Interview with George Duke

George Duke is a force in music who has carved his place in music history as a master of jazz, funk and more. His career has spanned over forty years in which he has written, played and produced award winning music in r&b, rock, fusion and Brazilian genres of music. On his latest CD “Dukey Treats” George re-visits his funk roots and fans can expect to party on November 24th at 8pm at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta.

I was able to speak to George about the new CD, funk music, jazz music, the state of creative environments for young musicians and what other projects he has planned for the future.

AJI: We are looking forward to your show at the Variety Playhouse and hearing music from your new CD. What can fans expect?

GD: The album is a tribute to old school funk music. It was done with an old school philosophy with new school rules. It’s a new day so I took advantage of all the new technologies that are available. In terms of song writing and lyrics, I really thought about the way the songs, that I liked, were done back in the day. Whether it was Parlaiment/Funkadelic, Sly and the Family Stone, Earth Wind and Fire or whoever, I wanted this to be a tribute to all the old school which had party lyrics to lyrics describing the situation at the time. I chose several subjects that are near and dear to me now and that is sort of what this album is about. Also comedy, we don’t hear a lot of comedy in R&B right now.

AJI: In addition to party lyrics, funk music had a very positive message too.

GD: Funk music was about partying and at the same time delivering a message. Even if you listen to James Brown, his music wasn’t all about partying. There were a lot of serious messages for our community in that music and it was uplifting. It really was the soundtrack of a people and I just wanted to go back and re-visit that kind of thing. Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown and Parliament/Funkadelic all had a message in their music, plus the fact, they made great music that has lasted to today.

AJI: One remarkable thing about you is that in addition to being a great musician, writer, producer and vocalist, you are a showman too.

GD: I just do what I do. Cannonball Adderly and Frank Zappa taught me well, they said that I would be one way back stage then on stage I’d turn into something else. They said you need to let some of that backstage stuff come out onstage because that is what is going to connect with people. So I began listening to that and trying it, they opened my eyes. I’m not afraid to let my humor out or get funky. I’m not afraid to play straight ahead jazz or play multiple genres at the same show. Give it to the people and let them decide. Expose them to something they might not be aware of.

AJI: Of all the great artists and musicians that you have worked with, who was your favorite collaborator?

GD: Well, I’d have to say Stanley Clarke. He’s like my younger brother and a good friend. We were actually friends, before we were “musical” friends. He’s an incredible musician and that’s definitely one of my more interesting and positive collaborations. Although I’ve had a lot of productions, in terms of producing a bunch of artists that were great like Rachelle Ferrell and Anita Baker. Of course working with artists like them is always an interesting experience in itself. All of these great artists are very difficult because they are extremely involved in their music. They have a vision of how they want it to go. My responsibilities are different as opposed to doing some other artist who may not have that kind of strong vision. Probably the most fun I’ve ever had in the studio was with Jeffrey Osborne, because he’s a nut.

AJI: What artist or musician would you like to work with in the future?

GD: I recently got to work with Ledisi, for a Christmas Project and I think she is a fabulous young artist who has got her act together. She’s the real deal. But ideally for me, to work with an artist who wants to push the envelope and maybe test the waters, not necessarily wanting to do what everybody else is doing. I’m interested in seeing what’s in the future and having somebody kind of shape that. That’s what’s interesting to me. Someone who’s got their act together and knows the general direction that they want to go, then maybe I can aid in that.

AJI:I recently spoke to Lenny White about the state of music, in general, and the lack of interesting and creative music. He said that Return to Forever’s ’08 tour will hopefully spark a revolution for musicians to take music back. Do you think that’s possible?

GD: I think the revolution will have to come from the musicians. We can certainly be at the front of it in terms of trying to say, “Hey, let’s do this again!” Really try to put the control back into the hands of the musicians as opposed to the A&R men and record companies who kind of want every body to sound the same. They want you to get played on the radio. They have different motives other than purely creative muse which is really all that a musician should be involved with. What is truly spiritually inspired, that’s the most important thing.

I agree with Lenny that musicians need to be bold and take that step to take music back. It’s going to have to come from younger musicians. If Stanley, Lenny or I, in our age group, can inspire some body to say, “Hey, you know what? I don’t want to do that” then OK, I’m cool with that. And I think that’s the way to go.

AJI: I recall Christian McBride talking about how the environment for young jazz musicians to develop into players doesn’t exist compared to the late 60’s and early 70’s.

GD: I used to learn as much off stage listening to Cannonball Adderley talk as I did onstage. That was history and he was a walking history book, that’s what is missing right now. Most of the younger players didn’t grow up in a band. I got a chance to work with Cannonball’s band. I got a chance to do the kinds of things like work with Dexter Gordon, these were my heroes. That’s helped shaped who I am today

No the environment does not exist anymore. As a result I have instituted a new experiment and I’m trying to see if it will work? I have been doing this in most of the shows that I do now and will be doing in Atlanta. I get four local musicians in college and sometimes high school, which we did in Seattle, who are very talented. We took four horns, a flute player, trombone and an alto and tenor saxophone player and brought them onstage with me and we all closed out the set together. That experience alone is amazing for kids. I had a chance to jam with Cannonball Adderley or sit and hang out with Miles Davis when I was younger. That experience, whether I got to play with them or not just being in the room, something happened. Simply experiencing the aura of those great jazz musicians doesn’t happen now and you can’t get it in school. The teachers are great but that’s only half of it, you need the other half that includes guys who are actively out there creating the music and taking it to another place. What I try to do with my shows now is the last part of the show I bring out these four players. It’s a tremendous “on the job training” experience with a professional who is actually out there doing it.

While listening to George talk about the type of musicians he likes to work with, I remember my favorite George Duke concert. In 2001 George was the featured “Artist in Residence” at the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands. In his electric band he had Little John Roberts on drums and Phil Davis on keyboards from the legendary Atlanta group, the Chronicle. There’s a great “you tube” video from this concert of the funk anthem “Reach For It” (George Duke live NSJ 2001).

AJI: Europeans really support and celebrate jazz and jazz history to the point that many Americans could take notes on how to keep this music alive.

GD: Yeah, it’s interesting in that this is where it was born. Sometimes I guess people don’t know what they have in front of their face until it’s gone? It’s up to us, the minority, who support it to keep it alive. And the only way that it can remain alive is that it’s got to be alive. It can’t be dead in terms of no growth. The music has to grow and it shouldn’t really go back wards. That doesn’t mean that you don’t look backward but we have to use that as a spring board to take the music to another place. Those are the kinds of young musicians that I want to work with. That’s one reason I’ve been working with a crazy drummer named Ron Bruner Jr who was 23, now he’s 25. People thought I was out of my mind. He thinks he’s a cross between Tony Williams and Billy Cobham. I say, I’m doing it because he has an energy and he’s one of the young guys who really wants to do some thing different, to push the envelope. I respect that because there are so many young cats that don’t. They settle for what is easy and that’s it.

AJI: It’s very sad to see musicians who are so gifted not get the opportunity to develop their talent. If they don’t use it then they lose it.

GD: When I was coming up there were so many great bands a guy could say I’m going to play in Miles band or Chicks band or whatever. There were a lot of outlets for young musicians to at least aspire to. Unfortunately that environment just does not exist. How many gigs are there that you can play art and make money? That’s a sad commentary. Of course most of our really talented musicians go in other directions, many don’t even play an instrument. There are a lot of talented rappers and guys that do spoken word and all of that but that’s another level of creativity. It’s not like learning your instrument.

A lot of the talent went another way, maybe because on a certain level, some jazz began being put in concert halls and became almost like “classical” music and it didn’t represent the ghetto any more. The energy level went down and it became very smooth and pacifying. A lot of the African elements of that music began being taken out and so it didn’t represent the guys in the neighborhood any more, so they abandoned it. They found their own music. I’m not saying that is all of what happened but some of that is true. Some of the more talented guys that might have gone on to play jazz trumpet, piano or drums went in another direction.

That’s why I’m doing this now where every where I play that have music programs in schools, we allow these young players at a certain level, to come and play with me. I’ll sit down and talk with them about music and life and hopefully this will give them the impetus to go on and take the music some where else.

AJI: What future projects do you have planned in your horizons?

GD: I have more projects that I want to do, than I have the time to do them. I’d like to go back to Brazil and revisit “Brazilian Love Affair.” I’d like to do some ethnic projects in terms of going to Africa and India, maybe Jamaica and doing music with some of the locals. Maybe not the guys who are stars now but people that make music because they spiritually have to. They may not know a half note from a quarter note but that doesn’t mean they’re not musicians. I’d like to put what they feel about music with me, something like that. I’d also like to do a big band project and a fusion project.

Having discovered George Duke by way of funk early in my life gave me all the more respect for him as an artist when I learned he played jazz. Having been lured to jazz by the fusion jazz of the mid 70’s, I had to ask who would be chosen for such a project but the last sentence sums up the measure of a true artist. “The intent has to be honest and not designed for radio play or anything other than spiritually we are lead to make this music and hopefully some body will like it.”

George Duke was interviewed by “North Sea” Phil Roberts for AtlantaJazz.Info

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