From jam sessions with Al Jarreau in 1960's San Francisco club scene, to a longtime gig with Frank Zappa, the jazz legend spreads his eclectic musical repertoire on world-wide tours
By Leslie Wolf
Anyone who has been listening to jazz––or, for that matter, pop or movie scores––any time in the past 50 years has heard the music of George Duke. And, now he’s back to his roots, the psychedelic era of 1960s San Francisco, where Duke first met another jazz legend: Al Jarreau.
On his website, www.georgeduke.com, way down in the “news” section, is buried a little gem. Duke wrote that sometime around Christmas 2010, “We put the final touches on the Al Jarreau with the George Duke Trio recordings from 1965.”
A remake of old tunes with famed vocalist Jarreau invited to sit in? No, Duke explained. These are original audio tapes made on a cheap recorder in a small, now-defunct club in San Francisco back in the day. Way back. Before either of them was a household name in jazz.
“We actually started our careers together,” Duke said. “I was a sophomore in college (at the prestigious San Francisco Conservatory of Music) and he was a social worker––neither one of us knowing we could make a living at music.”
At the time, Duke was making some money on the side playing a regular Sunday gig at The Half Note club on Divisadero St. A guy Duke had never met, who turned out to be Jarreau, just showed up one day in 1964. “He came walking in late one Sunday afternoon for a jam session and just blew everyone away,” Duke recalled.
Jarreau became a regular, and one night Duke brought his little Sony tape deck to the club to record their session. The new remixes were done using the original tapes from 47 years ago. “We cleaned 'em up as best as we could,” Duke said. “It sounds pretty doggone good. It’s really a historical document, not only musically, but philosophically in many ways, because of the temperament of San Francisco at the time,” Duke said. “It wasn’t just music; it was a way of life.”
In those heady days in The City, the club was a magnet for up-and-coming acts, as well as some more established musicians, some of whom just came to unwind and check out the new talent. Duke remembers such legendary singers and musicians as Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis visiting the club. Some of them he later ended up playing and touring with. “Everybody was in this club,” Duke said. “I was 19. I wasn’t even supposed to be there.”
Duke and Jarreau stayed in touch over the years as both of their careers took off. Duke said he produced part of Jarreau’s first album, though he was later relieved of the duty because the record label thought he was a young, inexperienced kid.
About a year and a half ago, Jarreau and Duke reunited to record a track “and it felt so good,” Duke said. So plans were laid then and there to do a renewed collaboration. In addition to the upcoming album, Duke and Jarreau are headlining the 21st Annual Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest in Reading, Pennsylvania, on March 26.
Prior to that date, Duke will be honored with a Lifetime Achievement award at the Oasis Contemporary Jazz Awards in San Diego, March 12. Even though he’s featured on the awards ceremony’s website at www.oasisjazzawards.com as one of “The Biggest Stars in Jazz,” Duke modestly claims to not know exactly what his award is for. “When you get a certain age, then they start giving you awards,” he said. Duke will also be performing at the Oasis Awards with Jeff Lorber, the music director of the event.
There was never any doubt Duke would become a jazz musician. “I knew when I was 4 years old what I wanted to do,” he said. “My mom took me to see Duke Ellington, and I went nuts! It was like magic to me. I told my mom, I don’t know what he’s doing, but I want to do that,” Duke said. “Plus, his name was Duke, so I thought he was a relative.”
Worn down by her son’s constant pestering, three years later Duke’s mother spent $15 of her hard-earned money on a used upright piano that was purchased from a friend. “It was quite an investment,” Duke said, for his schoolteacher mom and his father, an auto mechanic, as they strove to get by in the East Bay area. “She made me promise I was going to practice a half hour every day except Sundays,” Duke recalled. “There were times I wanted to get out of it so bad––I could hear the kids outside playing basketball or marbles,” he said.
But, he said, his mother’s strictness instilled in him a work ethic that he retains to this day. Duke, at age 65, keeps up a schedule that would exhaust musicians less than half his age. He will be going to Tokyo for a Billboard Live show playing fusion jazz with his Duke Quartet on March 2. The following day he will fly to Jakarta, Indonesia, for four days of concerts, and then back to San Diego for the Oasis Awards. Then it’s off to Reading, Pennsylvania, where he will perform at the Berks Jazz Fest with Jarreau.
The rest of the summer and fall includes gigs in New York City (a five-day run with Jarreau at the Blue Note), a tour of Europe in July, a gig in Los Angeles Aug. 31 at the Hollywood Bowl with David Sanborn and George Benson, then off to Washington, D.C., for the Thelonius Monk competition in September. Add stops in Miami, Cozumel, Belize (he’s never been there and is looking forward to it) and Jamaica in October.
Oh, and he’s producing new records at the same time and updating his blog on the “Musician’s Corner” page of his website regularly, where he hopes to provoke active discussion with such subjects as “Is Music Necessary" and "Are School Music Programs Important?”
The answer to that, according to Duke, is a resounding yes. And no wonder––as an upcoming musical prodigy in his East Bay neighborhood of San Rafael, Duke began teaching piano to his neighbors when he was 15, originally for $5 a lesson, then later for $10 or $15. That was quite a sum in those days for a kid whose father only earned $80 a month.
After the conservatory, Duke earned his master’s degree in music composition at San Francisco State University, though his matriculation was oft-delayed because he was touring with a number of name-brand jazz musicians.
Duke graduated to teaching music at Merritt College in Oakland, a post he left only when Frank Zappa offered him a job with his iconic Mothers of Invention band in the late 1960s.
Being a straight-laced jazz artist, Duke said the freewheeling lifestyle of the rockers in Zappa’s band was foreign to him. But, he still remembers it as a time of incredible musical experimentation. “Frank would take the melody and destroy it,” Duke said, fondly.**
**The complete George Duke story can be found in the March issue of Smooth Jazz News. Pick up your free copy at our radio station affiliates (see radio station page for listings), various concerts, festivals and select Southern California outlets. Or you can subscribe and receive 11 issues of Smooth Jazz News per year, mailed monthly (except January), for $35. Click here to subscribe online today.
For more information on Duke, including his complete tour schedule and discography, visit www.georgeduke.com.
Oasis Contemporary Jazz Awards
San Diego Civic Theatre
1100 Third Ave.
San Diego, California
21st Annual Boscov's Berks Jazz Fest (with Al Jarreau)
Sovereign Performing Arts Center
136 N. 6th St.
19th Annual Capital Jazz Fest
Merriweather Post Pavilion
10475 Little Patuxent Pkwy.
Fifth Annual Capital Jazz SuperCruise
Seven-day, full-ship charter aboard the Carnival Valor
Sailing from Miami to ports of call at Ocho Rios, Belize and Cozumel