How George Duke Changed My Life

Well, the title may be a bit dramatic to taste, but this represents the power of art.  Sometimes it is simply a matter of influence.

When I was just a grade school student I was introduced to jazz and reggae via my brother who to a large extent was influenced by our big sister’s high school and college boyfriend.  Why a high schooler in Memphis was so into this music I do not know, but I do know that when I heard it, I loved it.  From then until now I am (obviously) a huge fan of both genres and perform both on a very regular basis.

So, why George Duke when there are an endless number of amazing artists within both types of music?

Quick story:  Being the youngest sibling in the house, I was a little ahead of my time.  Not in some arrogant, ‘I was all that’ kind of way, it’s just that I was exposed to some things pretty early.  I would read my brother’s Ebony Man magazines and my sister’s college sex-ed textbooks – and of course listen to their music.  Once our mom caught me listening to (and singing) Prince’s Darling Nikki and was bit upset to say the least.  I had no idea what I was saying.  My dad had several albums and tapes by Miles Davis, Grover Washington, Jr., Chick Corea, and so on.  My mom liked classical – Canon in D was her favorite.  Aside from these, I strongly remember funk and soul (Peabo Bryson, Al Green, EWF, Parliament, etc.)

In middle school I began sneaking my brothers’s cassette tapes while he was at work or basketball practice, no doubt, and learning about the newer players in jazz – The Marsalis Brothers and Terrence Blanchard among others.  I had no idea of the context or history of the music, but I couldn’t get enough.

So all in all, I began to look at soulful, jazzy, even sultry music in a different way – or perhaps exactly how it was meant to be seen.  Honestly, it set the stage for a series of awkward times and even failed relationships, due to my boredom in the fact that I wanted to do grown folks stuff before I could even drive, work, or otherwise.  I don’t mean sexual things, but I just wanted to live a deeper life perhaps a little too early for most.  I wanted to take strolls downtown and talk about jazz and Africa and at 11 and 12, that can be a little lonely.  So, on one end I began to conform to things that my friends liked and on the other I turned to listening to music in private as a refuge.  Over time this sustained me through many moments of sadness and pain.  It made me into a melancholy young man, but I was happy.  And so began my own little dual identity.

I was introduced to George Duke’s music right before college.  By the time I actually left Memphis to attend Jackson State University, I was hooked. When No Rhyme, No Reason came out, I was in no position or age to be able to relate to the content in the song, but for some strange reason, I would sing that song like I had been through a marriage already!  I hit deep.  Deep enough to help me understand that relationships are not always so black and white.  They can be immensely complicated.  And so from then on, I was a fanatic of anything George Duke or his band or affiliates (such as Rachelle Ferrell) had to offer.

In the spring of 1994, I bought tickets to see the Duke and company at the Memphis Cook Convention Center.  I borrowed my Dad’s car, put on a suit, picked up my date and took my 19 year old self to the show.  I probably had no more than $7 in my pocket (praying she wouldn’t be hungry), but I was looking good smelling good and feeling nice and grown.  We were probably the youngest couple in the building (my date was only 17).  We were sitting pretty far up, but I remember taking in the experience with so much love and admiration for a musician that, even then, was changing my life – key-tar and all.  It felt like heaven.  My date was beautiful and the music was amazing.  Every act from George Benson, to Will Downing, to Rachelle Ferrell, to the late great Duke himself gave me chills (seriously).

I have loved all of their music ever since and after his transitioning two years ago, I have felt compelled to honor the man, the musician, and one of my heroes, George Duke – mission accomplished.  To my beloved ancestor – thank you for the journey.

Also check out the After Hours album.  Beginning to end, that is one nice collection.

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