greg’s training and talent enabled him to work with some of the best in classical music. Those opportunities he is grateful to have been a part of. However, Chambers had to follow his passion. His decision then, and now three record’s later he’s proven that he’s exactly where he should be. He feels that being versatile is very important, and his transition to smooth jazz was an easy one. For his latest project Greg collaborated with Paul Brown, Jonathan Fritzen, Ross Bolton, Louis Fasman, and Darren Rahn. “After Hours” is a combination of grooves that take you on an up-tempo journey with “Groovin’ High”, then mellows you out with beautiful songs like “Chelsea’s Song”, and “Your Place Or Mine.”
Listen as Greg and I discuss his career and music.