Stanley Clarke Gears Up for Detroit Jazz Festival’s 40th Anniversary

Plus, a roundup of other performers you don’t want to miss
Stanley Clarke
Stanley Clarke photograph courtesy of Detroit Jazz Festival

For his two previous appearances at the Detroit Jazz Festival — the world’s largest free jazz celebration — in both 2014 and 2017, Stanley Clarke’s featured performance was cancelled due to inclement weather. “The second time,” festival president and artistic director Chris Collins remembers, “I sat in his trailer and said, ‘Next time you’re here, we’re going to print up a bunch of Stanley Clarke rain ponchos. We’ll make a fortune.’ ”

Weather permitting, the four-time Grammy Award winner, prolific jazz and film composer, and preeminent living electric and acoustic bass virtuoso will forsake the poncho to be honcho when he returns for the festival’s milestone 40th anniversary between Aug. 30-Sept. 2 as official artist-in-residence.

“My responsibility for this festival is three different nights, three different programs,” Clarke, 68, explains by phone. “I really like playing in Detroit. There are not many — I would say ‘pure’ jazz festivals — left in America, surely not as many as in Europe. You’ve got a rich musical history there.”

Clarke’s trio of performances includes an opening-night “Back to ‘School Days’ ” concert on Aug. 30 — which he describes as “kind of a funk-jazz-rock thing” — featuring an appearance by drummer Lenny White, Clarke’s bandmate in the seminal ’70s jazz fusion group Return to Forever. The performance will be held on the festival’s JPMorgan Chase Main Stage. On Sept. 1, he returns to the same stage, and will present a straight-ahead jazz set with his six-piece Stanley Clarke Band. And on Sept. 2, at the Carhartt Ampitheater Stage, Clarke will close the Detroit Jazz Festival with a tribute to the groundbreaking 1991 film Boyz N the Hood. Starring Cuba Gooding Jr., Ice Cube, and Morris Chestnut, it was one of four John Singleton movies for which he composed the score, to honor the late director who died in April. Accompanied by an orchestra, Clarke will play as scenes from the film are projected. “It seems appropriate to do something special, to pay homage to John in some way.”

“I really like playing in Detroit. There’s not many — I would say ‘pure’ jazz festivals — left in America.”

—Stanley Clarke

In all, Clarke has composed more than 70 noteworthy soundtracks for both movies and television. “I always said I was going to retire [from scoring] after 75,” he declares. “I just finished Halston [a new biopic based on the life of the iconic American fashion designer], and I have completed another one, a comedy called Undercover Brother 2. I have one more after that, and then I think I’ll have a party and say, ‘That’s it.’ ”

Though he appears to be far from complete retirement — he and his band will be performing at various festivals throughout Europe before arriving here — Clarke has already been memorialized. Two of his instruments, an electric and an upright bass, were requested for enshrinement in the National Museum of African American
History and Culture in Washington, D.C. “It’s an amazing experience. I found my basses hanging right next to John Coltrane’s things. Coltrane was the musician who affected me most, so seeing that was like getting hit by a rocket.”

His landmark 1976 solo LP School Days rocketed to success thanks in part to airplay on Detroit’s legendary jazz station WJZZ. His latest album, The Message, was released by Detroit-based Mack Avenue Records. And our city remains significant for Clarke due to a member of his band he hails as “the next great jazz violinist,” native Detroiter Evan Garr.

“Jean-Luc Ponty told me about him years ago when Evan was in his teens,” Clarke recalls. “He used to have Evan sit in with him when he played Detroit. So, he plays similar to Jean-Luc, and he has tremendous technique, tremendous musicianship. I have played with a lot of violin players and a lot of orchestras, and I can honestly say this guy is serious. When he’s in Detroit he works in construction, busting bricks. I worry about his hands.”

A Preview of The Detroit Jazz Festival

The 40th anniversary of the Detroit Jazz Festival, the city’s Labor Day weekend musical tradition, will be tantamount to a holiday family reunion. “We’re bringing back artists, as well as our hometown musicians,” says festival President and Artistic Director Chris Collins. For the first time, the Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation is making available a Detroit Jazz Fest Live! app for mobile devices, tablets, and desktops that will allow users to stream performances. If you need to witness the musical excitement firsthand, beyond headline performers such as Stanley Clarke, Collins suggests these three.

“Danilo Pérez, artistic director of the Panama Jazz Festival, will be seen in a couple of different settings,” Collins says, “the most prominent being the opening set of opening night [7 p.m., Aug. 30] in a project he and I have been doing in different formats: his Global Big Band, featuring some outstanding Latino artists. It’s going to be very special.”

“We have the ‘Homecoming’ series every year because the symbiotic relationship between Detroit and jazz is unique. This year, Dee Dee Bridgewater will appear with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, performing a record that’s never played in North America. The set will be simulcast live on Detroit Public Television [Channel 56] at 8 p.m., Sept. 1.”

“In 2013, we had Macy Gray with the David Murray Big Band. I heard her doing Duke Ellington stuff, singing ‘Sophisticated Lady,’ and I was transported. We are bringing her back for her Detroit premiere, doing music from her new Mack Avenue CD, Ruby [6 p.m., Aug. 31 on the Chase Main Stage at Hart Plaza]. Macy Gray, doing jazz — that is going to be kind of historic.”