George Duke: The Master of the Game
I never caught George Duke live in concert. I never met the man in person. However, he did give me two hours of his extremely busy time to talk to me for a career-spanning interview. What came of it was the longest interview I had ever done before, after or since and after I finished it, I knew that it was good but man, was it going to be a bear to transcribe.
Duke liked it too because he put a link to it on the front page of his web site and that was an honor. No interviewer wants the subject to regret doing the interview.
I gained a whole new appreciation of the man they called "Big Daddy." If you love jazz fusion (and I do because I ain't no jazz snob) you love George Duke. Duke was one of the top five keyboard players of the fusion genre along with Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul and Jeff Lorber. Where Duke ranks in that group is subject to debate, but for my tastes, he's second only to Hancock and ahead of Corea, Zawinul and Lorber. Others may see it differently, but hey, it's my list and I'll order it how I want.
I published an excerpt of the 2010 interview, which can be found in full at All About Jazz. We were discussing Deja Vu (Heads Up/2013), however, I couldn't let an opportunity pass to ask Duke what it was like playing with the notoriously short-tempered Miles Davis:
All About Jazz: Regarding "Ripple In Time," the trumpet playing by Oscar Brashear is a shout-out to Miles Davis. You played with Miles in his final years, and nobody comes away from working with Miles without some impression: good, bad or otherwise.
George Duke: He could be extremely intimidating. Matter of fact, I was playing with Julian "Cannonball" Adderley at the Beacon Theater in New York. We had finished our show and I was out front listening to John McLaughlin, and Miles came to the show.
He said [slips into gravelly Miles Davis voice], "Hey man, what you doin' in this band?"
I was, like, "Damn, did I just get dissed?" I didn't know if he was saying I wasn't good enough to be in Cannonball's band. I didn't know how to take that comment.
Years later, Miles would come to my shows in New York but he wouldn't say anything to me. A murmur would go through the audience: "Miles is in the room!"
As time went by, he'd call me on the phone and tell me he wanted me to write a tune for him. He actually asked me to join his band at one point. We were never close friends and I wasn't in his band, but we had this weird kind of relationship especially when he was with Cicely Tyson. I'd see him all the time. He said, "George, I want you to write me a tune."
I wrote "Backyard Ritual" and sent it over to him as a demo thinking he'd go in and rerecord it live with his guys. But he said, "I like it because it sounds funny."
I said, "Miles, that's a demo. We're going to come in and re-cut it."
Miles said, "Naw, man. I like it the way it is."
And that's the way it came out. "Backyard Ritual" [ from Tutu (Warner Bros, 1986)] is a demo Miles played over. I never saw him in the studio.
The original song I wrote for Miles had a French-Cuban atmosphere to it. Dianne Reeves came in the studio and heard me working on it. She said, "What's that?"
I said, "This is for Miles."
She said, "Wait a minute. We're family. I want that tune for my record."
I told her, "Well, you can't have it."
Dianne said, "We're family. You got to tell Miles he can't have it. Write him something else."
I said, "He's already heard it. You call Miles and tell him he can't have it!" She said she was already writing a lyric for it. I told her, "You gotta stop!" Well, Dianne is my cousin, so I had to call Miles tell him. I said, "Hey Miles?"
"You know that I tune I wrote for you?"
"You know my cousin, Dianne Reeves?"
"Uh, can I write you another tune? She wants it for her album."
Miles cussed me up and down. It took him about 15 minutes of swearing at me and her. "Tell that blankety-blank to get her own song!"
The song that came out of it for Dianne's album was "Fumilayo," and it was nominated for a Grammy. It didn't win, but it started out as a song for Miles Davis.
AAJ: You hear these amazing stories about how intimidating Miles was and you think no way could it be true, but maybe it is.
GD: Miles was quite a character and much funnier than most people realize, especially if you were with him one-on-one. Very interesting dude.