For Indy Jazz Fest performer Stanley Clarke, fusion is forever

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Stanley Clarke
Stanley Clarke will perform Saturday as part of Indy Jazz Fest. (Photo provided by Indy Jazz Fest)

Stanley Clarke is aware that not everyone has the opportunity to be on the cutting edge of a musical style.

Bass player Clarke took advantage of his chance with Return to Forever, a quartet led by keyboard player Chick Corea and featuring guitarist Al Di Meola and drummer Lenny White.

Return to Forever helped to spearhead jazz fusion, or a combination of jazz and rock, in the 1970s.

“It’s a great feeling to know that you were part of something that changed the music all over the world,” Clarke said. “It was really a very powerful movement. When something like that happens, they talk about people that hated Charlie Parker when he first came out and definitely John Coltrane. They said, ‘No way.’ It’s just nice that often we were able to take the step and be brave enough to bring it forth.”

Since Corea’s death in 2021, Clarke has performed with a quartet of young musicians known as 4Ever. At Saturday’s closing concert of this year’s Indy Jazz Fest, Clarke will be accompanied by 4Ever’s Jeremiah Collier (drums), Beka Gochiashvili (keyboards), Colin Cook (guitar) and Emilio Modeste (saxophone).

Five decades ago, Return to Forever’s musical peers included Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and guitarist Larry Coryell. Some observers point to “In a Silent Way,” a 1969 album by Miles Davis, as ground zero for jazz fusion. The supporting cast for Davis included Corea, saxophone player Wayne Shorter and keyboard player Joe Zawinul (who later formed Weather Report) and guitarist John McLaughlin (who later formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra).

“The jazz rock movement was much like the punk movement in rock ’n’ roll,” Clarke said. “It just came on. No one planned for it. Some of the early pioneers were Larry Coryell and John McLaughlin. These were virtuosic musicians who played electric instruments and just turned up the volume.”

When jazz purists shunned the emergence of fusion, some rock bands befriended Return to Forever. Clarke mentioned two stadium shows in Florida in 1977, when Return for Forever performed as a supporting act for Fleetwood Mac on that band’s “Rumours” tour.

Naysayers helped Return to Forever, Clarke said, “because, historically, young people always love who’s being hated on.”

Meanwhile, the connection to rock stars made sense.

“We had guitars, we played very loud and we played the hell out of our instruments,” Clarke said.

Philadelphia native Clarke, 72, is a four-time Grammy Award winner who collaborated with late rock guitarist Jeff Beck and late keyboard player George Duke. Clarke and Duke brought a band to the 2012 edition of Indy Jazz Fest.

Clarke’s massive discography also includes work with Freddie Hubbard (1938-2008), the most celebrated trumpet player from Indiana Avenue’s post-World War II heyday.

“In my book, (Hubbard) was one of the top five improvisers,” Clarke said. “He didn’t even need to look at the music. He was a natural improviser and he had an energy that was unstoppable.”

Clarke said he was fortunate to begin playing music in New York City in the late 1960s.

“It was kind of the last of that sort of romantic jazz scene that everybody talks about or imagines,” he said. “There were so many gigs in town.”

If making ends meet was a struggle, Clarke didn’t notice.

“Somehow I woke up every day, I ate and I was able to play music,” he said.

Indy Jazz Fest Grand Finale

  • Featuring: Boney James, Sheila E, Indy Jazz Fest Legacy Band, Stanley Clarke.
  • When: 4 p.m. Saturday.
  • Where: TCU Amphitheater at White River State Park, 801 W. Washington St.
  • Tickets: $27 to $179.50.
  • Info: Visit livenation.com.

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