Wednesday, April 28, 1999

Jazz great turns classical with 'Muir Woods Suite'

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        George Duke's musical life has been a crazy-quilt of styles: from mainstream, fusion and progressive jazz to funk, pop, rock, Brazilian and R&B.

        But perhaps the most unique thing about Mr. Duke's eclectic odyssey is that it began with classical music. Piano lessons. Trips to the symphony. Seeing The Nutcracker at the ballet every Christmas. Learning to play Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms on trombone with his high school orchestra.

        Mr. Duke, a keyboardist, composer and producer, came full circle in 1993, when his Muir Woods Suite for symphony orchestra and jazz ensemble was premiered at the Montreaux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. He will perform the U.S. premiere of his Muir Woods Suite with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Thursday-Saturday at Music Hall.

        “In the back of my mind, I said there aren't a lot of black composers doing extended works. I certainly didn't learn about them in school,” says Mr. Duke, who earned his undergraduate music degree from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and has a master's in composition from San Francisco State University.

        “I knew I had the ability, and I decided to take the time, push everything else aside, and do this for me,” Mr. Duke says. “I was not doing this to sell records. I needed a challenge.” @subhed:Autobiographical work @body:

        Mr. Duke, 53, spoke by phone from his Hollywood studio, where he had just finished producing an album for Dianne Reeves, his cousin. Next on his agenda was preparing the music for the Soul Train Music Awards television special and a Duke Ellington Tribute.

        He's known more for his hit singles, such as “Sweet Baby,” than for classical crossover. But Mr. Duke's Muir Woods Suite, inspired by the redwood forest near his Northern California hometown of Marin City, is something of an autobiographical work.

        “As a Cub Scout and Boy Scout, we used to camp there occasionally,” he says. “In one of those sleeping bags, you'd hear all kinds of things. It was spooky to me. I was small, and the trees were huge — they still are. I found the place very awe-inspiring, just with what you heard — the wind whistling through the trees. Then you'd hear something go "whooooo,' and say, oh God, what was that?

        His musical love affair began at age 4, when his mother, Beatrice Duke, took him to see jazz giants Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton perform in San Francisco.

        “By the time I was 7 years old, I convinced my mom to get a piano,” he says. He still praises his first piano teacher, Wyna Barron, who patiently listened to him “play scales wrongly for 30 minutes every week.”

        The family lived in a segregated city near Sausalito, which had started as temporary government housing during World War II. His father worked in nearby San Francisco Bay shipyards.

        Mrs. Duke exposed George to a wide variety of the arts. “Not only jazz,” he says, “but she used to take me to see (gospel singer) Mahalia Jackson, the ballet, symphony concerts.

        “My mother was particularly acute at making sure I saw anybody that was of color, because we couldn't see any heroes on television,” he says. “Television was new.”

        It wasn't long before he would be playing with all his heroes.

        By age 16, George was playing in school jazz groups. While at the San Francisco Conservatory, where he briefly flirted with becoming a serious classical pianist, he spent his off-hours in San Francisco's Half Note Club backing up an unknown singer named Al Jarreau. He sometimes joined pickup bands around town, headlined by Dizzy Gillespie, Bobby Hutcherson or Kenny Dorham.

        Mr. Duke had finished his master's degree, which included composing several acts of an opera, and was teaching at an Oakland junior college when he had a chance to play with electric violinist Jean-Luc Ponty in Los Angeles at a Sunset Strip club. That event is now considered a seminal moment in West Coast fusion. In the audience were Frank Zappa, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley and Quincy Jones.

        In 1969, Mr. Duke joined Mr. Zappa's band, Mothers of Invention.

        “(Mr. Zappa) was so off-the-wall, and I was a straight-laced jazz player right out of college — black suits, thin ties, a very normal kind of guy,” he says. “All of a sudden I was thrown into a situation where there were groupies, ladies with no bras (this was the '60s) and long hair.

        “He'd do complex, intense music and throw in some 1950s rock 'n' roll and bizarre humor. I didn't understand it; I was a jazz player. ... It turns out, Frank tore down a lot of walls that I had in me. I really began to see validity in diverse music and styles.”

        In 1971, he joined Mr. Adderley's band, working with Nancy Wilson, Joe Williams, Mr. Gillespie and others.

        “I met all these great singers and musicians through Cannon; it was a world that I had grown up with and loved,” he says. “Cannon knew so much about the history of jazz, that I used to sit and listen to him talk about Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Joe Williams, Miles Davis — as though they were cousins. I was knee-deep in the jazz world.”

        The '70s and '80s became Mr. Duke's “ultra-funk” period, where he scored big with chart-topping records. He also got into the producing business, working with everyone from Anita Baker and Melissa Manchester to Smokey Robinson and Gladys Knight.

        Then in the '90s, Mr. Duke returned to his classical roots, taking three months off to write his Muir Woods Suite on a Synclavier digital synthesizer.

        Is there a future for classical/jazz fusion at symphony concerts?

        “I'd like to hope so,” he says. “There is music in the classical realm that folks who listen to pop would really get into if they were exposed to it. I want my fans to know I'm about more than what they think I'm about.”

        • What: Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Jesus Lopez-Cobos, conductor; George Duke, jazz pianist, with Chester Thompson, drums; Christian McBride, bass; and Arto Moreira, percussion.

        • When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 11 a.m. Friday; 8 p.m. Saturday.

        • Where: Music Hall.

        • Tickets: $11.50-$45; $8 students with valid student ID. Half-priced tickets on day of the concert 11 a.m.- 2 p.m.

        • On the Internet: Visit at for tickets at a 25 percent discount.

        The program: George Duke, Muir Woods Suite; Respighi, The Fountains of Rome and The Pines of Rome.

        Classical Conversations: 10 a.m. Friday with pianist Michael Chertock; 7 p.m. Saturday with Mr. Chertock and Mr. Duke. (Complimentary buffet, 6 p.m. Thursday.)


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