George Duke is a renaissance man of modern music. His work spans the entire spectrum of style and classification to the point where his expertise is not necessarily his instrument nor his genre, but music as a whole. In specific, his influence on modern day funk and soul is unmistakable, and as such, we could find no better fit for someone to give us the lowdown on the history as well as a firsthand account of coming up through that history.
How did you get started?
My mom used to take me to see all kinds of artistic events whether it be paintings, whether it be ballet, whether it be gospel concerts, jazz concerts. She just wanted me to be exposed to the arts; maybe just to see if anything would stick. We lived in what was considered at the time a ghetto, but it wasn’t a bad ghetto. It was a poor neighborhood in a place called Marin City which was a WWII housing area for people of color who worked in the war effort at the shipyard and what not. My mom and dad left Texas to come work there and I was born there. So she used to take me to see all these different events and something did stick. When I was four years old she took me to see Duke Ellington, and that stuck. It wasn’t necessarily because I understood the music, but because I saw this man who kind of looked like me, we were the same color, he was hip, he spoke the King’s English, but at the same time spoke that jive English that I used to hear around the block. And every time he did something with his hands, he’d hit this piece of wood, which turned out to be a piano, and a sound would come out. Then he’d raise his hands and all these other guys dressed in suits would magically start playing. For me it was like magic. I was like, wow, I thought he was waving. I just sat there mesmerized and I told my mom, “I want to do that. I don’t know what he’s doing, but I want to do that.” That’s really how it started for me.
How did soul emerge from gospel?
There are a lot of similarities between the two. It kind of all started there really. The guys that came out of the church, the gospel church, especially down south, those rhythms and the feelings that they used were just used in a secular sense. That’s why Ray Charles took such heat. All the staunch Christians were saying that it was blasphemy for him to be playing that kind of music and not speaking the gospel. Of course to me that’s ridiculous. Ray Charles became a hero of mine because he sounded like the music I heard in church, but it was secular music. That music spoke to me. It was funky (they didn’t call it funky at the time, they called it soul), but all that comes from the same place. It’s the same feeling. It’s really the history of a people, even starting back in Africa. A lot of the rhythmic concepts come from Africa. When it got combined here with certain influences from America and Europe like chords, structure, and melody, that’s what made it what it is. It was an integration of the music that really made it work.
Can you talk about your musical journey, who you worked with, and what was special that you took from each experience?
Let’s put it this way, I started off looking at this organ player on the other side of the pulpit, and that’s Ray Charles. When I was introduced to him at a very young age, that’s who I wanted to emulate. Him, Les McCann, Ramsey Lewis, guys that kind of played more soulful. There was a jazz group called the Three Sounds; I used to listen to them. You know, anybody that played with that kind of feeling, that Ray Charles kind of jazz feeling, I said, “Man, that is me.” Now eventually I went out to the record store in San Rafael, California. I took the bus out there when I was about 12 years old and I told the guys at the record store I was looking for some jazz. He says, “Well who do you want?” I said,” I don’t know!” “Well,” he says, “look under ‘D,’ a lot of guys seem to like this Davis guy.” I started scrolling through these LPs and I came upon this cover that was really kind of dark and foreboding. It had a picture of this guy that was dark and had his mouthpiece. It turned out to be Miles Davis Kind of Blue. So I bought it, got back on the bus, took it home, played it on my little set, and it changed my life. Then that started a whole other progression musically for me. I listened to everybody that played with Miles on that record. Little did I know that later on I would actually work with the guy. At the time though he was my hero. I mean, Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, everybody who was on those records that I could afford to buy, I did. You probably don’t know some of these guys, but they were my heroes.
Once I got past that, I got into what Bill Evans was doing because he sounded totally different as a pianist than Ray Charles. That interested me — the way he constructed his chords and the way he approached the piano, the tone that he got out of the piano. Out of that it just kept growing. I really got into Latin music with Cal Tjader and Mongo Santamaria, so I clued that into my arsenal. One day, to move the story along, my good friend Leon Ndugu Chancler, a drummer I worked with for many years, brought over a Parliament-Funkadelic record. I heard it and said, “Oh man, I don’t know what it is, but we need to do it!” I don’t want to say it was a logical progression, but I just kept wondering what was around that next corner. I was trying to take this white canvas I had and just fill it with colors. Not just one color, not just jazz, not just gospel; I wanted to fill it up with all different colors of music. I think that’s kind of what I’ve done.
What’s the relationship between jazz and soul?
Well you know what happened was at a certain point, a lot of those guys that played on Motown were jazz musicians. I didn’t play for Motown, but I wound up playing with Michael Jackson and a lot of other artists in that field. That’s really what helped shape the music. Marvin Gaye deliberately wanted to include jazz elements in his music and have it noticeable. You can unmistakably say that it’s jazz, between the way the horns are arranged to the players and everything. Even James Brown’s guys; those are really jazz players. They were just playing funky because most of these guys came out of the church and knew how to do both. They could speak both languages. So jazz really influenced R&B. The combination of the two helped propel it forward. I think it’s a wonderful thing; that’s why I love the R&B of the old days. It had some Music in it, you know, with a capital ‘M.’
Who took soul and R&B from the churches and made it a popular style?
I think without a doubt Ray Charles and James Brown. Then from there I think Sly and the Family Stone put another twist on it. I love the stuff that Sly did because it wasn’t just him, there were a lot of people singing and playing, it had jazz elements to it, there were great musicians. Also all the other groups that came out of that like Cameo. Earth, Wind & Fire was pivotal, they took it to another level not only on records, but visually. They were one of the first groups that I knew of that put on shows like the big pop groups. They had the big, elaborate shows that cost thousands of dollars. That was really only relegated to Phil Collins at that point. It was really an amazing time. Those for me were the pioneers. Obviously also Aretha Franklin, on and on and on.
What were the most pivotal performances for you?
Besides the one I spoke of earlier with Duke Ellington, there were a few actually. I did a show with Jean-Luc Ponty many years ago. This was a jazz show that was pivotal in my development because Quincy Jones and Frank Zappa and Cannonball Adderley were all there and I just happened to be playing. It was in LA around 1973. That was my own pivotal experience. But in terms of watching, I went to see an Earth, Wind & Fire show around ’79 at the Forum in Los Angeles. That show made me cry. The reason is that I finally found someone that actually put together great music and was commercial. They figured out how to be commercial while still playing good music and put on a good show at the same time for thousands and thousands of people. I wanted to do that kind of thing; not exactly how they did it, but that kind of thing. I actually never was able to do it on that level. That was an astonishing show though. The other show that totally freaked me out was when I went to see Parliament-Funkadelic. They played at the Forum as well. That turned me out. Also one of the first times I heard the Miles Davis group, that was crazy. I had never heard anything like it in my life before. It totally turned me around.
Where were the hotbeds of innovation in terms of funk and soul?
I think the Bay Area. The San Francisco Bay Area was very strong in the ‘60s. Everything from Latin with Santana to Jimi Hendrix who had migrated to that area, The Grateful Dead, Steve Miller, Huey Lewis. There were all kinds of music of all different styles that came out of the Bay area. And that includes me and Al Jarreau. So that was a big area, but in terms of jazz, the most experimental and best jazz came out of the East Coast. Maybe because it was harder living. It wasn’t living out in the sun like LA which is kind of reminiscent of smooth jazz to me. Everybody’s on the beach drinking a Mai Tai and smoking a stoagie. The East Coast, that stuff was hard man! Those cats were living in the snow. It was rough. So that was a different attitude which translated into the music having a different attitude. The same thing happened with rap. To me the harder rap came out of the East Coast, but then on the other hand you have the West Coast thing with Ice-Cube and those guys. Then there was the whole war thing to see who could be the most gangster. On the R&B level, there were a lot of good things coming out of the Midwest in terms of Detroit obviously with Motown and Stevie Wonder, and then LA became a big capitol for all of that.
Can you talk about how soul evolved into a force for political messages?
Yeah absolutely. It seems like the musicians of that day had something to say more than just about bling-bling and booty calls. I wish more artists did that today. With the internet it would seem there is more opportunity to do it. Back then there weren’t cell phones; there wasn’t that kind of quick connection. But yeah, Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown, Earth, Wind & Fire. They all made their own statements in terms of what was going on in society. A lot of jazz musicians did the same thing whether it was instrumental or vocal. It was almost like it was organic. It was the soundtrack to what was going on at the time with all the movements. Whether it was the Black Panther movement or Martin Luther King. That music absolutely represented those movements and spoke about it, commented on it, and in some cases even led it.
On the other side of the spectrum, soul incorporated a good deal of love songs.
I wrote a song called “Love Song,” which talks about that. I love love songs, I mean I’ve written enough of them. But there’s got to be something else to say. Artists can’t be afraid to really touch on other subjects and comment on the orders and disorders of the day. I think that’s important. Let people know what you feel and keep it real. It doesn’t mean we’re only making flowers here. You have to talk about the dirt as well. I don’t know if some artists are afraid to do that now. Jazz especially became kind of lukewarm where everybody is doing nice, soft melodies. Everybody is making stuff that won’t aggravate anybody and isn’t too aggressive. That began to bother me because there weren’t enough artists that were taking a chance and making music which was aggressive and took a point of view. You may not like it, but let me put it out there. I felt that there was a lack of aggressive R&B music. There was a lack of progressive jazz music. I don’t know if it’s the tone of the day, but it just became very conservative.
More George Duke
Interview by Eric Sandler (@ericsandler)