How I Got My Wings


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I’ve been fortunate.

When I think of all of the great musicians who really took me under their wing and raised me and embraced me, I think of a lot of people. People like Ray Brown, Betty Carter, Freddie Hubbard, Roy Haynes, Chick Corea, Billy Higgins, James Williams, Mulgrew Miller, Wynton Marsalis, Benny Green, Wallace Roney and James Brown. Needless to say, there are many, many more, but I’m saving that for the autobiography. :-)

It shatters my heart having had to say goodbye to so many loved ones over the last couple of years – Tony Reedus, James Williams, Freddie Hubbard, my grandmother, my grandfather, my uncle Butch, my childhood running buddy, John Day, Mulgrew Miller, Cedar Walton, and now my “pops”, George Duke.

There’s so much I want to say about George Duke. George was first a hero from afar, then my producer, then my frequent employer, then one of my closest friends and mentors, then my adopted “dad”, then coming full circle being an even bigger hero than ever. This man never stopped being a musical giant to me, but after a certain period, he always made me feel like he was my friend first.

So many of my greatest memories of George were related to music – him producing my third CD, “A Family Affair”, making my first appearance on one of his CD’s (After Hours), getting my first call to play with the George Duke Band playing electric bass, auxiliary keyboards and background singing (I so wish social media existed then!) playing with him on the first domestic performance of his “Muir Woods Suite”, playing with him on many Montreux Jazz Festival “Jams”, playing with him once in LA when the original George Duke Band – Sheila E., Byron Miller and Leon Ndugu Chancler – came and bum rushed the stage, having him sit in with my band on numerous occasions, sharing the stage with him on keyboards, Stevie Wonder on Rhodes and Herbie Hancock on piano, and playing on George’s final two productions – Jeffrey Osborne’s “A Time For Love” and his own final CD release, “Dreamweaver”.

But there’s one particular gift George gave me of which my appreciation and disbelief cannot possibly be expressed: In 2011, George wrote a bass concerto for me entitled, “Concerto For McB” which was performed at UCLA with the Symphonic Jazz Orchestra. George explained that he wanted my “full arsenal” on display in this piece – acoustic bass (pizzicato and arco), fretless electric bass, and fretted electric bass. Until this very day, it doesn’t feel right saying “George Duke wrote a bass concerto for me.” I don’t know that it ever will sound right. Just sounds too heavy, you know?

There were times when George would ask me to come and lay down electric bass tracks for him and I would feel so terribly inadequate, as he’d played with the best electric bassists in the world. He could just totally read my face which said, “Pop, are you sure you want me for this? You flew me all the way from New York to give you this?” I hadn’t said one word, and he would say, “Come on now, you one of the funkiest bass players on the planet. Hell, you played with James Brown!!!!” My confidence was boosted. That was George.

Even with all of that, my absolute greatest memories of George had nothing to do with music. I remember when I went to LA to record with him on his “After Hours” CD. I told him about a small, dingy hole-in-the-wall in a strip mall at the intersection of Franklin and Highland that served some mean Philly Chessesteaks. He never had one. He said, “All these years, I never had a Philly Cheesesteak. Would you hook me up?” It was my honor to serve George Duke his first ever Philly Cheesesteak. He was hooked! I even took a picture of him taking his first bite! For the next 14 years, I always got him a Chessesteak when I went to his house.

My other favorite George story of all time also involves his beloved, late wife Corine. (Don’t worry, my wife Melissa knows this story, so it’s no secret.)

When we were in the studio recording my “A Family Affair” CD, we started talking about boyhood crushes. I mentioned to George that I had a big crush on Freda Payne. He laughed and said, “No kidding? Corine is tight with Freda and her sister, Scherrie.” I said, “Stop playing! For real?” “Yep, I’ll see if Corine can bring her by the studio.” So, my “A Family Affair” CD  was recorded in anticipation of meeting Freda Payne. Corine couldn’t get her to come by the session, but she put the word in.

Three years later….

We’re playing at Catalina’s Bar & Grill in Hollywood with George’s band. By this time, I’d completely forgotten about our conversation on boyhood crushes. As we’re backstage getting ready for the first set, Corine comes in and says, “Christian, I have a surprise for you.” Clueless, I say, “Really, Corine? That’s so sweet of you.” I thought she was bringing me a sweet potato pie or something. She says, “You can’t have it until after the set, though.” George apparently knew the whole time. So we get through the set, Corine comes back to the dressing room and says, “You ready for your surprise?” She grabs me by the hand and leads me over to…..

Freda Payne! :-)

For a few short moments, I forgot how to speak English. George is laughing like a hyena! Freda was so kind and sweet. I sat at the table with Freda, her sister, Scherrie, Corine and George. I was silent as a mouse. What do I say to my longtime crush? I don’t remember what I said. All I know is, about a week later as we were recording George’s CD “Face The Music”, I went on my first lunch date with Freda Payne. Twelve years later, Freda and I are still friends. (Yes, Melissa knows!!)

Another thing George and I shared a passion for was sports. George was all about the purple and gold. In NBA speak, the “purple and gold” means the Los Angeles Lakers. George was the biggest Lakers fan IN THE WORLD! The 2001 NBA Finals pitted his Lakers against my beloved Philadelphia 76ers. If you remember, my underdog Sixers actually won the first game in LA. Since George was always busting my chops about the 76ers, I called him immediately after the game. Corine told me he wasn’t in town, but she gave me his hotel number in Nashville. I called George at his hotel and he was so humored that I’d go all the way to track him down on the road just to say, “Uh huh! NOW WHAT??” We laughed for what seemed like an hour. Unfortunately, all that win did was make Shaq and Kobe mad as they easily manhandled my 76ers for the next four games to win the championship. I knew George would return the favor. The day after they won, he left me a voicemail. “Pick up! Pick up! Oh, you ain’t talking all that mess now, are you? Pick up! I’m going to keep calling ‘til you pick up!”

Other than the Lakers, George’s favorite sport was football and the Oakland Raiders. He bled silver and black. At end of the 2001-02 NFL regular season, my Philadelphia Eagles and his Oakland Raiders were primed for a head-on collision in the Super Bowl. Except my damn Eagles yet again blew it in the NFC Championship game. This time, to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. As it turned out, I was going to be in LA with a night off during the Super Bowl. George and I had made plans two weeks before the game to have an Eagles-Raiders Super Bowl hang at his house. Except, now it was a Buccaneers-Raiders Super Bowl hang. He tried not to laugh at my pain, but he couldn’t help but say, “Come on in and sit down, Eagles….I mean, um, Christian.” LOL! George invited me upstairs into his lounge. It was my first time actually in his house. All the other times, we worked endless hours on music downstairs in his studio. For the next four hours, we sat there – just the two of us – hanging, talking, bonding and watching the Super Bowl. Corine made some pasta for us. George would tease Corine, “Corine! Come on in and watch the game!” Corine would say in all her sassiness, “You know I don’t wanna watch no doggone football game. You guys have fun. I’m going out!” I really felt like I was part of their family. After she left us with the pasta, the wine and the game, George and I sat there and talked about everything – except music. When I left, I felt like I’d just been adopted. I now had a new “second” dad. Not to mention, just six months before, I’d lost the man who was my first “second” dad, Ray Brown. Other than George, he was the only person I’d ever had that kind of hang time with. George picked up Ray’s torch.

(By the way, the Raiders lost….badly! :-))

It really seemed like the family circle was complete when I got to hang out with their son, Rashid, who’s a year or two younger than me. Turns out, he’s a big Madden player. Many subsequent visits saw Rashid and I in George’s lounge playing Madden on PlayStation. This was truly a family affair. Rashid and I have vowed to continue this tradition.

Billy Cobham once described George as someone who could turn any strange energy into positive energy. This is so tremendously accurate. However, as a human being, of course he had to get upset, sad, confused, and experience every other emotion all humans have, but most people rarely saw his down side. I saw it only once. It was memorable.

There was one session I played on where George produced and played piano for a particular vocalist. To all of us, the session was going pretty smoothly. Apparently, the vocalist didn’t think so. During one of the rehearsal takes, said vocalist stops the band and says in a real nasty sort of way, “What’s the problem, huh? How come y’all can’t find the groove? What, y’all need some food or something? I mean, we can take a break if that’s what it’s going to take to make this sound good.” We were dumfounded. We hadn’t experienced any problems all day, then this? I immediately looked at George to follow his lead. His jaws were tight. He was not happy. Do you know how HARD it is to make George Duke upset? George calmly, but clearly agitated, says, “Let’s run it one more time.” We ran through the song one more time, then George says, “Fellas, take a ten minute break.” He then turns to said vocalist and says, “Can I see you a minute?”

Uh oh.

They went into a corner, and all I could see was George with his arms folded gently, giving this person the “quiet read”. The message seems to come across much more powerfully when someone expresses their agitation softly and calmly. All that classic hollering and screaming usually escalates the situation to unhealthy levels. Said vocalist looked like a burnt potato after George quietly, but succinctly put said vocalist’s ego in check. George went past the control room and went upstairs to the house for a breather. I followed him. I said, “Pop, you ok?” He said, “I told (said vocalist) not to EVER speak to me and my guys like that again. We are professional musicians who’ve played with the best in the business, and I don’t appreciate that tone of voice directed at me or my guys.” To see George upset bothered me so much, I wanted to go down and go “Philly” on said vocalist. No one hurts my family. George was my family. Needless to say, after that quick five-minute breather, George immediately went back to being fuzzy again and it was as if the incident never happened.

When I played with and produced one of James Brown’s final shows at the Hollywood Bowl in 2006, George and Corine were there in support. After the gig, they were pretty much the first ones backstage in my dressing room. They gave me a huge hug and said, ‘Congratulations. You did an amazing job.” Anytime, and I mean anytime I played with my band in LA, they were always there. George was the most supportive “dad” I could have had.

At the beginning of 2012, Corine started to have some health issues. I didn’t know how serious they were. George, of course, being the supremely positive soul he always was, didn’t tip his hand once. When it finally got to the point where it was getting severe, he still remained positive. She was in and out of the hospital during the making of Jeffrey Osborne’s recording “A Time For Love”. I had no idea how he could concentrate while he was dealing with Corine’s illness. I was trying so hard to penetrate his eyes during the session, but the gate was up. I couldn’t read him.

His beloved Corine passed away from stomach cancer just one month after we completed Jeffrey’s recording on July 18th. We were all devastated by Corine’s death. Many of us in George’s musical family never got a chance to say goodbye. All of us who loved George and Rashid were worried about the two of them, but we ultimately knew they would totally lean on each other for love and support. George, as expected, did an amazing job masking his hurt and went right back to business with a smile.

However, it seemed that George’s hidden pain was beginning to manifest itself in another way before our very eyes.

George started to lose weight. In fact, George’s shoulders had gotten a little smaller by the time we started working on Jeffrey’s session. I wasn’t alarmed, though. I just thought he was stressed and not eating much. But his weight loss continued slowly, but surely. We played together for the last time in October in Newark for Jazz House Kids’ 10th anniversary gala. He was the same old pops –  happy and fuzzy. When the seating charts were being put together for the post-concert reception, I had one order – put me next to my pops. So many of my heroes and friends were so kind in joining us that night – Wayne Shorter, Angelique Kidjo, S. Epatha Merkerson, Pat Metheny, Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley and more, but I had to be next to George. In fact, Melissa almost asked George and I to leave the reception while all the speeches and testimonials were going on because, as she says, we were “cuttin’ up too much” at the table! She said, “You two were worse than two girls sitting there laughing, giggling and gossiping!” Yes, that was my pops.

As 2013 came around, I called him and he told me something that didn’t sit well with me. He told me that doctors had diagnosed him with some low-level version of “something like leukemia.” Before I could react, he shouted, “But don’t worry!! It’s like leukemia, but it’s not leukemia. I just have to get this procedure done once a week.” I was scared. I kept saying, “Pops, don’t lie to me. Are you sure you’re cool?” He assured me firmly that it was “nothing to worry about.” I spent most of the first half of this year on the road with the Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour. Throughout the tour, I would check in with pop via e-mail and calls. Even in his e-mails, he was personable. You could always hear his voice through his e-mails. When I finally called him towards the end of the tour, he said something to me that really didn’t sit well. I said, “How you doing, pop?” He said, “Aw, man, I’m cool. Everything’s mellow.” As we talked for several minutes, he said, “Oh, by the way, you won’t recognize me when you see me.” What????  He said, “I shaved my head.” I said, “Alright pop, enough. What are you talking about? Why’d you do that?” He gave me some cockamamie story of “Well, you know I was gong bald anyway, so I just decided to shave it off.” I so didn’t believe him, but he just wouldn’t fess up at all.

During my summer tour with Chick Corea, I e-mailed him often. He responded with short one-liners. That was very unlike pops. As I said, even his e-mails were personable. I called him, but he never answered. I called Rashid, but he never answered. Worried, I just came out and asked him in an e-mail, “Pops, what’s up with your health?” He finally wrote me back, “I’m a little messed up right now. I’m in the hospital, but I’ll be out in a little bit. I’ll tell you about it.” I wrote him back, “Pops, I know you too well to let that slide. Please tell me what’s wrong.” I never heard from him again.

Extremely worried, I called my other dear friend, and George’s cousin, Dianne Reeves. If anyone would know the real deal, it would be Dianne. I told her about my e-mail exchange with George, and she sent me a text that said, “Call me back. We need to talk.”

I braced for the worse.

Dianne told me that George made her swear to secrecy that he’d been in the hospital for almost a month. His “something like leukemia” had gotten aggressive and was taking a devastating toll on his body. She said she wasn’t sure how much time George had left, but “if he said to you what he said in the e-mail, he must want you to know.”

I was silent.

Just over a week later on August 5th, 2013, we lost yet another hero, my “pops”, George Duke.

When I first worked with George in 1998, he said to me, “You know those jazz writers and a lot of your ‘straight-ahead’ contemporaries aren’t going to like you working with me. You already know what they’re going to say – I watered you down. I made you go smooth. I tried to make you go commercial…”

Did he, folks?

In 1998, I was known all across jazzland as the heir apparent to Ray Brown. I was cast as a “neo-classicist, young lion, Ray Brown protégé’.” “Keeper of the straight-ahead jazz tradition”. Yes, I was that. But only part of me was that. I realized even then that on a larger scale, roles needed to be filled – regardless of who you are as an artist. It seemed like the jazz press collectively agreed that I was the perfect fit in the drawer of “straight-ahead, up-and-coming young bassist”. The 90’s version of Paul Chambers, so to speak. The 90’s version of the Blue Note, Prestige, Riverside session bassist. I didn’t have that much of a problem with it. What jazz musician in their 20’s would ever mind getting calls from jazz legends? That’s what I wanted. That’s what I worked hard to get. The only problem was anytime I talked about funk, fusion, classical or country, I was never taken seriously. It was always, “Well, that’s nice that you like that stuff…too, but let’s get back to talking about bebop – the music that you really know about.”

George was the first person to look straight through me and challenged me to be who I really was. George told me many, many times how proud he was of my keeping the straight-ahead tradition going, and to always do that, but as a 25-year old from Philly who was not a funk fan, but a funk player who was thrust into this role of “keeper of the flame”, he said, “You got some funk in you that needs to come out.” He knew that as a musician, I wasn’t consciously avoiding the electric bass, but I was doing what I needed to do at that time. He sensed that something needed to be released. “Don’t worry about what anyone will say. If you listen to them, you’ll never be happy with yourself or your music. If you’re ready to get funky, let’s get funky.” I got funky.

Because of George, I was awarded entry into another world. I got to meet and play with people like Jeffrey Osborne, Regina Belle, Vesta, Will Downing, Jonathan Butler, Rachelle Ferrell, Sheila E., Ndugu Chancler, Robert Wilson, Siedah Garrett, Take 6 and others. These artists are a big part of the foundation of the music of my community. And for that, I will always thank George for giving me wings to fly in a musical world of which he helped to expand.

In closing, in 2001, I played my second gig with George’s band at Catalina’s in LA. On the final night, it was a straight-up PARTAY!! Sheila E. came, Ndugu came, Byron Miller came, even comedy legend Paul Mooney came. They all jumped onstage (except Paul Mooney) and we did “Reach For It” and “Dukey Stick”. Those two songs alone took about 40 minutes. The audience was going nuts! They kicked the chairs over and started dancing in the aisles. It turned into an arena show. After all the jumping around onstage and sweating and dancing and shouting and loud amps blaring, we ended the jam. People were hollering and screaming and slapping each other “fives” and everything. When the lights came up in the audience, who did I see sitting dead-center?

Ray Brown.

My first reaction was “(Gulp)….awwww, s**t. Ray’s not going to dig this AT ALL. He is not going to like seeing his young protégé up on stage dancing around with an electric bass talking about ‘dropping you off into some FUNK!’” I walked over to Ray and his wife, Cecilia, and he stood up and said after a long pause, “Damn, that was FUNKY!!! I always knew you could do that stuff.”

George Duke had, literally, connected my worlds together. It came full circle. He became a bigger hero than before.

Take a look at the video below. When George says what he says at 11:05 in the video, it makes me glad to know that we were on the same page. :-)

Thank you, Pop. I love you.

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