The Duke of Jazz


By Brian Wise

“He told me, ‘You don’t have to be heavy to be heavy.’ I said, Whoa! He’s laying some of that Zappa cosmic debris on me.”

George Duke came to Australia in 2008 with long-time friend and collaborator Stanley Clarke. I spoke to Duke by phone in February 2008, just a month prior to their tour and appearance at Byron Bay’s Bluesfest.

The article which first appeared online on March 3, 2008 is below. (Note: I have added some of the interview text that I was not able to include in the original article).

One of the fringe benefits of the Bluesfest season is that it brings us acts from different genres that we otherwise might never get to see. A few years ago jazz legend Pharoah Sanders appeared in the Crossroads tent to an adoring and somewhat amazed audience. It was one of those inspired bookings that helps give the festival its character.

This year Bluesfest and other venues will be graced by some more jazz legends working together in the form of bassist Stanley Clarke and keyboard genius George Duke.

Both players have well-established and impressive jazz credentials but they have also branched out into other areas and projects that make them a compelling double bill. Clarke has worked with Jeff Beck and was a member of Keith Richards’ New Barbarians while Duke has played with Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, George Clinton and even Flora Purim.

The just-turned 62 year-old Duke made somewhat of a name for himself early in his career by working with Zappa, who provided a demanding but rewarding apprenticeship.

“I had dreams but I wasn’t really sure until I got hired by Frank Zappa that I could even make it in the business,” says Duke, on the line from America to talk about the forthcoming tour.

“I figured if he hired me I must have something, so maybe I could make a living doing this in performing as opposed to teaching. I was teaching school for a while when I was young. In fact, that’s the only time I’ve been in Australia, was with Frank Zappa.”

In fact, it was when he was with Frank Zappa that I saw Duke on that first visit to Australia over 30 years ago! [It was 1974]. I distinctly recall the concert at Melbourne’s Festival Hall (where The Beatles played in 1964) because Zappa kept stopping this ‘jazzier version of The Mothers’ (as Duke calls them) – which also included Jean-Luc Ponty – and making them start again. Frank seemed like a hard taskmaster.

“He had a lot of expectations and he expected his band to deliver,” responds Duke when I tell him of my recollections. (And frankly, I am amazed that I remember anything that far back!).

“We had to deliver, that’s all there was to it. We had to be funny and at the same time we had to be very serious musicians – and that’s kind of hard sometimes. You had to kind of get into Frank’s world. He was a hard taskmaster but he wanted his music performed correctly.”

“I’ll let you in on a secret,” confides Duke when I mention Frank continually stopping the band and making them start again. “It happened to me once where he stopped because I made a mistake. If you’d seen him you’d know he had that finger, he would put his whole arm down and all the band stopped and he’d say, ‘George made a mistake.’ And they were like, ‘Oh Frank, come on man.’ So, he’d say, ‘George is going to play it by himself.’

“So I wound up playing this little piece of music by myself and I got through it okay and then the next time I played it correctly. I tell you, that he never called me out again I was always prepared after that!”

By the time he joined Zappa’s band Duke had obtained a bachelor’s degree in music from the San Francisco Conservatory in 1967, but working with Zappa proved to be a fine training ground for the young keyboard player who would soon go on to prove himself one of the greatest exponents of all time – jazz or rock.

“It was the best,” he agrees. “You see Frank was highly intelligent and at the same time he was a great musician and he was really just totally consumed with music, every aspect of it: the business, the recording, the performance of it. So I got to see all of that.

“He challenged me. It’s not like I could just rest on….. ‘Well I’ve been to school and I’ve leant all these jazz licks and I can play some classical music’ – and I can rest on that. No! He says, ‘I need you to sing, I need you to synthesize and I was like a synthesizer.’

“So there were a lot of things that were firsts for me that happened through Frank – by just pushing me to become a well-rounded musician. At the same time [it was]teaching me it was okay to have a sense of humour and let your personality out and you can still be heavy. When he told me, ‘You don’t have to be heavy to be heavy,’ I said, ‘Whoa! He’s laying some of that Zappa cosmic debris on me.”

That Zappa cosmic debris included a prolific recording career and pioneering artistic independence that was years ahead of its time.

“He was totally amazing and obviously became a hero of mine,” says Duke. “Obviously, I didn’t continue with that style of music but what I learned and garnered from that experience really set the tone for the rest of my life. Always look forward and invest in yourself and continually change the music. It doesn’t always have to be the same and doesn’t have to be commercial. He proved to me – along with Miles Davis and a lot of other people – that you don’t necessarily have to bow down to make a good living at what you’re doing and I wasn’t sure about that. You give the people what they want but sometimes you give them what they need”

Duke appeared on some classic Zappa albums including 200 Motels, Apostrophe, One Size Fits All, Bongo Fury and Roxy & Elsewhere. In the years since Duke has worked with Stanley Clarke (who has become a long-time collaborator), Jean-Luc Ponty, Billy Cobham, Cannonball Adderley, Dianne Reeves, George Clinton, Steps Ahead and many more. He was producer and composer for tracks on the late-era Miles Davis albums: ‘Backyard Ritual’ (Tutu, 1986) and ‘Cobra’ (Amandla, 1989). Duke has also worked with a number of notable Brazilian musicians, including singer Milton Nasciemento, percussionist Airto Moreira and singer Flora Purim.

“That’s been a wonderful thing, working with various people from all kinds of genres,” says Duke. “I mean even pop. I tell people that I’ve worked with or produced everybody from Miles Davis to Barry Manilow and sometimes at the same time. Working with Barry, for example, in the afternoon then having Miles Davis call and come over and write some music in the evening. You can’t get anymore diverse than that!”

“He was as strong an inspiration as Zappa was and also Cannonball Adderley was very influential as well,” says Duke of Miles Davis. “Miles? He just never looked back: he always incorporated the sounds of the day, the grooves of the day but then he put his stamp on it and did his thing. It’s like he was the same guy with different grooves underneath what he played. It’s like he never changed. He was always Miles and the glue that held all that stuff together. He was really an explorer, that’s what I loved about him, that’s what I loved about Herbie Hancock. You may not like the direction they are going in but you’ve got to admire the fact that they are willing to do something out of their normal comfort zone.

“Oh man! I used to see Miles all the time in San Francisco he used to amaze me how he’d change from when I bought an album to when I saw him live,” responds Duke when I mention that On The Corner was being released as a box set. “The stuff just never stayed the same. We try to incorporate that – even Stanley and myself – with the band. Let the music grow. We don’t play just like the record. If people come thinking that they are going to hear just the songs that we play off the record that it’s going to sound like that that’s not going to happen.”

I mention Joe Zawinul, who Duke replaced in the Cannonball Adderley Band and who passed away a year earlier in 2007.

“Joe was a good friend and also big shoes to fill when I joined Cannonball,” says Duke. “Joe and I became friends. Right after I joined the band, he came to see me a couple of times and told me I was doing all right. We lost a good one. Joe was an innovator – another explorer. Right up to the end he was an explorer. I might have seen him 6 or 7 months ago in LA and he sounded great. I didn’t even know he was sick.”

“We used to do a lot of shows together when fusion was extremely hot during those years,” recalls Duke. “We used to do tours – Herbie Hancock’s group, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, me with Billy Cobham. It was like a family. So it was a very interesting thing and we still continue to be a family, we just don’t see each other as much.”

Duke was musical director at the Nelson Mandela tribute concert at Wembley Stadium, London in 1988 and in 1989, he temporarily replaced Marcus Miller as musical director of NBC America’s Sunday Night program.

But there is also an even more contemporary connection to Duke’s work. His ‘I Love You More’ was sampled by Daft Punk for their hit ‘Digital Love.’ ‘Guilty’ was sampled by Mylo in his song ‘Guilty of Love.’ ‘For Love’ was sampled by MF Doom in ‘I Hear Voices’ and ‘Someday’ was sampled by Common in ‘Break My Heart.’

For the Australian tour Duke is teamed with long-time friend and collaborator, bassist Stanley Clarke, with whom he has recorded three albums. This year they also visit Africa and Russia so we are lucky to have them here for a brief tour.

“We’ll actually do some stuff of mine and some things from Stanley’s solo project,” says Duke, “so it’s kind of a hodgepodge of stuff. Plus we have the more funky stuff, the electric stuff, then usually in the middle of the show we have an acoustic set were Stanley picks up the upright bass I go on the piano. So it’s really 360 degrees of music. That’s what we’re know for we give them everything.

“I love working with the guy, he’s like my younger brother,” says Duke of Clarke. “A lot of people think that we are very alike musically but actually that’s not true. He’s very different than me. I bring the more urban R&B side and he’s more of the jazz-rock side. So putting us together, it’s kind of a combination of the two and it’s kind of interesting. You get some of the R&B, that sounds like rock sometimes, at least when we are playing electric stuff. R&B has that strength of rock and roll but it has that urban-ness to it – very black, so to speak, to coin a phrase. But on the other side we have the free stuff. We do the acoustic, really playing some jazz, we even do some straight jazz in the middle of the show. There are times, if we have time we just might lie off into a standard.”

I tell Duke that I had been was surprised when reading Ronnie Wood’s autobiography that Stanley had been influenced by Ronnie’s bass playing. Of course, Clarke toured with Wood in the New Barbarians at one stage.

“I used to see him occasionally when he was with the New Barbarians and I was asking him, ‘cause that’s a whole different animal there,” laughs Duke. “I used to see them play somewhere, but I don’t remember where. We were all young and crazy back then!”

“Not only that but now he’s become the consummate film composer,” adds Duke of his musical partner. “He’s doing a lot of that. As a matter of fact, a new film he just did, was just released here in the States –  Ice Cube movie, a comedy that he did. So, he still keeps very active that way. I tended to gravitate more towards the recordings and records and producing various artist and that still continues today but I try to cut it back a little bit. I think from here on I’ll probably wind up doing just a little more of my own material of some area that I haven’t investigated, musically.

“For example, I’ve had this idea of getting together with some African musicians who might not even know they are musicians, they just make sounds, they make music. That could be interesting to me to find guys that are not big stars but that have this gift and combining their efforts and my efforts and see what comes out. I’d like to do that with various cultures, maybe for a lack of a better word call it cultural diversions music. That’s kind of where my head is at now.”

“Oh man, I tell you when I get ready to go out I want to go like Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson on stage!” laughs Duke when I tell him that he still sounds as if he enjoys making music.

As for other people sampling his music Duke is unconcerned.

“As far as I’m concerned as long as the music is out there people can use it as long as they pay me,” he says. “They can use it and use it because I’m done with what I’m going to do with it. I’m cool with it.”



Brian Wise

Brian Wise was the Editor of Addicted To Noise‘s Australian site from 1997 – 2002. The site won two ONYA Awards as Best Online Music Magazine in 1999 & 2000. He has also been Editor since its reincarnation in 2013. He also presents the weekly music interview program Off The Record on 102.7 Triple R-FM ( in Melbourne. It is networked to 45+ stations across Australia on the Community Radio Network and is a four-time winner of the Best Music Program Award from the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia. In 2012, it was nominated as a finalist in the Excellence in Music Programming category. Brian was also the Founding Editor & Publisher of Rhythms Magazine and is now its Senior Contributing Editor.

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