“Sir Thomas”: My Friend, Tommy LiPuma

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I’ve had a lot of dreams. Musical ones. I’ve always believed that much of what’s happened in my career are things that began with a dream. Sounds corny, but it’s very true. Dreams gave me something to strive for. I’ll give you an example of one.

As a kid, one thing I always loved about the ritual of playing records was reading the album jacket. There were stories inside the stories. I would stare at the photos on the front and back and wonder, “What are they thinking about in this photo?”, “Wow, it looks like they are JAMMING in this photo. Wonder what song they were playing?” After I would immerse myself into a photo, I’d move from that to the credits. My mom and I always paid close attention to who the musicians were, the studio, executive producer, producer, associate/assistant producer, engineer, assistant engineer, photographer, etc, etc. I often saw the same musicians on so many different albums – Joe Sample, Wilton Felder, Don Grolnick, Steve Gadd, Ron Carter, Eric Gale, Chuck Rainey, Bernard Purdie, David T. Walker, Richard Tee, Hilda Harris, Maretha Stewart, Paul Jackson, Jr., Phil Upchurch, Bob James, Jon Faddis, Cornell Dupree, David Sanborn, Michael & Randy Brecker, Will Lee, Buddy Williams, Hiram Bullock, Lew Soloff, Marcus Miller, Ralph MacDonald and so many more.

If you’re reading my blog, you’re most likely thinking that I’m talking about all the many jazz albums they played on. I’m not thinking about jazz albums at all! I’m thinking of all the many POP and FUNK albums they played on. From Stevie Wonder to Parliament/Funkadelic to Linda Ronstadt to Aretha Franklin, I didn’t understand how so many of these particular names wound up on so many records. I soon learned they were “session cats” or “studio rats” or “guns for hire”. The idea of being a “session cat” was so fascinating to me. How did that happen? Did you just become so awesome that every recording artist in the world just personally called you? Was there a union you had to join? Was there an audition process to being a “session cat”? I wanted to know badly! In the middle of all of my other dreams of playing with my many musical heroes, I also dreamed of becoming a “session cat”. It wasn’t a goal…..yet. I had to learn the rules first.

On most of the soul, pop & rock records I listened to, the producers ranged from Quincy Jones to Norman Whitfield to George Duke to Arif Mardin to Ted Templeman to Nile Rodgers to my hometown heroes, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. But it was ambiguous to me what producers did. I thought if you had Joe Sample, Eric Gale, Will Lee, Steve Gadd and Ralph MacDonald as your rhythm section, what in the world would you need a producer for? I clearly remember questioning a producer’s role after staring at and studying the credits of Quincy Jones’s album “Body Heat”. I must have been 8 or 9 years old. I asked my mother since it looked like Quincy didn’t sing or play an instrument, how could this be his record? My mom said, “Well, he produced it.” Confused, I asked, “Producers can make their own records? I thought you had to sing or at least play an instrument.” I somehow remember my mother saying something to the effect of, “Really GOOD producers make important contributions. The fact is, there aren’t that many really good producers. Just a bunch of guys sitting around with sunglasses trying to act like they know what they’re doing.” So maybe that meant GOOD producers knew how to make great musicians sound even better? It made more sense to me that a producer made artists who maybe weren’t so good sound better. But then it got even more confusing as I started to get into jazz and became aware of the high level of musicianship that style of music demands. I noticed every jazz label had an in-house producer – Blue Note had Alfred Lion, Riverside had Orrin Keepnews, Capitol had David Axelrod, and Columbia had Teo Macero, who produced the famously obstinate Miles Davis. I thought, “Wait…..jazz musicians need producers?? Jazz musicians don’t need anyone telling them if it sounds good or not!” Or maybe they did! I didn’t know.

One of my earliest experiences in a recording studio set a bad tone for me when it came to producers. In my junior year of high school, my dear friend, alto saxophonist Robert Landham, called me for a recording session. We were to lay down a track for a cabaret singer. The song was More (The Theme from Mondo Cane). The producer struck a humorous resemblance to Mr. T. He was a very large black man with a LOT of gold jewelry and the attitude to match. I remembered my mom’s sentiment concerning producers “….sitting around trying to act like they know what they’re doing.” I couldn’t help but think that this guy looked a bid odd producing a standard that Sinatra and others have recorded. Once we started to play, we didn’t get more than 8 bars in, and he comes shouting over the talkback mic, “No! No, fellas! That’s not it! Y’all not swingin’.” In an absolutely hilarious exchange, Robert would shout back, “You fat son-of-a-b***h, don’t interrupt us while we’re trying to learn the f***ing song!” WOW! Raphael (the producer – don’t remember his last name) said, “Do what I ask you to do, damn it!” I mean these two dudes were at each other’s throat for two hours! I was laughing most of the time. Is THIS the standard artist-producer relationship?

Miles Davis to me had always been sort of the “E.F. Hutton” of jazz: When he talked, people listened.  During my high school years, what musician had more machismo, more resistance to BS, more style, more hipness than Miles Davis? Reading interviews of his, it was obvious that he didn’t suffer fools. He unapologetically called things as he saw them. Because of that, I always wondered how Miles could work with a producer? How would Miles Davis, of all people, react to a producer saying, “That was ok, but let’s do it again. You were a bit out of tune on that take, Miles.” As if Miles Davis wouldn’t know if he was out of tune or not. I read many interviews where Miles had harsh words about Teo Macero, but he somehow still “respected” him. Huh??

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The first time I saw Miles perform live was in 1986. He was promoting his new album Tutu. I seem to remember Tutu was big news across the board – in jazz, pop and r&b. I was excited that Miles used Marcus Miller as one of his producers. I loved Marcus not only as a bass player, but I was also a fan of Marcus Miller, the producer – especially his work with Luther Vandross. The other producer of that record was Tommy LiPuma. His name was sort of familiar, but I couldn’t put a finger on it. I realized I didn’t have to look far. He was the producer of one of the biggest albums of my childhood, George Benson’s Breezin’. He was also the one of the producers of another album that was constantly in heavy rotation in the McBride household, Al Jarreau’s Look To The Rainbow. Yeah, this cat is the real deal.

There were two people who Miles made mention of in his autobiography that really surprised me – Frank Sinatra and…..Tommy LiPuma. I never knew that Sinatra was one of Miles’s influences. That was fun to discover. He made special mention of Tommy LiPuma as being a producer he liked working with because “he thought like a musician.” There’s no dap like Miles dap. When Miles says you’re cool, you’re forever cool. At that point, Tommy LiPuma became a major star in my book. (As if Al Jarreau and George Benson’s albums weren’t enough)

By 1993, I’d been living in New York City for four years and played on a number of recordings. Most of the recordings I played on were by musicians I was working with  – Roy Hargrove, Freddie Hubbard, Betty Carter, Benny Green, Wallace Roney and others. My session work was piling up quickly. Nothing compared to what Ray Brown and Ron Carter did over the course of generations, but for what was happening in MY generation, it was a lot. I felt like the dream of being a “session cat” was unfolding before my very eyes. But there was still one more level of session work I knew I still had yet to crack. I cracked it in early 1994.

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I believe it was the vocalist/contractor Jill Dell’Abate who called and asked if I was available for a David Sanborn session. Jill worked for Tommy LiPuma. I was beyond excited. I was also excited because David Sanborn was not someone who regularly used “young lions” like me on his records. Sanborn used bona-fide “session cats”. Jill told me it was an orchestral date and to bring both my acoustic and electric basses. I think she also asked if I was a member of Local 802, the musicians union. This sounded like that “next level” I’d been dreaming about. No one had ever asked me if I was in the union. Thankfully, I was. I suppose sessions like this were the reason why the late Bob Cranshaw urged me to join Local 802 AFM right after I moved to town. Jill informed me that the session would be at The Hit Factory on West 54th street and the downbeat would be at high noon. I had no idea what I was in for. None!

When I got to the Hit Factory around 11:30AM, I literally walked into a dream. There was David Sanborn warming up, orchestra players beginning to arrive with the great Johnny Mandel standing at the podium going through the scores, Steve Gadd fine tuning his drums, Don Grolnick taking off his coat and getting comfortable near the piano, Don Alias tuning his percussion instruments, and Bucky Pizzarelli setting up his guitar amp. I walked into the control room, and there was both Al Schmitt and Joe Ferla setting up things on the console, and there was the great Phil Ramone (who was just hanging out!) talking with the man, Tommy LiPuma. I almost cried. In one fell swoop, I was awarded entry into a whole lot of records I grew up on. Can you imagine ALL these industry legends and heavyweights in one room as a part of one session? I suppose that wasn’t so unusual at one point in time. Oh, and also, the special guests were Oleta Adams and Little Jimmy Scott. Overwhelming!

This was by all means a union session. I clearly remember the orchestra being firmly planted in place and ready to play by 11:55. When that clock hit 12:00:00, Johnny Mandel’s baton was up! I said to myself, “Damn!! Jill really meant 12:00, didn’t she?” I was just glad that I showed up on time! Punctuality has never been one of my strong points. When Johnny Mandel started up the orchestra, I noticed Tommy was still in the room with the musicians. He was wearing headphones seated comfortably in a chair next to the conductor’s podium. I thought all producers produced from the control room. Why was Tommy out in the room with the musicians? I’d never seen or heard of that. When we finally had a break, I think I asked Steve Gadd if Tommy always stayed in the room with the musicians. He said, “Yeah, that’s his thing. He likes to feel the true energy of the band.” What an amazing concept. He was so unobtrusive.

After three amazing days in the studio with David Sanborn, Tommy LiPuma, Al Schmitt, Johnny Mandel, Steve Gadd, Joe Ferla and so many other heroes, it hit me: I just did a record with all the “session cats.” Was I officially a “session cat” now? I thanked Mr. LiPuma and David for using me on this record, which was later titled Pearls. It really meant a lot.

Around the same time as this session, I made a new friend. My manager at the time, Mary Ann Topper, told me about this Canadian girl she was DYING for me to meet and play with. She told me that this girl had spent time studying with Ray Brown and Jimmy Rowles. Certainly my eyebrows went up then. Anyone who spent time with “Papa Ray” must be swingin’. Her name was Diana Krall. I don’t exactly remember how and when Diana and I finally met, but I know it was either right before or right after Sanborn’s session. She was suuuuch a sweetheart. Up to that point, Diana had hustled around Boston and New York doing any kind of gig she could find – playing piano and singing in hotel bars, restaurants, clubs, cruise ships, everything. She was in the rat race like everyone else. Diana and I hit it off instantly – especially once we started talking about Ray Brown. It was clear that we came from the same Oscar Peterson/Ray Brown/Herb Ellis/Monty Alexander/John Clayton/Jeff Hamilton House of Worship. Shortly after we met, Diana signed to GRP Records and asked if I would play on her new recording. She told me Lewis Nash would play drums (that’s always enough for me to say yes), Ray Brown and Stanley Turrentine would play on a few tracks and Tommy LiPuma would produce it. There he is again!

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I was so excited to work with my new friend Diana, and also to work with Tommy in a much more intimate setting. This time, we got to talk. I learned all about his history in the record business, his Cleveland upbringing, and his deep love for Cannonball Adderley. Hearing this former alto saxophonist-turned-legendary-record-producer talk about Cannonball was so much fun. These exchanges fueled my deep passion of talking to older musicians. I’ve always taken great pride in obtaining as much information as I can from the older cats. Every time Tommy talked, I listened. He was my new E.F. Hutton. Tommy’s personality, his infectious belly laugh, his genuine love of music and people really touched me. He instantly became one of my favorite people in the world. To say we hit it off would be a gross understatement.

In 1998, Tommy became the chairman of Verve Records. By then, we were close enough that I trusted him as a true friend and mentor. For much of the 90’s, I was Verve’s house bass player, as well as being a solo artist on the label. By the time Tommy took over Verve, the label was slowly but surely moving away from the straight-ahead sound, to a more adult contemporary sound. The Joe Henderson, Roy Hargrove, Abbey Lincoln, Betty Carter, Mark Whitfield era was clearly coming to an end. The Natalie Cole, Diana Krall, Al Jarreau, George Benson, David Sanborn era was about to begin. I could see the writing on the wall. My days as a solo artist on Verve were numbered.

I made what was to be my final album for Verve in early 2000. “Sci-Fi” was released to a moderate reception that September. Even though I had Dianne Reeves, Toots Thielemans and Herbie Hancock as guests, I knew that stylistically it didn’t fit the new Verve. My new manager, David Sholemson, told me that I would most likely soon be dropped from the label. I was cool with that as, like I said, the overall feel of the label had changed. He said that I would probably receive a letter from the label alerting me that they would not renew my contract. Instead of a letter, I got a phone call from Tommy.

In his career as a producer and label executive, I know this wasn’t the first time he had to tell someone they weren’t being re-signed, but I’d like to think that this call broke him up a bit. He so sweetly and kindly expressed to me that my contributions to Verve for the last decade were more than appreciated and I was one of the pillars of the label as a solo artist and a sideman, but the label was headed in a different direction. Here I was getting dropped from the label and I was the one feeling bad because it was my friend Tommy who had to make the call. He actually asked if I would be interested in making a recording more in the “Wes Montgomery A&M” style (aka Smooth Jazz). He knew I wasn’t really interested in that not only because that’s not where I was musically, but I knew that it would only prolong the inevitability of being dropped from the label. After we hung up the phone, go figure, I loved Tommy more than I already did. In fact, about a week later, he called and asked if I could play on a new Verve record he was producing for Natalie Cole. Of course I said yes. I told Tommy our relationship was iron-clad, and it was. Tommy was such a straight up, but empathetic (those two don’t usually go together) person, I couldn’t get upset in the least. I continued to be Tommy’s “go to” guy for his productions. I was always honored when he called.

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There were so many good times with Tommy and his alter ego, the legendary engineer, Al Schmitt. Just being around them was a thrill. I had a big 30th birthday party at the now-defunct Lower East Side hallmark, Tonic. Tommy and Al showed up with two cases of wine EACH! I already had about three cases of wine at the party! As I told Tommy, it took me about seven years to get through all that wine! That man was ALWAYS fun to be around.

When I became the co-director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem in 2004, I asked Tommy if he’d be interested in joining the board. He said yes. It felt great to have a new business relationship with him. One of the programs that I helped to institute at the museum, along with Greg Thomas and Loren Schoenberg, was a monthly series called Harlem Speaks, a one-on-one interview series. I asked Tommy if he would be one of my guests. I couldn’t wait to officially interview him. One of the things that comes with being a successful producer, is the unenviable daily task of receiving hundreds of demo CDs in the mail. Everyone hopes they can catch that magic from a famous producer and become a star. I asked Tommy during the interview how he dealt with this. He said that he almost never listened to demos, because certainly in the modern era, anybody could sound good on a studio demo. He said he’d much rather hear an artist perform live so he could see and hear the real deal. You can’t fake on a gig. Makes perfect sense, right? Well, after the interview, Tommy got straight bum rushed by about 30 singers with CDs, anyway. One even sang for him a cappella right there in the room. Tommy graciously listened, gave a kind compliment (“Sounds great, babe!”), took some of the CDs and I walked him to his awaiting car. He was always such a sport.

Tommy was also a frequent supporter of the organization my wife Melissa and I started, Jazz House Kids. Graciousness was Tommy’s hallmark.

My friend Harry Weinger, another great producer and instructor at NYU, told me when Tommy gave a masterclass at NYU in 2015, the question was asked, “Where do you start when you’re making a record?” Tommy replied, “All my sessions start with a call to Christian McBride. I build my bands around him.” I must have cried for days when I heard that.

I’ve worked with a lot of great producers, but Tommy had so much heart, empathy, information and passion to touch people emotionally. Tommy is also the only man other than my own father to always kiss me on the lips.

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Last year, the Tri-C Jazz Festival in Cleveland threw a star-studded 80th birthday celebration for Tommy at the Palace Theater. I was asked to be the host. I can’t begin to tell you how badly I wanted to do the best job I’ve ever done as a host. Everybody showed up – Dr. John, Leon Russell, Diana, Al Jarreau, The Clayton-Hamilton Big Band…. it was a major event. I even wore my “Tommy LiPuma glasses” in his honor.

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From 1994 until his final session in December – Diana Krall’s Turn Up The Quiet – I got to play on many recordings with some great artists with that unmistakable LiPuma touch: Diana Krall, Natalie Cole, Joe Sample, Willie Nelson, Paul McCartney, Al Jarreau, George Benson, David Sanborn, Queen Latifah, Michael Buble’, Linda Ronstadt, Randy Crawford and so many more. Through these sessions, I made a lot of friends which led to even bigger opportunities in many cases. But more importantly, one of my dreams came true…..I was officially a “session cat”. And….I can say I knew and loved Tommy LiPuma.

Sir Thomas, I love you forever. Rest well, my main man.

Christian

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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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