In his early acoustic days he played with greats such as Art Blakey, Stan Getz and Joe Henderson. As a member of fusion pioneers Return to Forever he redefined the electric bass. As a composer he has scored soundtracks for more than 50 Hollywood movies, including The Transporter, Romeo Must Die and forthcoming Robert De Niro movie, Freelancers. The 60-year-old American takes to the stage in Dubai at the World Music Festival on Thursday March 8: here we find out more from the Grammy Award-winning legend.
He gets up at 5am every day. ‘I’m a real early bird these days. When I was younger it was different, you’d spend all night hanging out in clubs and get up at midday, but I don’t do that too much now. I get up early, I like to exercise. I live in the mountains with my wife and kids right near the coast and I like to run out up on the mountains, it’s incredible.’
Clarke’s daughter is taking over the family business. ‘Natasha is a young jazz singer, she’s just about made her first album. She’s in her early 20s and she’s sung on stage with me, she sings beautifully. She’s spent a lot of time studying and we have a lot of good feelings about what she’s doing. She performs under the name “Natasha” without Clarke – a lot of girls do that drop now.’
Clarke most intimidating session was playing with sax legend Dexter Gordon. ‘I was in the studio with Hank Jones, Louis Hayes, Thad Jones… it was real serious. I was there with my bass and we were waiting for Dexter – he came dressed like a ’30s gangster – porkpie hat, sax in one hand. I was 19 and I was like “wow, this is…”. He turned out to be a nice guy.’
Pianist Horace Silver inspired Clarke to lead his own group. ‘Horace was great. He was the perfect band leader, he defined how to run a jazz band; his music was very organised, his charts were very clean. If you couldn’t play the music he would send you home – he was really hard, but he’d say it with a smile.’
It was Miles Davis who encouraged Clarke to play the unaccompanied bass solos for which he has become notorious. ‘A lot of early jazz musicians where built into a genre and Miles was the first jazz musician to come out of the ’50s and ’60s and decide to change – how he looked, everything. We grew up listening to Miles as much as Jimi Henrdrix, or James Brown or Beethoven. People like him come along every 50, 100 years, like Louis Armstrong and a few others. When I opened up to him Miles was the guy who encouraged me to play solo, he recognised something in my playing.’
Return to Forever, the pioneering fusion group which Clarke played in alongside Chick Corea, is currently in its fourth incarnation. ‘Of all my endeavours, that was the long-lasting one, the one that had the most effect on the industry, and won me the most fans. It was a great group. It started when me and Chick were playing with (tenor sax legend) Joe Henderson. I was 19 and we had a really cool time, we talked about how we were going to put a group together and play this kind of music – “let’s have fun, let’s play late, play fast, play classical music and jazz and put all this together” – and we did just that.’
Clarke denies there was ever rivalry between him ‘the Jimi Hendrix of bass’ Jaco Pastorius. ‘When Jaco came along I was very happy; sometimes you need other people to do similar things to make it more legitimate. Jaco was a bass force. For a long while I was out there alone, there weren’t many people doing what I did. We were very close, he was a bass player with a dream. A lot of people said there was competition but we were close; we were talking about doing a tour together before he got sick.’