wax Poetics
Photo by Andrew Putler.

The Royal Road

Keyboardist George Duke had his eclectic beginnings playing with Frank Zappa’s band. Then he conquered the funky jazz scene on Germany’s MPS label. After a now-legendary short stint with drummer Billy Cobham, Duke forged a new path and ruled the R&B charts with eccentric funk.

published online
Originally published in Issue 46
By Jon Kirby

At the turn of the century, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, was a terrible place to maintain possession of a bootlegged George Duke VHS cassette. The performance in question, originally broadcast on Swiss television in the late ’70s and dubbed to death in the decades since, featured the short-lived George Duke/Billy Cobham band, an all-but-forgotten affair starring the hulking Mahavishnu drummer, Weather Reporter Alphonso Johnson on bass, and a relatively unknown John Scofield on guitar. Playing through the warbles of tracking and ravages of time, the robust combo gave hope to our awkward circle of musical acquaintances. Al Johnson, young and noodly, seemed to be constructed entirely out of arms and necks. His fretless bass work was of the finger-licking variety, as he took several opportunities to moisten his digits between thumps. A mustachioed John Scofield, recently reinvented through his masterful Medeski, Martin & Wood collaboration A Go Go, mumbled away brilliantly on a solid-body Gibson, while fighting a spirited battle against male pattern baldness. With a goggled Cobham sweating laps around his souvenir Arizona T, and Duke’s keyboard den decorated with mannequin heads and bric-a-brac, the group looked and sounded like nothing we’d ever seen. 

An album—the Billy Cobham–George Duke Band’s Live on Tour in Europe—had been culled from these same sessions, recorded across Europe in July of 1976. It had been an impulse buy—a dollar-bin afterthought—rescued from a used bookstore on the strength of the cover alone—a Garbage Pail Kids gallery piece in which the hand-mounted heads of the tandem bandleaders scurried across a cartoon beach. I had tracked down the video in hopes of transposing some of Duke’s Moog solos, but there always seemed to be a plastic shark in frame, strategically obstructing view of Duke’s busy fingers. 

Duke had just completed an industrious tenure with Frank Zappa’s band, playing keys and singing lead on many dense titles, bookended by Chunga’s Revenge (1970) and One Size Fits All (1975). The residual freakiness was detectable not only in his stage ornamentation, but on “Space Lady”—as heard on Live on Tour in Europe—one of the finest examples of free-jazz comedy to date. Opting out of his obligatory piano solo, Duke instead spins an imaginative yarn, recounting a fictional encounter with a sexy alien who communicates through music. “You know what I mean?” Duke courteously asks his foreign audience, only midway through his fantastic tirade. “No, y’all don’t know what I mean, do y’all?” he speculated with a chuckle.

Although this live album was well on its way to changing our lives, neither Duke nor Cobham thought much of it at the time. Cobham still doesn’t recall it fondly, admitting to me several years later, “It’s something we did and it’s done.” Had he maintained any lasting impressions from these sessions? “No. Nothing. Not one peep.” Likewise, Duke barely grants the record a passing grade, awarding points based solely on the apparent impact it’s had on fans and fellow performers. “I didn’t particularly care for it at the time,” Duke tells me from his home in Los Angeles, “but so many musicians have told me that that album totally changed their lives.” Since becoming familiar with each of the contributors’ catalogs, I can allow that Live was perhaps a bit of a mixed bag, giving only partial glimpses of each performer’s genius. And while it signaled significant shifts in each artist’s career—George en route to R&B and Cobham deeper into fusion—it was still a postcard from the road, not a masterpiece completed upon arrival. 

You make the music. Let them label it later.

In terms of Duke’s solo career, Live on Tour in Europe sits near center, preceded by a fantastic body of courageous jazz for German independent MPS, and succeeded by equally adventurous, if not more commercially astute, R&B productions for Epic Records. The former would take him from the Bay to the Black Forest, where a wealthy and enthusiastic label heir named Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer would give the young pianist carte blanche, resulting in immense tapestries of frantic fusion and deep soul for Germany’s watershed jazz foundry. The latter would take him near the top of the Billboard charts, where he would be awarded a gold plaque for 1977’s Reach for It, thanks largely to the bottom-heavy title track. Throughout, unclassifiable friends like Ndugu Chancler, George Johnson, and Stanley Clarke were never far away, helping Duke evade effective pigeonholing for much of his career. “I’ve always tried to be inclusive musically, and really take the notion that style is kind of irrelevant to a musician that can play,” Duke says. “I understand the need to name things and label things in order to sell them, but a musician should never feel bound by a label. You make the music. Let them label it later.” So whether it’s Johnny “Guitar” Watson ad-libbing the nearly expletive “Aw, stuff!” on a German jazz record, or a disco song full of trebellious bass solos, one thing has been consistent through Duke’s career: the presence of the funk. 

“I took a lot of hits from jazz people that said I was selling out, but that’s their problem, not mine,” Duke maintains. “I tell them the Lord made me funky—if they got a problem, they can take it up with him.” 

What is your earliest musical memory?

Probably the single most important thing that I remember was a Duke Ellington concert that my mom took me to when I was four years old. For whatever reason, it really stuck in my mind, and I knew right then and there that that’s what I wanted to do—that I wanted to play music. I mean, I don’t even know what songs he played. I just kind of remember how he was dressed, the way he spoke—he had that kind of thing where he was saying words like “hip,” “jive,” stuff like that. So, okay, so he sounds like guys in the neighborhood with the lingo of the day, but at the same time he was speaking very properly. He was doing something with his hands, which I found out later was directing. It was just interesting to me. And of course when I grew up, you didn’t see any Black people on TV. Other than the pastor at the church that I was going to, he was the only guy outside of my community that I saw doing something that made me say, “Hey, this is cool. I want to do this.” And there was all kinds of people watching him: Whites, Blacks, everything. And so I said, “There’s something about this.” 

So you wanted to be the maestro?

Oh, absolutely. I wanted to be that guy. He looked like he was someone who was in control, he could speak several different “languages,” and I liked the way he dressed. I liked everything about what was happening. And people were clapping, I could tell they were happy, and whatever he was playing musically made me tap my feet and bob my head. And then his name was Duke! I thought he was a relative, [laughs] but obviously he was not.

So you started with a traditional mind-set and segued into the experimental?

I’ve gone both ways. Of course, now some of my mentors kind of brought that side of me out, because when I first started playing, I was straight from the Miles Davis school; I didn’t really care about the audience, didn’t look at them, didn’t even want to be aware of what they were doing. I was so absorbed in what I was doing musically. But through management, who told me once, after I had a hit record, they said, “Half of what people hear is what they see. When you start playing larger venues, you have to become a little more than just sitting behind a piano and playing.” But you know, watching Cannonball Adderley, working with him, working with Frank Zappa, people like that, they actually encouraged me to let out my personality. And they said, “Well, why are you so funny and loose backstage, and you get onstage, and you look like you’re at a funeral.” Frank Zappa was very much a part of it—Dizzy Gillespie too. I found out you could be funny, and still be cool as a musician—and heavy. I began to say, “Oh well, I guess I can lighten up and still be a good musician.” That’s no slight on Miles, because Miles is my hero, my most favorite musician of all time, but he chose not to be that way onstage, and that was cool. But that really wasn’t me. 

How did you break onto the scene?

I was working at a local club in San Francisco with Al Jarreau actually. We were both trying to figure out where we were going to go in our musical careers—hopefully, careers. And I found out that Jean-Luc Ponty was coming to town and essentially started calling; I started sending letters to them saying, “I’m the only guy to play with Jean-Luc.” He sounded like the Miles Davis of violin to me, and I wanted to work with him. The music that he played was kind of advanced, especially for a violinist. So when he hired me, we were kind of musicians on the precipice—looking forward, trying to see what we could do with music, how we could make our mark, and take music to another level. As a result, Dick Bock from World Pacific Jazz Records, the guy who had signed Jean-Luc to a contract here in America, he had the idea; he said, “You know what? With the kind of jazz that you guys play, with this kind of energy, I think you could get over to a rock audience.” Now the rock audience was pretty open at that time. I come from San Francisco; I go to the Haight-Ashbury or the Fillmore, and I could see Country Joe and the Fish or Miles Davis, all in the same show. So I knew that the rock audience was becoming more open to diverse forms of music. It took a little work to get Jean-Luc to do it, but I said, “Jean-Luc, we need to do this, man! This is interesting!” So eventually, he agreed to do it; I agreed to do it if they had a piano there. I said, “Don’t bring me one of those little sliver-top electric pianos!” I get down there and that’s all they had. No piano. So they kind of finagle us into doing it with a few lies and other things, but it’s the best thing we ever did, because all of a sudden we had a different audience, totally different from the jazz audience. There were girls dancing in front of the stage with no bras on—which was a big thing back then—and it made us play differently. 

I found out that Quincy Jones is in the audience, Frank Zappa, and all these people; there were a lot of musicians in the area who wanted to see this electric violinist, not me. So I said, “Something tells me this is a shot for me.” I decided that I was going to become very extroverted and play. It was almost like a basketball player saying to himself, “Okay, this is my time to step up.” I started playing with my feet, I started playing with my elbows—I practically stood on that keyboard. I didn’t know much about the electric piano, but I turned a few knobs and found out that you could get a vibrato and this. And Frank liked it. Frank said, “Oh, well, this guy is nuts!” So he hired me. 

So this is where Frank Zappa enters the picture?

Well, Frank was contracted to do an album called King Kong with Jean-Luc Ponty [in 1970], and Jean-Luc only said he’d do it if I came with him. And by the time Frank heard me at this small club called Thee Experience on Sunset Boulevard in L.A., he was cool to have me play piano. And by the time I’d finished that record, within a month or two, he called and said he wanted me to join the band. And that was it. So Jean-Luc is really responsible very much for giving me a shot to launch my career.

George Duke with Dukey Stick %Photo by Echos/Getty Images.%
George Duke with Dukey Stick Photo by Echos/Getty Images.
There’s a lot of jazz in funk, as there is, on a beat level, in hip-hop. I try to take funk and mix it up with my jazz.

What inspired you to start singing on your records?

I actually sang on one of my first records, but not a song. I mean, it was just a “La di da”—it was like part of the orchestration; it had nothing to do with singing a song. You know with Frank, Frank looked at me, and said, “You know what? You’re the only one sitting down in one place—I need you to sing this note.” So I began singing background parts, little harmony parts here and there, and it evolved into me singing songs in the band. But it’s not something I really wanted to do. Frank was the kind of guy—he would look at somebody and observe, and whatever he figured their strongest talents were, or something that was zany or a little out of the norm that he wanted them to do, he would call them on it and make them do it; it happened all the time, and not just in music either. [laughs

So what do you think Frank saw in you?

I think that he saw that I was open, I think that he saw that I knew how to play, that I had a talent and a flair for improvisation, and he wanted someone that could really kind of go nuts on the piano. And when I was in my early twenties, I was pretty crazy on the piano. I thought I was the John Coltrane of piano. I played way too much, but I could read and all that, the kinds of things he needed. But he also needed someone who would allow their humor to come out, and that’s what he always encouraged me to do. He would sit me down and just say, “Look, you need to play synthesizer.” He was the first one to get me to do that. He said, “You need to get from behind those keyboards; carry that sucker and just come to the front of the stage and play something.” So that gave me the idea; that started this whole thing with what people call “the Dukey Stick.” Frank was very much responsible for ideas that I incorporated, not only then, but later. 

Yes, let’s get into the Dukey Stick mythology. When did this entity enter the fold?

Well, essentially after Reach for It. Reach for It became my biggest record at that point, and that was like 1978, ’79. “Reach for It” has since been sampled by a lot of different artists, right? But at the time, it broke out of Washington, D.C.—became a big record in the urban community, gave me a gold record, and all of a sudden, from playing small jazz clubs, I started playing huge halls, and it was just crazy. So when it came time to do the second record, I had to come up with a concept; I wanted to solidify what I had already created. I didn’t want to go back and start playing some Latin and some jazz tunes. I had Reach for It; I wanted to say, “Yeah, let’s continue that, but I don’t want to abandon what I’d done before. So I came up with this concept involving my name. The Dukey Stick is a magic wand; it is actually not the strap-on keyboard that I wear, that I guess a lot of people call a keytar, but it’s actually a magic wand. I got the idea from Star Wars, and I used to carry this thing around; it would spit fire, and of course as it spit fire, I could make the rings with it. It had different colors. It was archaic because it had these big batteries; it was designed by Industrial Light & Magic, which is the same people that did the Star Wars thing. Cost me a lot of money. I had to charge it every night, overnight, in order to get it to work at the next show. It was set in Plexiglas. We came up with this idea of a Dukey Ball, and we had this whole parade that I used to do with the band where we’d unveil this big Dukey Ball, which would open up, and it would have the strap-on synthesizer in it—a strap-on Minimoog. So I could only play it for one tune, because the Minimoog was heavy to wear around your neck. And that’s the way the whole thing started. The Dukey Stick is a magic wand. That wasn’t developed with Zappa, but that kind of humorous way of dealing with subject matter came out of Zappa.

You did one record with Billy Cobham—Live on Tour in Europe—that many cite as an important moment in fusion. How did that come about?

Woo, that was a weird cover. Jean-Luc and I were kind of the West Coast equivalent of what the other guys were doing back East in terms of fusing jazz and rock. So at a certain point, by 1975 or so, I thought, “Man, these guys have gotten too serious.” It’s like everybody’s playing a lot of notes; it’s not meaning anything anymore.” And the fusion I liked was kind of funky; I like more the funky R&B side of fusion. There was a technical side of fusion, which I could understand and I liked, but it didn’t grab me like the stuff that was based a little bit more in the African American experience. And so I said, “Okay, that’s what I’m going do; I’m going to bring the blues to fusion, and I want to bring some humor too.” 

What drew me to Billy, first of all, was his energy. I might make him mad if he sees this, but I never thought he was a great composer, but I thought he was a totally unique drummer. And he could play funky! So in terms of combining the fusion with the R&B, he understood that, because he already did that. Even with “Stratus” and some other songs he had on his first album, that stuff, even though it had a rock bed, was funky. And I figured I would take it even further. If I got with him, we’d make it even Blacker. I think that’s what made this record work and why it appealed to so many Black instrumentalists. What drew me to Billy was his ability to play so many different kinds of music, and play them well. It’s funny, the drummer I’ve been touring with is kind of the same way; he’s kind of a young version of Billy. I like drummers that are going to push me a little bit. I need someone that can make the music fly, and not just hold me down on the ground. I like to go out into the stratosphere, into the universe, go see what’s out there. So I need a drummer that understands that, but also understands the soil. And I figured Billy kind of had both of those; that’s what made it work. I didn’t particularly care for it at the time, but so many musicians have told me that that album totally changed their lives. 

Sounds like incorporating the funk into your music has taken a priority over the years?

Funk is fun to me. It sounds like music from the soil. It’s very basic, and it hits me in a place that maybe some people that listen to Bach and Brahms don’t understand. It’s probably the way hip-hop hits certain young kids, hits them where they really feel it. That’s where funk hits me. And I feel like I can do anything with funk. I can twist it and put jazz to it, put Latin on it, can improvise as well over funk as I do over any jazz changes. To me, it’s very flexible, and it’s very much related to the Black experience and also the jazz experience in general. There’s a lot of jazz in funk, as there is, on a beat level, in hip-hop. I try to take funk and mix it up with my jazz. I get a lot of this funk, and it’s fun and stuff, but it’s laid on a bed of jazz. The bread is the jazz, and I just spread some funk on there, and everything is all right.

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