Smooth JazzNotes

George Duke

Highly accomplished, George Duke’s career spanning close to four decades, has included delving into different styles, in fact he helped define the genre known today as Smooth Jazz. A pioneer in the music industry, not only as an artist who plays piano and sings, but as an award winning producer, arranger, and composer, successfully straddling the realms of fusion, funk, soul, R&B, pop, rock, and Smooth Jazz. He has played with such diverse artists as Julian “Cannonball” Adderly, Stanley Clarke, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughn, and Frank Zappa. While attending the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, George and another young artist, Al Jarreau, formed a group that became the house band at the Half Note Club in San Francisco. George went on to complete a Master’s Degree in composition from San Francisco State University and briefly taught a course on Jazz and American Culture at Merritt Junior College in Oakland.

He formed the George Duke Trio in the late 60’s and they began releasing a series of jazz albums, which led to a European tour and an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival. Noticed by rock musician, Frank Zappa, he was invited to be one of the “Mothers of Invention” in 1969, before crossing over to jazz by joining Cannonball Adderly’s band in 1971.

Born and raised in Marin County, north of San Francisco, George started playing piano when he was seven, having been inspired by a Duke Ellington concert he attended with his mother when he was four. He was also influenced by the black music in his local Baptist Church, of which he says, "That's where I first began to play funky. I really learned a lot about music from the church. I saw how music could trigger emotions in a cause-and-effect relationship."

George became a solo artist in 1976, enjoying success with a series of fusion-oriented albums. In 1978, the funky sound of Reach For It went gold and propelled George into the upper reaches of the charts, and he moved from small clubs to large arenas.

By the late 70’s, George decided to add “Producer” to his resume when he produced the Brazilian instrumentalist Raoul de Souza, then made his first vocal album with singer Dee Dee Bridgewater. His breakthrough came with an album by A Taste Of Honey, their single, "Sukiyaki," went to #1 on the pop, adult contemporary, and R&B charts, selling over two million copies. He has produced many talented artists in his career, including Dionne Warwick, Jeffery Osborne, Natalie Cole, Al Jarreau, and Barry Manilow, to name a few.

In 1981, he reunited with phenomenal bassist Stanley Clarke recording their first self-titled album, The Clarke-Duke Project, which resulted in the hit “Sweet Baby”, reaching not only the Top 20 Singles Chart, but the top of the Jazz Charts, and remains to this day a top request in the Smooth Jazz and Contemporary Adult radio formats.

Recently, George has been touring with Stanley Clarke again to rave acclaim. It has been 25 years since the release of the Clarke-Duke Project and they still sound as fresh as ever. He has also released a new CD, In A Mellow Tone, featuring Brian Bromberg on upright bass and Terri Lyne Carrington on drums with special appearances by saxophonist Everette Harp, percussionist Airto Moreira, Guitarist Mike Miller, and Dennis Farias on trumpet and flugelhorn.

Very prolific, George Duke has made 31 albums as an artist and produced many, many more as a producer over his almost 40 year career in the music business. A Grammy Award winner, he was recently inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame.

Smooth Jazz Notes caught up with George at the world renownd Yoshi’s Jazz House and Restaurant in Jack London Square on the estuary in Oakland, California where he is doing two shows a night for five nights. Saturday night’s shows were sold out weeks before the event!

SJN: We understand that early in your career, you played a club in LA “Thee Experience” where you came out on stage and not only were Cannonball Adderly, Quincy Jones, and Frank Zappa in the audience, there was an electric piano, instead of an acoustic piano. It ended up being a groundbreaking night in your career. Had you ever played an electric piano before and please tell us your memories of that night?

George: I have some pretty strong memories from that evening! I had played an electric piano before. I was in the Don Ellis Big Band for awhile. Don is no longer around, but he was a really strong Big Band leader at the time and I was part of his Big Band as a sideman. I played electric piano because he had one. I didn’t particularly care for it as it was one of the very first models. It was a silver top and it was clanking and clunking and was heavy. Dick Bob, the head of World Pacific Jazz Records, at the time, thought that we should play a rock club, as Thee Experience was a rock club and I had been playing with Jean-Luc Ponty, which we were a jazz group. He said that we were playing a new kind of music and if you just change a couple of the beats around, kind of playing a rock beat over the jazz you are playing, I think that I can get over to this younger audience. We were already young, about 22 or 23, but these kids were really young and totally into rock, not into jazz. They convinced Jon to go into this club. I said I don’t care as long as I have a piano. I had a feeling they wouldn’t have a piano because it was a rock club. I thought that they would have something electric. He says, “No don’t worry, I’ll make sure they have a piano.” I walked in there and they didn’t have a piano. I thought, “How could he do that to me?” Everyone was there so I knew I needed to put up or shut up. I started to fool around with these little knobs and discovered that I had vibrato and that I could make it fast vibrato and slow vibrato. So, I found out how to use the thing, realizing that Frank Zappa and all of these people were in the audience, I knew that it was a moment that I had to shine, so I did everything that I could to play for these guys. It was almost also like an audition, without being an audition. I knew that I needed to play well, so I played with my head, my feet, my elbows, I did everything I could to make my presence felt. And it worked! I got called by Quincy Jones after that. Gerald Wilson was in the audience and I got work from him. Cannonball Adderly eventually called and I joined with his band, and of course Zappa. Almost everybody was there so it was a great, great moment, but I was scared to death. This was during the sixties, so there ladies with no bras on dancing in front. We were used to playing in front of a jazz audiences--sitting down very astute, clapping. All of a sudden there were these women dancing with their arms waving and we were not used to that!

SJN: You have worked with many legends in the music industry, which of these incredibly talented people do you consider to have influenced you the most?

George: There is no doubt that Miles Davis single-handedly influenced me the most—a trumpet player of all things! Before that it would have been Duke Ellington because as a very young kid I was taken to see him. I didn’t understand the music, but I wanted to be in the band. The music came later, because I didn’t understand it, I was too young. I have been influenced by everybody that I have ever played with. After Duke there was Les McCann—Les McCann was very important to me. Bill Evans as a piano player really influenced me. Every night I’d go see Bill Evans play--just the cord voicing and the way he played—incredible. And then, anybody associated with Miles Davis, including Cannonball Adderly John Coltrane, a guy named Winton Kelly who was a pianist at the time—he’s no longer around either—great, great player. I was influenced by a lot of great musicians, including Herbie Hancock—because they were all older than me. When I first heard Herbie I was like “wow he has another way of looking at it!” All of these guys had distinct styles, that’s what was interesting! I could tell Les McCann from Herbie Hancock, and Bill Evans, from Winton Kelly, I can feel the difference. I said that I wanted to find my own voice. That was really important to make myself different from those guys. It’s not so much a thing now, like all the sax players sound alike, all of the piano players kind of sound alike, it’s a different thing. But in my day, it was very important to be a musical personality--an individual musical personality—very important!

SJN: You have played with another legend, Stanley Clarke, at different times in your life, what draws you back to creating music with him?

George: Money! (laughs and laughs) No, no, no, its more than that! Money is always an issue, but musically we are kindred spirits. He’s like my younger brother. It’s always a pleasure to play with him, except he plays too dog-gone loud. Other than that, I love the guy--incredible player—incredible musician. He knows as much or more about music than I do. He comes from a little different background. He’s more on the rock side and I’m a little more on the funk side and we have jazz holding us together. When we come together it is very interesting mix of all of that and for whatever reason it does work. That’s what pulls us together—he’s like my brother. I love the guy and I’d would hang out with him whether we played music or not! Financially it is a good thing because people like the ““Clarke-Duke Project”. We were out all last year so it’s a good financial thing, as well!

SJN: You have influenced so many different genres of music either as an artist or a producer, how did you develop your musical style?

George: I’m like of a gumbo with a lot of different things. You know that really did it? I knew it was going to take time for me to develop this as I got older, but I found out through Frank Zappa who put a synthesizer in front of me. It started with that. I didn’t want to play the doggone thing because it had too many knobs and weird noises, but I found out your could bend a note. When I found out I could bend a note on the synthesizer I thought, “Wow, I can shape the tone!” On piano you can’t really bend a note, you can fake it. So, I found out you can play the blues, so I said, “That’s me!” I didn’t hear anybody else doing that on synthesizer at the time so I said that I was going to be the guy who plays the blues on synthesizer—really kind of shape the tone and make melody that way instead of playing weird noises. I could do the weird noises too, but when it came time to play a solo I really wanted to make some music out of it and make a nice tone. I think that was my contribution on that level. Its funny, it came from the synthesizer, and eventually went through the Rhodes, and kind of went back to the piano. There was so many great pianists I didn’t know where I fit in. I tried to sound like Oscar Peterson, to Herbie Hancock, to Les McCann, and everyone in between. Once I established what I was going to do on the synthesizer it kind of worked everything else out. I think the approach and attack I have on the piano is a little bit different than anyone else.

SJN: You have been in the business for a long time and have seen many changes, what do you think the future the music industry will be with the advent of the iPod?

George: Well, it’s going to be very interesting. I don’t know how it is going to shake loose in the future. It’s going to be very interesting to watch, it’s a very different business, “Is there a record business now?” I don’t even know, everything has become downloadable and maybe there won’t be any albums anymore, except for certain people who really love packages, and love music in a different way, so they really want an entire package of something, as opposed to just singles. I hope that it doesn’t become a “singles” business, where everything is commercial and there is no depth to a project and it can’t go beyond one song, where someone can actually put a story together, or a project together. I hope that doesn’t come to that where that does not happen anymore. But, the future of music I think is going to be very interesting. I think the glass is half full, not half empty. I think that this is going to shake loose where it is better for the musician in the end because they can take control over their own product. I have my own label now, BPM, so it is allowing us, even though we don’t get the money we used to in terms of big record deals and all of that, we have more control over our own product. The Internet has become the great equalizer in terms of distributing your own product. It’s going to be very interesting, but it’s definitely not the same business. Musically, that’s an interesting thing, I wish that there were more musicians who would take chances, I really do because I think the future of music depends on musicians willing to take a shot, to go beyond the norm, and if we don’t go beyond the norm everything will stay at a stand still. The history of jazz has progressed because people have said, Let’s try this, let’s try that, let’s try rock with jazz, let’s try Latin with jazz, let’s try a different cord here, let’s try to push the envelope a little bit.” There are not a lot of musicians who are pushing the envelope now, and it is understandable because radio will not play it. There’s not a big audience for it, but I tell you somewhere along the line, with the internet out there, someone is going to do it--really shake it up, and it is going to turn this thing around. It is going to be someone young, more than likely who says, “I don’t care what you guys have done before, I will base what I did on what you did before but I am going to go my own way and then you guys come to me. I’m not going to come to you.” That’s going to make the different where the musician will control, and not commerce and everything else. It is going to be very interesting to watch.

SJN: You have several options of different shows, you offer, The George Duke Band, George Duke with Orchestra, and The George Duke Quartet, can you tell us a bit about what each has to offer?

George: The group I have here tonight is the quartet version, which is what I call my jazz group. I have Mike Manson who plays, not only electric, but upright bass. That’s very important because I love the upright bass and there aren’t a lot of guys out there who can play both, they just don’t exist. Mike happens to be one of the few who can really play both well. I have Jeff Lee Johnson who is a great guitarist and I have a young drummer named Ron Brunner, who is kind-of the second coming of Billy Cobham and Tony Williams, he’s raw, he plays too much and all of that kind of stuff. But I like guys who want to live on the edge and see if I can reign them in a little bit, but let them do their thing because I think that is the way the music will grow. So, I guess that I’m a conservative radical, does that make any sense? Because I like guys that are more radical in what they do, but guys who understand how to sell it to an audience, at the same time. I like Jeff Lee Johnson because he’s unorthodox on guitar.

SJN: You have new management after 35 years, are you heading in a different direction?

George: Oh, I don’t think that there’s much doubt about that. Musically, I am always moving in a different directions musically. My next record might be a big band record, I don’t know. I’m toying with a lot of things now that I have my own company, musically doing some things I have not done in the past. I really want to go to Africa and do some music with some indigenous African musicians who know nothing about music. I would love to be able to find guys who spiritually feel the need to create and then put my stamp in there with that. I’d like to do that in various cultures, such as Jamaica. I want to go back to Brazil and do another album. I have a guy who is kind of my advisor, that’s a good guy who is leading me in the terms of marketability, but in terms of actual management, I guess at my age right now I don’t really need or want a manager. At least I’m going to stay away from it for the moment. I got guys who call me for gigs. I don’t need a manager to say, “Hey we’ve got an offer to go to Yoshi’s.” Peter (Williams) can send me an e mail and tell me he’d like me to come and I have an agent to book the thing, so I don’t need someone to relay messages. I want someone with some ideas about pushing my career forward because I am still active and viable, and want to do it. I don’t want to just sit back. I think that I have the right people around me now. Things are going to change for publishing and BPM is going to wind up being somewhere as well in terms of being a distributor.

SJN: On a more personal note, how do you spend your leisure time?

George: My wife and I go to movies a lot. I used to go see the Lakers, but they’re losing so much now I don’t think that I want to see them! Movies are kind of our game and then of course every other weekend, we have our grandson over at the house. He keeps us all active (laughs), which is a wonderful thing. We have a big screen in our family room and we get in there for hours sometimes and just kick back and I cook on the weekends. I’ve become a family man, just relaxing. I don’t want to go anywhere. I’ve done a couple of these Smooth Jazz cruises. I just did the Wayman Tisdale cruise and that was like a vacation to me because I only played a couple of shows. My wife and I went out on the boat and just chilled out, sitting there watching the water go by. That was great!

SJN: We have met your lovely wife, Corine--and you have children, please tell us about your family?

George: We have two sons and a grandson. Our younger son, Rashid, he’s kind of doing it but I couldn’t get him to practice early on. I played the piano and he didn’t want to compete with me, so he decided he wanted to be a producer. Then he got in a band and started producing some tracks for a group called, “Eyedentity”, which ironically has Airito Moroera and Flora Purim's daughter as a lead singer and a rapper who is the son of a bass player friend who I worked with in Cannonball Adderly’s band. So, it’s the kids of all of the guys I grew up with. I would go to see “Eyedentity” play and there would be Wawa Watson, Herbie Hancock, and Wayne Shorter and we are all watching our kids play. The first night I remember thinking that this was going to be a disaster. I sat up there with my ear to the floor and they started playing and I was like, “Wow, they really get it! It wasn’t just rap. It was like rap and Brazilian, with some jazz, and some kind of rock, an interesting fusion of music, and some blues too. Flora daughter, Dianna, can really sing. So that’s what my one son is doing, the other one is in the service. As a matter of fact, he hasn’t said that it is going to be his career, but I think it will be. He is on his way to Kuwait, unfortunately. That’s kind of a sad thing for me, but that is what he has choose to do, and that’s fine with me, I support him.

SJN: What are your plans for this year?

George: My plans for this year are to solidify where my label will be in terms of a distributor. Probably by the end of this month, or the first part of next month, we have about three or four offers on the table, so I just need to make a decision and just kind of hone the contract in. Also, my publishing is going to change. I’m producing Chante Moore right now for a new album for Peck Records and I will be producing Diana Reeves in May for an album. More than likely I’m going to do another album after the first of the year. I’m thinking of doing a funk record this time, I’m going to go totally the opposite way from “In A Mellow Tone”. I kind of like to keep my fans guessing. They have no idea what I am doing or why. But that’s OK, I like that! After 31 albums, I just can’t keep doing the same record over and over again.

SJN: Well maybe that is the secret to your longevity, you have continued to change and grow and your growth has affected the industry because you are one of the pacesetters.

George: In all seriousness, I follow the Miles Davis principal. Miles, I never knew what he was going to do. He’d come out with an album and I wonder when did he decide to do that? And he’d do the album, then I’d see him live and he’d play the same songs, but they didn’t sound like the album. So, I said, “Wow, I guess this is what is supposed to be!” Zappa was the same way. He just would not play the same song the same way twice. I liked that because that was creative. Miles would always change it in some kind of way whenever he played a song.

SJN: Well, you are doing a great job! Thank you so much for taking the time to share your passion for music with us.




Some of George Duke's Recent Discography

In A Mellow Tone
June 27, 2006

March 29, 2005
Face The Music
September 3, 2002

September 19, 2000

DVD-George Duke, Vol. 1 & 2
December 13, 2004


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