George Duke gets ‘Mellow’ for album 

Calling singer, songwriter, keyboardist and producer George Duke simply a jazz artist doesn’t begin to scratch the surface. His latest album, "In a Mellow Tone," is proof. The CD includes everything from jazz standards and pop to R&B, including a remake of "Sweet Baby," his 1981 hit ballad with Stanley Clarke.

Born in San Rafael and raised in Marin, Duke’s musical well runs deep. In the 1970s, he was a fixture throughout the Bay Area, playing keyboard with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. He later joined rock satirist Frank Zappa, then decided to funk things up by collaborating with drummer Billy Cobham and bass virtuoso Clarke.

He gigged regularly in San Francisco, and worldwide, with jazz men from Les McCann and Dexter Gordon to Sonny Rollins, Cal Tjader and Al Jarreau. Duke and Jarreau formed a group which became the house band at San Francisco’s Half Note Club.

"I travel all over the country and the world but I love coming back home to the Bay Area," said Duke, who appears with his quartet Wednesday through Feb. 25 at Yoshi’s in Oakland.

"I have such great memories here," he said during a recent phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. "The Bay Area is really where it all began for me."

In 1967, Duke attended the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where he majored in trombone and composition with a minor in contrabass. He received his master’s degree in composition from San Francisco State University.

The 60-year-old artist — who is celebrating 40 years in the industry — doesn’t take his longevity in the business for granted. He credits his success to the people he’s worked with over the years.

"I owe a lot to my mentors, people like Frank Zappa and the late Miles Davis," says Duke, who calls Duke Ellington and saxophonist Julian "Cannonball" Adderley his biggest musical influences: "They laid the seeds to make me find my own way."

He recalls his mother taking him to see Ellington when he was a kid. "All I can really remember is Ellington’s piano playing," Duke says. "After the show all I could say to my mother over and over again was get me a piano! I want a piano!

Adderley opened up his musical world, exposing him to Nancy Wilson and Brazilian music. He says the biggest lesson he learned from him, though, was to embrace being funny and to have fun performing his music.

Producing and writing songs for diverse musicians from Jeffrey Osborne and Phil Perry to Anita Baker and his cousin Dianne Reeves has also expanded his musical horizon.

"I don’t like being predictable. I think my fans are always surprised when I come out with new music. My last album ‘Duke’ was a more commercial R&B album. ‘In a Mellow Tone’ has more traditional jazz standards. It pays homage to those jazz legends that had such a tremendous impact on my life. They keep me sharp and in tune."

George Duke Quartet

Where: Yoshi’s at Jack London Square, 510 Embarcadero West, Oakland

When:8 and 10 p.m. Wednesday through Feb. 24; 7 and 9 p.m. Feb. 25

Tickets: $22 to $26

Contact: (510) 238-9200 or

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Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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