SAN FRANCISCO — Try to write a lead paragraph that sums up all of what George Duke is. It’s a near impossibility, owing to the fact that Duke’s musical career has been a remarkable series of transitions: from jazz virtuoso to rock and roll showman, from Brazilian music to space funk, recording a new “concept album” called Guardian of the Light or producing the hits of other rising stars. Maybe that lead could be, “There ain’t nothin’ them fingers won’t play.”
Keyboard Chameleon George Duke Has Had a Strange Journey from Zappa to Outer Space
Duke began studying piano in Marin City, California at the age of seven. Some of his earliest musical education came in church. Duke says of the influence of gospel music, “When I first went to church l was scared to death. I didn’t know what was going on because there was so much emotion. You could feel it. l’d watch how the organist would sort of feed the preacher, like he’s backing up a soloist, and watch him work the audience.”
Encouraged to take up an “orchestral instrument” in the Tamalpais High School Band, he chose trombone. He did his undergraduate work at San Francisco Conservatory of Music with trombone as his principal instrument (because of scholarship money available for trombonists, he laughs). He loved the classical music, but found it limiting.
“I couldn’t change the notes,” says Duke in mock frustration. “I never will forget going to see my teacher one day thinking I had done something real slick. l’d learned how to read this piece and play it right, but I had this other idea. I thought it would be better if it had this other note in it. So I played it for my teacher like that. He said, ’What? You can’t do that.’ He took this little baton he had and rapped it across my knuckles.”
Duke’s love of classical music wasn’t completely crushed by the experience. While getting his master’s degree in composition from San Francisco State he composed an opera titled Tziim, portions of which he has performed on albums over the years (and can be heard on his recently released The 1976 Solo Keyboard Allumr). But his love for improvising music was much stronger.
During high school Duke had dabbled in rock bands, latin bands, and had begun leading his own jazz trio that performed in clubs he was too young to be in. When the manager of one such club found out his age he was quickly fired. “I had it tough for a while because I had this baby face, and I eventually grew this goatee which I’ve had forever,” he says, still not looking his 37 years.
In the late ’60s Duke’s trio backed up artists such as Al Jarreau at San Francisco’s Half Note Club. He began a musical association with jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty there too. “Jean—Luc was an incredible violinist,” says Duke. “There was nobody doing that kind of thing at the time. He was the closest thing musically to playing like Miles Davis. And this was like a different kind of instrument.
“Dick Bock, Jean-Luc’s producer, had an idea. He said, ’You guys play real high-powered jazz. Suppose you play that same thing and every now and then change the beat to a rock beat? Play rock beats and improvise like you do playing jazz. I’ll put you in a rock club.”’
Duke is amused as he tells of their first gig at The Experience, a psychedelic rock club in Los Angeles. Bock promised him there would be an acoustic piano there, but the keyboardist arrived to find only an electric. He had never played an electric piano. Quincy Jones was in the crowd, as was Cannonball Adderly, Frank Zappa, “and all the freaks,” he laughs. “I said, ’Man, this is out.. But we’ve got to play. That’s all there is to it.’
“I never will forget Jean-Luc’s face when I saw this chick get up off the floor with no bra. You have to re member we’re talking about 1969. Without a bra, and these things were juggling around back and forth. Jean-Luc started playing, and all of a sudden I’d never heard him play like that before. I said, “Yeah, this is it.’ So that was the beginning of fusion for me and him too.”
Duke was approached by Frank Zappa, who asked him to join his band, a unit that included Flo & Eddie, Aynsley Dunbar, Ruth and Ian Underwood, Tom Fowler and countless others. There’ve been a lot of wild Zappa bands and this one ranks among the best. “I didn’t even know what I was doing in that band,” Duke says. “Frank likes things that are real diverse. l guess he thought this would look real strange, ’so let’s do it.’
“He put me, like a jazz impresario, in the middle of all this stuff ’cause I played the kind of solos he liked. I used to be crazy. I’d play anything. I’m much more conservative playing now, much more purposeful. Then, I would throw the kitchen sink in the middle of a song to make it happen. Elbows, knees, and he used to love it.
“lt was a learning experience for me because all of a sudden here I was with a big rock and roll band. He was still sort of an underground figure but he could work anywhere in the country and thousands of people would show up to see him. And he’d be doing this crazy music. Here we were riding around in limousines and private planes — hippies! I lived in San Francisco, too, but the audience l’d played for was totally different than Frank’s audience. It was a real shock for me. Nobody wearing bras It was another trip.”
After a year with Zappa, Duke left to join Cannonball Adderly’s group. The keyboardist feels that’s where he did his growing up as a musician. “Cannonball was like a walking historian,” he says. “He’d talk to me about music, but it was interesting the way he used to do it. He wouldn’t come out and say, ’Don’t play that,’ or ’That’s wrong.’ He’d say, ’What if?’ or ’What do you think about this?’ Or he would just throw an idea at me and see if I could work it out.
“I always considered myself a pretty good accompanist. I could play behind anybody. But Cannonball was the hardest soloist I think I ever played for. One day I just gave up. I went backstage somewhere we had played and told him, ’Man, I can’t play behind you. I don’t know what to play. I can’t figure out the way you think and the way your ideas come together.’ He’d look at me and laugh. He’d tell me little things—— ’Well, listen to this. Sometimes I take the notes and do this.’ But he wouldn’t tell me what to play. He just gave me an idea of what he was thinking about. Frank’s different. I talked to him one day and he said, ’Look, I look at soloing like this.’ He took a chalkboard and drew this line and this figure. He says, ’That’s the way I think of music — shapes.’ 1 said, ’Shapes, ok.’ I looked at it and began to see what he was talking about. There were angular lines that went all kinds of ways. Some would stop for a minute and then there’d be a big dash up.”
The keyboardist went back with Zappa for another two-year stint. He credits Zappa with introducing him to synthesizers, and with starting him seriously thinking about singing. “He’d say, ‘Aw, come on, sing a little bit.’ He opened me up to a lot of things. I wouldn’t even play triplets. I said, ‘No, no, you’ll never get me to play that. I’m a musician, I don’t play those
sort of things.’ He’d look at me and say. Something wrong with your hands?’ Eventually I gave in, and that’s when I had a great time with that band.
“There’s an element that he always wanted in his band which he never had until he started getting people like me, Chester Thompson, Napolean Murphy Brock and certain black artists in the band. He wanted the blues in there, that R&B element. That’s what made his music so crazy. In the middle of all this weird stuff you’ve got the blues.
“The main thing I took from that band is, ’Hey, let’s have a good time. Don’t take yourself so seriously.’ I could really look at myself and say I’m not the god of piano playing here. I should lighten up a little bit.”
That sense of humor is certainly evident on Duke’s solo records. His earliest albums, Inner Suurce and Save The Country were jazz efforts. With his 1974 MPS/BASF release Feel, Duke began branching out to include bits of latin music, some jazz, a little blues, a vocal tune or two, some strange synthesizer music and the bizarre and outrageous humor. “It left people wondering, ’Who is this guy?’ But it was me,” he grins.
Some people remember George Duke for the Dukey Stick, for the pulsating glowing wand he uses onstage, or for the sexploitation punk funk raps on Reach For It with orgasmic effects that would make Donna Summer blush. Some people might remember him for Amanda B. Reckondwith from the spoof, “Rokkinrowl.” Some might remember him for the simple beauty of a love ballad like “Someday.”
Unlike many “jazz” artists who try their luck in the pop marketplace, George Duke has done pretty well. His first hit single was “Reach For It” in 1978, and the LPs Don’t Let Go, Follow The Rainbow, Brazilian Lave Affair, and Dream On were also successful. How has Duke made the transition so well?
“Some people do find it difficult,” he says. “I think producing a lot of artists helped me a lot, because I can see the other side of the fence. Some jazz artists have never found the essence of what makes that particular kind of music work.”
Larkin Arnold, then with Capitol Records, gave Duke his first shot at producing in 1977 with an album by trombonist Raul DeSouza. Don Mizell arranged for him to produce violinist Michael White and vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater. “I wanted to get to singers,” Duke says, “because I figured they had a shot at Selling more records and would enlarge the base.”
He followed that with Flora Purim’s Carry On album for Warner Brothers and a record by Seawind. But he began to learn what pressure was all about when given. the reigns of a Taste Of Honey projbct. “They had been platinum. I started saying, ‘Ohhooo, this is the big time.’ They’d had a record right after their big record which didn’t do so well, so they were looking at me to bring these girls back.” Duke pauses “We got lucky.” The third single off the album was a million- selling remake of “Sukiyaki.”
“I try to produce the artist based on the artist‘s strengths and needs, as opposed to putting my sound on the artist and having them do my music. I like to use more of the artist’s ideas. That’s because of the way I was brought up musically. People didn’t always tell me what to play. They guided the ship.”
While working with these vocalists, Duke has learned some lessons and applied them to his own singing. “Most musicians, when they sing, are thinking of the notes and about pitch. They think if they sing a note out of tune that wrecks the whole song. Singers don’t think about that. They think about what they’re saying and the best way to get the expression of those words out.”
Duke began thinking differently about his own vocal approach right around the time of the Clarke/Duke Project, his successful album with virtuoso bassist Stanley Clarke. He remembers the beginnings of that record: “I said to Stanley, ’We can’t do the kind of record that everybody thinks we’re going to do. Everybody knows we‘re going to do one of these high-powered fusion records. We’ll sell a certain amount of records, but let’s see if we can enlarge that audience.’ So we did ‘Sweet Baby.”’ That record is quite possibly the biggest hit either of them has had to date.
To his record cumpany’s chagrin, after his Dream On album Duke wanted to do something different. His new creation, the album Guardian of the Light, is the elaborate mythical tale of Sorel’s attempts to guard the “Life Crystals,” and. win the love of Ti. “I wanted the story to be timeless — any time, another planet, yesteryear, in the future, but have the songs be now,” he says. “It’s looking at the whole psychology behind war and fighting, in funk songs. Most concept things like that are done with rock groups, generally. It doesn’t happen too much in R&B except for maybe George Clinton.
“The record company hated it,” Duke shrugs, while breaking into a somewhat innocent grin. “They said, “What are you doing with a story?’ I’m always doing something a little weird.
“You can enjoy the music without the story, but somebody’s going to read that story and connect it with the music and they’ll see what I was trying to do. When Sorel lost the crystals he thought it was over. But the power of his own mind was much stronger than he ever thought. That’s the simple thing I was trying to say in that whole scenario. Try to depend more on yourself.”
Guardian of the Light will probably be a respectable seller, not a smash. Duke understands, but goes on undaunted believing in his ability to make “real, bonafide, serious, big records.”
“My tastes are so vast that maybe it’s impossible for a large number of people to be totally into me and everything I do. Realizing that, I think everybody’s entitled to’ like whatever part of me musically it is that they want to like. I think that’s fine.
“Actually. I’d like to be like Stevie Wonder or Frank or Michael Jackson. Those musicians have reached a point where they can do almost anything they want to do. It goes beyond exactly what they’re doing or the style of music they’re performing People love them for who they are any as long as it’s good they know they’re going to get off. And if it’s something they don’t understand they’ll probably call it ‘genius.'”