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The Gap Between Old School and New

Jazz: George Duke, a headliner at the Newport Beach festival, wishes young artists would make a connection with his generation.


One night late last year, George Duke had just settled into his first-class seat for the flight from San Francisco to L.A. when he recognized a fellow traveler nearby--rapper Ice Cube.

"We hadn't met before," Duke recalled recently on the phone from his home-studio in North Hollywood. "So I said, 'Hey, you're Ice Cube. I'm George Duke. You sampled one of my songs. Made me a lot of money.' "

And then Duke--who headlines opening day of the Newport Beach Jazz Festival on Saturday--gave the rapper a piece of his mind.

Duke thinks "the biggest problem with music today is that there's no connection between the younger artists and artists of my generation. When I was coming up, my desire was to work with my heroes and learn from them, not just hear them on record. I wanted to work with Miles [Davis] and [Frank] Zappa, I wanted to talk to Cannonball [Adderley] and let him give me the information firsthand.

"That kind of thing has disappeared. The younger artists have all come up on machines. They didn't work with their heroes, they sampled them. Now when they run out of music to sample--and they will; they've sampled 'Reach for It' at least 20 times already--then what are they going to do? They have to go back to the people who know how to create. There needs to be a handshake between them and us."

Duke said he explained all that to the rapper, and they started talking about working together. "I told him I'd been thinking about doing some old school/new school kind of thing," Duke recalls, "where they bring in George Duke to set up the instrumental environment and then they run with it. That's how the music grows."

Does that mean we can look forward to a summit meeting between the veteran fusion pioneer and the popular hip-hop celebrity? "I haven't seen him since then," Duke replied, "but we've exchanged a few phone calls. It's something I definitely want to pursue."

Duke, 51, certainly knows the value of learning from one's elders. Born in San Rafael, the keyboard player cut his teeth in pickup bands around San Francisco with Dizzy Gillespie, Bobby Hutcherson and Kenny Dorham, backing then-unknown singer Al Jarreau at the city's Half-Note Club, and making regular appearances with trumpeter-bandleader Don Ellis.

He began a long association with Zappa in 1969 and joined Adderley's quintet in 1971. His two-year stint with Adderley led to engagements with singers Nancy Wilson and Joe Williams.

While learning from his heroes, he also was busy developing his own direction, one that would help shape the fledgling fusion movement. His 1969 date with violinist Jean Luc Ponty at Thee Experience, a club on the Sunset Strip, was attended by Zappa, Adderley, Quincy Jones and others and was one of the seminal events in West Coast fusion.

Duke went on to collaborate with drummer Billy Cobham and bassist Stanley Clarke, and produced a string of albums of his own for Epic, Elektra and Warner Bros. His latest, "Is Love Enough?," features the kind of funk tunes he emphasizes in concert, along with vocal numbers with Rachelle Ferrell, Phil Perry, Dianne Reeves, Vesta Williams and others.

Duke also has a solid reputation as a producer of crossover and beat artists. To top it off, he is planning a national tour this fall to perform his "Muir Woods Suite" with symphony orchestras.

With all this on his plate, he still looks forward to working with the current generation of hip-hop artists. "There's a lot of negativity in the music today," he complained. "These guys could stand to gain something from me instrumentally. And it's a chance to learn from somebody who loves, rather than somebody who hates."

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