Roxborough High School alumni, students and staff enjoyed a visit on Tuesday from a luminary of jazz, along with a powerful lesson on pursuing your goals. Grammy and Emmy-award-winning musician and composer Stanley Clarke was returning to his roots: the 60-year-old artist graduated from Roxborough High School in 1968.
Friends from his school days settled into the hard and squeaky wooden seats of the school’s auditorium to join several students for an intimate question-and-answer session before a formal alumni reception. Clarke also performed “El Bajo de Negro” (“The Black Bass”), a piece he composed himself especially for his signature instrument, the acoustic bass.
The soft-spoken, bespectacled Clarke explained that he was “very fortunate” to have known from the age of 12 what he wanted to do with his life. He cited his mother, as well as a few former Roxborough High teachers, as key to his achievements, emphasizing that no artist works alone.
Musical strategy and techniques
Clarke also attended the Philadelphia Academy of Music, and pursued professional jazz in New York City to resounding success in the 1970s. Clarke is also a virtuoso on the guitar and electric bass (more common, especially in solos, than its acoustic counterpart). For his Roxborough audience, he emphasized the work of a true musician: composing music in addition to learning to play your instrument.
“Why wait for someone to write something for you?” he asked.
“Use the analytical part of your mind,” he said, also urging the small audience to listen to music from a wide variety of artists. “It opens your head up. You may not like it. But at least you know that you don’t like it. The thing is to massage your brain.”
Clarke’s attention to a wide variety of techniques and genres has led to his own inimitable approach to the bass, combining a pioneering percussive style with powerful notes of rock, wild flamenco rhythms and jazz harmony. Traditionally relegated to the background of bands or orchestras, the humble acoustic bass got a total make-over at center stage in Clarke’s hands.
His “slap technique”, he explained to the Roxborough audience, evolved from his work on the electric bass. “What I’ve done is taken a lot of techniques on the electric bass, and transferred them to the acoustic bass. To me, this is like a big guitar,” he said of his unusual method.
“I’ve been playing the bass since I was 13. I’m 60 now. I have a good grip.”
An award-winning career
In the 1970s, he found major success with the electric jazz/fusion band “Return to Forever,” formed with piano legend Chick Chorea. Two of Clarke’s eight albums with the band went gold, and their work garnered several Grammy nominations and one win for the 1975 album “No Mystery”.
Clarke’s work also includes composing several well-known TV and film scores, including “Pee Wee’s Playhouse” (for which he won an Emmy), “Boys N the Hood” and “Romeo Must Die,” in addition to decades of worldwide tours.
He explained to Tuesday’s crowd that a childhood longing for travel had helped propel his musical studies. As a teen at Roxborough, the countries in his history textbook lured him.
“How can I get to those places?” he had wondered. “I thought that if I studied music, I could travel.”
Before school was dismissed, Clarke offered a special master class to musicians of the ninth, 10th and 11th grades.
Junior Chau Lieui, who came to Roxborough just last year from his native Vietnam, was among the students who attended. Clarke’s post-class session was introduced with a brief piano solo from Lieui.
“I’m a little bit nervous when I play,” Lieui admitted. He studied the piano for the first time when he was five, but after his family encouraged him to focus on academics, he didn’t pick up the instrument again until last September, at the start of his junior year.
Now, he plans to continue studying music. He appreciated Clarke’s master class lesson on equal practice for the right and left hands, as well as the four main pillars of musicianship: fingering, rhythm, feeling, and listening.
‘Don’t underestimate yourself’
Clarke’s take-home message to the students was one of goal-setting and persistence.
“No matter what you end up doing, the most important thing is that at a young age, you have an idea that you want to do something,” he said. “Whatever it is you want to do, try to find it, because it’s there. Don’t underestimate yourself because you’re 12 or 13.”
Once you begin practicing the fundamentals of your chosen field, he said, don’t forget to keep a sharp focus on your underlying goals.
“A lot of times what you think you want to do is what you should be doing. The most important person who has to believe in you is yourself.”
Clarke spoke fondly during the session of his years at Roxborough. “It definitely is smaller,” he joked of returning to the school as an adult. “This used to look like Madison Square Garden to me.”
Roxborough High School Director of Music Ron Coles welcomed Clarke’s life lessons as much as his musical ones.
“The kids were totally surprised to hear the bass being played that way,” Coles said.
“Stanley Clarke walked these halls. He was a student here. He got his start here,” he continued. “These kids are getting their start. He’s sending the message to the students that I was here, I was where you were, I made it, and you can too.”
For more information on Stanley Clarke, go to his website.