George Duke is one of the most sought-after and accomplished players and producers in music. He grew up in Marin County, just north of San Francisco.
“My mom used to talk me to see ballet, classical concerts, gospel concerts, jazz concerts — and the thing that stuck was I got a chance to hear and see Duke Ellington live. The Big Band,” Duke remembered. “And that kind of messed me up. I was like four-and-a-half years old or so, and it really affected me. Maybe because his name was Duke? I really don’t know. I didn’t understand the music, but it made me feel good and I told my mom, ‘I don’t know what he’s doing, but I want to do that.’”
Duke started piano at seven-years-old, and later took up trombone. While in college at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music he started working at a club called The Half Note.
“Who walks in one Sunday afternoon but a guy named Al Jarreau. A young Al Jarreau started singing. He just tore the place up. We began working together in this place for about two-and-a-half years honing our craft, sending out tapes to every record company we could find, and summarily being dismissed by everybody — and we’re still around.”
A few years later, Duke was recording and performing in Los Angeles with violinist Jean Luc Ponty when he met Frank Zappa, who recruited him for The Mothers of Invention.
“Frank opened me up to a world of everything. Everything from doo-wop to contemporary orchestral music. He taught me the value of humor, the first one to get me to sing, the first one to get me to play synthesizers... Style was really irrelevant to him,” Duke said.
That’s the approach the Stanley Clarke / George Duke Project will take in New Orleans.
“We bring the audience on a musical journey; it’s not just one style throughout the entire performance, he said. “For example, we do play a lot of electric stuff, but in the middle of the show we will play a complete acoustic set with me on piano and him on upright bass, and we just play some old-school jazz.”
The Stanley Clarke / George Duke Project plays Jazz Fest Saturday, May 4.