[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, “Bizarre Ride,” appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]
Q: What's cooler than being cool?
A: George Duke.
All apologies to Andre 3000, Antarctica and Wilt the Stilt circa 1971. But jazz pianist George Duke is so rarefied that his royalty is in his last name.
Born in the Bay Area but based in the Hollywood Hills for 40 years, Duke boasts a résumé that includes stints in Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention and collaborations with Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley and Brazilian maestro Milton Nascimento. But everything started on an Indian summer night in 1969, when Duke and French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty electrified Thee Experience, a cramped rock club at Sunset and Genesee.
“The idea was to take our intense, aggressive jazz and change the beats into a rock groove,” Duke remembered earlier this month, before taking over the Catalina Jazz Bar & Grill in Hollywood for a three-night miniresidency, which included his 66th-birthday show. “It was totally different from a jazz club. No seats. Girls without bras were dancing — or, should I say, swaying.”
This was six months before Miles Davis' fusion masterpiece, Bitches Brew. At the time, merging virtuosic jazz musicians with psychedelic rock was a relatively radical idea. That night's audience included Adderley and Quincy Jones, who later enlisted Duke to play keys on Michael Jackson's Off the Wall. Also swaying was a 28-year-old Zappa, who quickly snatched up Ponty and Duke to add symphonic flair to his sardonic, mind-fuck rock.
“Zappa was a genius. We were tightly rehearsed but loose and off-the-cuff, too,” says Duke, who initially moved to the West Valley upon joining the Mothers; he describes his first two years in L.A. as being tormented by roosters crowing every dawn in agricultural Age of Aquarius Chatsworth. “[Zappa] taught me how to let my humor come out and to seriously think about getting out from behind my wall of keyboards and singing.”
Duke's sublimity on the ivories had been evident since his graduation from the San Francisco Conservatory in 1967. But his apprenticeship with Zappa allowed his diffuse sensibilities (jazz, rock, classical, soul) to fully congeal. After he went solo in the mid-'70s, Duke's celestial funk served as L.A.'s best answer to George Clinton's Mothership. At one point, the subgenre got so big that Duke and his fellow fusionists played European soccer stadiums.
With jazz's decline, Duke produced quiet-storm and jazz records for A Taste of Honey, Dianne Reeves and others. During the famously finicky trumpeter Davis' last years, Duke was a favored collaborator.
“I saw him be so cruel that I was embarrassed for his targets. But it was totally the opposite with me. He once asked me to join his band. For whatever reason, [Davis] just liked certain people. [Zappa] was the same way,” Duke says, adding an anecdote about his lone incident with Miles, involving “Fumilayo,” a song that Reeves (Duke's cousin) wrangled despite Duke having already promised it to Davis.
“[Davis] cussed me out for 15 minutes. Then he told me to write him a new song.”
Duke laughs, doing a Davis impression to gravelly perfection.
Today, Duke is heavyset and jovial, resembling a more suave Uncle Phil from Fresh Prince or perhaps the funkiest TV chef ever to cook. But his preternatural sense of groove puts him in league with Bootsy and Prince; no wonder his songs have been sampled by Kanye West, Daft Punk and Ice Cube. Last year, Thundercat, the Brainfeeder-signed fusionist, created waves with his brilliant cover of Duke's 1975 “For Love (I Come Your Friend).”
“It was never one of my favorite tracks. I never played it live. But he did some really imaginative things to it. Fusion is really just taking two things that don't normally go together and making them fit,” Duke says.
The cover introduced his music to a new generation. Still relevant, Duke may well operate as a one-man metaphor for his adopted city: aesthetically diverse, subtly historic and reveling in constant flux.