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Stanley Clarke brings a genre-fluid conviction to his NEA Jazz Masters fellowship

Goffredo Loertscher

The National Endowment for the Arts will inaugurate four new NEA Jazz Masters on Thursday night, bestowing this nation’s highest honor for living jazz musicians. Among them is the virtuoso bassist and prolific composer Stanley Clarke.

For the last 40 years, Clarke has been celebrated as a paragon of jazz fusion, partly thanks to his foundational role in Return to Forever. Aside from keyboardist and bandleader Chick Corea, Clarke was the only other constant through several iterations of the band, which combined vaulting rock dynamics, futuristic sounds, and a formal intricacy indebted to classical music.

Clarke brought a similar eclecticism to his solo albums, including School Days, which broke into the Top 40, thanks to its hard-charging title track.

But don’t call Stanley Clarke a fusion musician; he recoils from the term. And not just that term. "I've never really defined myself within a genre of music," he said in an interview with the NEA. "I play bass."

Born and raised in Philadelphia, he was a precocious talent who studied classically before pivoting to jazz. Some of his first apprenticeships were with tenor saxophonists Joe Henderson and Stan Getz, and drummer Art Blakey. He credits his jazz elders with instilling valuable lessons, about life as well as music.

When I first came to New York, I played with Horace Silver. He was the most organized musician that I'd ever met. I'll never forget when he gave me some of his music and I looked at his handwriting. It was much like the handwriting you see coming out of a computer today. He had everything very organized.
Stanley Clarke

That quality has served Clarke well throughout his career, in a successful partnership with keyboardist George Duke; over more than two dozen solo albums; and as a prolific film and TV composer whose credits include Poetic Justice and Boyz n the Hood. His most recent album, The Message, features a crew of sharp younger musicians who look to him as a mentor: Beka Gochiashvili on piano, Cameron Graves on synthesizers, and Mike Mitchell on drums.

Clarke will be honored at the SFJAZZ Center on Thursday night alongside drummer Billy Hart, singer Cassandra Wilson and saxophonist Donald Harrison, Jr. (You can stream the NEA Jazz Masters webcast at 10:30 p.m. Eastern, here at wbgo.org.)

And Clarke will hold a residency at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York from April 29 through May 1, and from May 3-8; for more information visit the club's website.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.