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Preview: Playboy Jazz Festival

Al Jarreau & Stanley Clarke on their planned tribute to George Duke

George Duke and Al Jarreau
George Duke and Al Jarreau at Freihofer Jazz Festival at Saratoga Springs (photo: Ben Johnson)
Stanley Clarke

One of the highlights of last year’s 35th Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl came during singer Jeffrey Osborne’s segment, which was significantly enhanced by the stellar playing and magnetic presence of the multi-talented keyboardist, singer and producer George Duke.

Equally comfortable in jazz, pop, R&B and funk settings, Duke captivated festival attendees while supporting the singer, whose top pop hits he produced. Less than two months after that memorable performance, Duke, 67, died from leukemia at a Los Angeles hospital on August 5, 2013. His death came just after his new contemporary jazz CD Dreamweaver had been released, and was a shock to both fans and fellow artists.

In honor of their longtime friend and collaborator, singer Al Jarreau and bassist Stanley Clarke will headline a segment, “Celebrating George Duke!,” this weekend at the 2014 Playboy Jazz Festival. Jarreau, on tour in Hawaii, and Clarke, ensconced in his Southern California studio, spoke to JazzTimes about the upcoming concert and their departed friend.

JazzTimes: What is your feeling about the Playboy Jazz Festival honoring George Duke?

Al Jarreau: How nice of the festival to make this moment and recognize one of our prodigies and heroes in this special kind of music for 35 years. George will get recognized the world over, but it’s really important that we guys at the festival honor his marvelous work and personality. He brought joy and love with that big smile and big keyboard, and a sweet voice that would get high and sound like an angel. I used to wonder how he could do that, and it would make me mad (laughs).

Stanley Clarke: Actually, there have been several big things since George passed. We had a big memorial that aired on the Centric network that was great, and we also did a concert at a large club in Hollywood, with people from all over performing and speaking. The other night we did a nice event at the Capitol Jazz Festival in Washington, D.C., and now we’re going to do it here (Los Angeles). It’ll be nice because George’s home was L.A. for a major part of his life and there will be a lot of friends there. He was a regular at the festival and literally lived down the street from it. George was one of those guys whose footprints went across many genres. He did a lot of things people didn’t know about, such as writing songs, being a perfect producer, an artist who also was an educator.

JT: Al, your relationship with George goes back to the ’60s and for you, Stanley, the ’70s.

AJ: That’s right, actually the mid ’60s in San Francisco [at the Half-Note Club], we were swimming upstream, while all around us was this rock ‘n’ roll. We were close to Haight-Ashbury and Berkeley wasn’t too far. George’s mother would come on Saturday nights and tell us to get him home because he had to play at church in the morning and he was underage (laughs).

SC: Yeah, actually 1971, I believe. We met in Finland. He was playing with Cannonball Adderley and I had a group with Chick Corea, which was the very early beginnings of Return to Forever. I’m not even sure we were called that back then. We jammed with Cannonball, which was the best part of the jazz festivals back then. The jam session after midnight went way into the morning. George and I kept it that way till the present and had a long, rich relationship, including playing, recording and producing together-he was like a brother to me.

JT: When the first time you recorded together?

AJ: It was on the track “Roof Garden” [Breakin’ Away, 1980-keyboards] and also on “So Good” (Heart’s Horizon, 1988-arrangements) and when I needed the special George Duke “touch.” He never produced a whole album of mine; instead, just highlight pieces that weren’t big hits, yet people would ask for them.

SC: It was on my album, Journey to Love (1975) on a track called “Silly Putty” with Steve Gadd on drums and David Sancious on guitar, and that was fun.

JT: Years later, George seemed to influence you into incorporating funk and R&B.

SC: Yeah, he was on a lot of those records and we always hung out. I used to see George once, twice a week if I was in town. We were very close.

JT: What was your first impression of him when you first met?

SC: He was warm, smart and effective, a rare quality those three things together. He was a guy who did what he said and at the same time he was very cool.

JT: What do you think will be his lasting impact on jazz, funk, fusion and music in general?

AJ: George was more than straight-ahead music. He was a pop and R&B guy and also one of the best vocalists you ever heard. One of the lessons to learn is this raw love for all kinds of music, especially for kids today. Listen to everything-don’t get boxed in; there’s a world of music.

SC: George was one of the unusual guys who actually created his own musical language. It was a way of approaching jazz and its relationship to funk, R&B and rock. Also he was one the first guys in the ’70s who really incorporated voice and he never considered himself a great singer. But he was a composer and he wrote songs that required someone to sing. So he sang stuff and it was really nice how he did that, playing piano and a great soloist. He did it all in a format called George Duke music.

JT: What was the main musical statement you two always wanted to convey whenever you got together?

AJ: We would go back to the beginning and play some of the first songs we ever did together, such as “Moanin’,” some bossa nova and maybe even some bebop, then possibly a pop song from the ’50s like “Teach Me Tonight.” We would do the gamut of music that was a common experience for us.

JT: Do you have any idea what direction George was heading in the later stages of his life?

SC: I know that he was enjoying playing acoustic piano more. That seems to happen as musicians grow older, and he went full circle from acoustic to electric to acoustic.

JT: For the upcoming show there will be a lot of great artists involved and a lot of music to cover.

AJ: Its going to be wonderful and (John) Beasley’s going to conduct with Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller, Dianne Reeves, Ndugu, Byron Miller, Jeffrey Osborne and Phil Perry, with lots of other musicians and singers all there to help celebrate.

SC: Unfortunately, I think we’ll only play an hour and in D.C. we played for over two hours. But it was a different kind of festival, so this will be more of a musical statement. There will be some nice things played and said; I think the audience is really going to like it.

JT: Have you worked out what you’re going perform or is that a work in progress?

AJ: Yeah, still a work in progress and we’re going to do a broad cross-section of things. Beasley is going to do some pieces with the orchestra on their own and then Dianne Reeves and I will do something together. Phil Perry will probably do “Sweet Baby” and I know Stanley is going to do “Brazilian Love Affair.” I’ll probably butt in on his set-that’s all I’m going to tell you (laughs). Also Marcus Miller will do some stuff that’s on the new record I did.

JT: When your careers started taking off about 10 years after you first met, did you and George ever have one of those “Wow, I can’t believe we’re here” moments?

AJ: You know it, man. It was like a dream coming true and I’m still in it! In fact, two weeks ago, David Sanborn, Stanley and I were performing at Christian McBride’s school. Afterwards, we were answering questions from the students. Me and David were just sitting there smiling, shaking our heads up and down and side to side-sheer moments of joy. Every time George and I were in a studio or on a stage together he would say, “We were there.” If I knew I would live this long, I would have stopped drinking earlier (laughs).

JT: What are you working on now?

AJ: I did a tribute to George titled My Old Friend and it should be out very soon, probably July or August in the U.S. People like Dianne Reeves are on it, Stanley produced five songs, Marcus Miller produced four songs, and Boney James brought his horn to do “Bring Me Joy” and “No Rhyme, No Reason.” Even Dr. John is on this record, singing and talking. There are a lot a nice moments on this record and some of the songs will be performed at Playboy. We’re really looking forward to seeing how it will be received.

SC: I have a new record that will be out September 30th and it has one of George’s songs on it, “Brazilian Love Affair.” Stewart Copeland, Paul Jackson Jr., one of the guitar players from the Eagles and Jimmy Herring from Widespread Panic will be on it, along with the Harlem String Quartet, who I wrote a piece for. Its called Last Train to Sanity and it’s very unusual. Yeah, lots of different things on the new CD.

JT: Is there anything about George you want to reveal that people don’t generally know?

AJ: George not only liked wine like Al Jarreau, but he got me to bring my own coffee on the road. He also had an incredible wine cellar that I wore out. He had a wonderful Moscow connection too. He, Stanley and I were invited there by a lovely singer/actress, Larisa Dolina. George wrote for her and I sang a song on her record. We also did a trio show on one of her programs with me playing drums and singing.

SC: You can probably pick it up in his music, but he was one of the warmest guys you could ever meet and like a Buddha. No matter how you felt, whenever you were in his presence, you left feeling better.

Playboy Jazz Festival

June 14-15, 2014

Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles, CA

Artists: (subject to change)

The LAUSD/Beyond the Bell All City Jazz Band under the direction of Tony White and J.B. Dyas

The New Jump Blues featuring Antonio ‘Huggy Bear’ Fargas

Tia Fuller

Allen Stone

Kenny Barron with special guest Ravi Coltrane

Butler, Bernstein & The Hot 9 featuring Henry Butler and Steven Bernstein

Dianne Reeves

Jamie Cullum

Arturo Sandoval Big Band

Celebrating George Duke! Al Jarreau and Stanley Clarke w/ Ndugu Chancler, Paul Jackson, Jr., Byron Miller, Greg Phillinganes, Josie James, Lil John Roberts

John Beasley, music director

Esperanza High School Band under the direction of Brad Davis

James Cotton Blues Band with special guest Big Jay McNeely

Juan de Marcos & The Afro-Cuban All Stars

Jon Batiste and Stay Human

José James

Dave Holland, Kevin Eubanks, Craig Taborn and Eric Harland: PRISM

Dr. Lonnie Smith “In the Beginning” Octet


George Benson with special guest Earl Klugh

Los Amigos Invisibles

George Lopez, master of ceremonies

Originally Published