From Adderly to Zappa, George Duke's biography reads like road notes from a cross-country tour of American popular music. His trek began as a child in northern California, where he studied classical and jazz and became proficient on piano, trombone and bass. Playing in a Baptist church gave his sensibilities a bedrock of soul, and coming up in San Francisco in the late Sixties broke his horizons wide open.
"I guess I'm a gumbo," the pianist says. "I like all kinds of music. San Francisco was like a melting pot and a very creative period of time. I could go to the Fillmore West and see Miles Davis and Santana and Joe Cocker in the same show. And you'd see Sly and the Family Stone on the same bill with Cannonball Adderly."
In the city, Duke and a young singer named Al Jarreau were members of the house band at the Half Note, where heavyweight musicians on tour came to hang. The young pianist's major break came when he sent a note to the noted European jazz-fusion violinist Jean-Luc Ponty's label that read "There is no other pianist for this guy but me."
"I wasn't that kind of guy," Duke recalls, "but something told me I had to do that, so I did. Fortunately, it worked. He gave me a shot."
It was a "right time, right place" kind of gig. At the start of the Seventies, fusion bands like Ponty's hit big. Miles Davis had plugged into space jazz; Weather Report was tearing it up; the Mahavishnu Orchestra was turning ears around and Duke wound up on tour with Frank Zappa. "500 hotels" later, he'd added an appreciation for rock and world beat to his recipe.
After he left Zappa's band, Duke joined jazz great Cannonball Adderly's group. He also experimented with Brazilian music, but "it didn't sound like the records coming out of Brazil." The solution? Go to the source--Duke headed for Rio. "Once you know 'Oh, that's what they're doing,' then you can meld it with your idea of music and put your own stamp on it."
There's a simple secret worth keeping: know your stuff. The reason Duke's music consistently gets over is that it has the right feel for the style. It's authentic--he actually has been there, done that. Duke's tight grasp on so many genres has enabled him to successfully produce and perform with a cross section A-list of recording artists--from Smokey Robinson to Anita Baker, Miles Davis to Barry Manilow.
Duke's deep bag of tricks has also made him the sample artist of choice for many hip-hop acts. "I've got one song that has been sampled so much in the last five years, I could just quit working and make a living off my samples," he says. "It's stupid. I said, 'Can't they just write a song?'"
The one thing Duke likes about rap is "there's a certain rawness to it that I felt was missing out of jazz for a while." But still, "they're going to have to find some composers."
Although the common thread throughout all of Duke's work has been jazz, he admits there were times he went so far into pop that his fundamental form was practically left behind. "I began to impose self-limitations on my own creativity on a pop track. I thought the music became very stale and I said, 'I don't want to do this.' It was so foolish. It was the worst thing I could have done, to limit my own imagination.
"I decided I didn't want to make records for myself unless I could make the kind of records I want to make--not thinking about radio, not thinking about anything but what I want."
Despite his "commerce be damned" awakening, Duke's last two releases on Warner Bros.--Snapshot and Illusions--haven't hurt for major airplay, and with good reason. His seasoning is heavy on deep funk--gotta-move-to-it music that's informed by the complexity of jazz, the directness of rock and the expansiveness of world beat.
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Duke sums it up like this: "The one reason I've been around so long is that I keep finding new goals." In 1993, for example, Duke premiäred an extended composition at the Montreaux Jazz Festival that combined a small acoustic jazz ensemble with a full orchestra. That piece, titled "Muir Woods Suite," will be available on CD early next year. Another project he recently moved to the front burner is the remixing of several vaulted recordings from the late Sixties and early Seventies. "I've got some stuff I did with Billy Cobham, stuff with Dexter Gordon, stuff with Al Jarreau."
Duke's Valley performance scheduled for next week is a benefit for "100 Black Men of Phoenix," the local chapter of a national community development organization. Accompanied by Noteworthy Recordings artists Michael White on drums, Brian Simpson on keyboards, Ray Fuller on guitar and Larry Kimpel on bass, Duke says he plans to present "an amalgamation of my previous albums," including a few songs off recordings he produced and a soupon of his orchestral work. "There's an art to putting together a good gumbo," Duke says. "It takes a lot of practice and dedication. You really have to know what makes each style of music work in the first place. Otherwise, you're just shooting in the dark."
George Duke is scheduled to perform on Monday, October 2, at Phoenix Symphony Hall. Showtime is 7 p.m.