Jazz musician and producer GEORGE DUKE was born in San Rafael on January 12, 1946 at Cottage Hospital, grew up in Marin City, and graduated from Tam High in 1963.
Huey Lewis, among many other well-known Marin musicians, refers to Duke as “The Man” when asked to name the most talented musicians to come from Marin.
DUKE: Huey! That’s funny (laughs). That’s a real compliment coming from Huey. I don’t know him well but of course I’m familiar with him. Huey’s The Man as far as I’m concerned.
JASON: What are your memories of growing up in Marin?
DUKE: I was all over the northern Bay Area during this time, hanging out in Sausalito and growing up in Marin City. I went to Tamalpais High School and started all of my initial bands there.
I played at a place called Zack’s by the Bay in Sausalito.
I was in high school at the time and was actually too young to be (at Zack’s) because, at a certain hour, the whole place turned into a bar. The kids from my school would come by and say “Well HE’S in there, how come I can’t get in???” I grew this moustache — same one I’ve got now — to try and look older but eventually, two weeks later, I got fired because I was too young to be in there.
I had a band called The Jazz Co-op when I was about 15 years old. We played some Tamalpais High School dances and football dances and little dances and make $15 for the entire band — and there must have been seven or eight of us. Three sets, I might add! So there wasn’t a lot of money in it. Of course, we only knew about six or seven songs.
JASON: What kind of songs? Were they original or covers?
DUKE: We played some originals but mostly we played covers. It was kind of a Latin Jazz band like Cal Tjader. Nathaniel Johnson was our bass player and he still lives in the area. We had a guy named Al Pimetel who was from Sausalito but he lives in France or somewhere like that now. That was the original trio.
JASON: What years were you at Tam?
DUKE: ’59 through ’63. Whoo God! That’s even hard to SAY! Jesus!!!
JASON: What did the students think of Jazz at the time?
DUKE: I think they dug it. I used to play all the rallies so when I went to Tamalpais High School for those 4 years I became totally infused in anything involved with music. I studied with the orchestra, I was with the band with Bob Greenwood, who has since retired.
JASON: He was the music teacher?
DUKE: Yeah, Robert Greenwood was incredible. He’s still alive and living in the area. I keep in contact with him. Bob was an amazing teacher and very influential in who I am today, absolutely. He had a very strong music program. I used to play all the rallies so the kids, they kinda got into me because I was like the class musician. So I used to play all kinds of stuff. It was great..
JASON: What are your memories of Marin City?
DUKE: I have a lot of memories. As a matter of fact, I actually wrote a song called “Marin City” which is on an album of mine called “Cool”. It describes my feelings about Marin City. It’s kind of a funky song but the lyrics are all true, it’s kinda personal because it tells some personal family stuff, but at the same time it lets everybody knows what was going on in the area. Marin City was, as you know, a WWII housing area where all the blacks and anybody of color basically had to stay. And it was basically temporary housing and it would end up being permanent housing. It was nothing like it is today. I was there a couple of months ago and said, “THIS is Marin City????” It’s so different than when I was there. The main thing about Marin City that was great was that it was a FAMILY. My mom would go to work and I’d be playing across the other side of town and I could get whipped by somebody else’s mother while I was away and then get whipped when I came home for doing something wrong. I mean the community was that close because most of the people were immigrants from the South and so it was a very interesting place. You know that saying, “It takes a village to raise a child”? It really was kind of like that (in Marin City) and there was a lot of good stuff about Marin City that I didn’t know at the time. In hindsight and looking back at it, man, that was a great place to grow up just in terms of values.
JASON: What was your family’s connection with Marinship and the shipbuilding?
DUKE: The reason that my dad left Texas to come to the Bay Area was because the shipyard was here and they were building parts and ships for the war. So my dad worked in the shipyards and my mom was a school teacher and she taught at Marin City Elementary.
JASON: How is Marin City different today?
DUKE: It’s more integrated… For one thing it was kind of like the bastard city of the area. But in the final analysis it was in a prime location overlooking the water. I think finally someone figured that out and said, ‘We need to build some houses up here and we could make a lot of money!’ even though it was government land. When I was very young, there was no pavement. There were dirt roads. There was a bus station that was right in the front of the entrance of Marin City. You’d go in there and there was a pool hall and a little center where they’d have a market and a place where you could buy liquor and a place to get your hair cut, stuff like that. They used to call it “The Front”. We used to live where we’d call “The Flats”. It was a little porch and about four or five houses with kerosene heaters which used to leak all over — it was just crazy. And I lived in there for many many years until eventually they built some other houses on the hill which were still not the houses you see now. They were like butt-ended into each other. Eventually they built the projects — which are still there I just noticed — and they don’t look like projects anymore to me. When I was there, we thought they were the savior of the world. We thought, “Oh my God, The Projects!!!” I remember I lived at 59 Cole Drive and when I was in high school. It’s where I learned all my music because I had a cousin who taught at the SF Conservatory of Music and played with the SF Symphony. He’d come over every Sunday afternoon, my mom would cook, and I would play piano and he’d play bass until way into the evening.
JASON: Marin has a reputation for being a liberal open-minded place. What was it like being black in Marin County growing up?
DUKE: Well, it certainly wasn’t like the South. If anything I would say that there might have been some things that were ‘under-cover’ so to speak — you know, kind of hidden prejudices, no doubt about it there was that. But at the same time there were a lot of good people there, I mean a lot of good people that were really liberal and could see that this was really not the way this country is supposed to go and there should be equal opportunity for all. So there were a lot of people fortunately who felt that way and I think there were more of them than the other way. For me, I never experienced any type of serious prejudice until I went down south as a young kid and I really saw it first hand. I could see the stares and of course I was around during the whole Martin Luther King thing and all of that . But when you’re living in a place like Marin City which was 99.9% black — there might have been a few Mexicans and there were a few white families because I lived across from one — but it was kind of like a family and we all stuck together because there was no other way.
JASON: How integrated was Tam High School?
DUKE: Pretty integrated. All the kids who lived in Marin City had to go to Tam. There was no other high school. You weren’t going to go to San Rafael. You weren’t going to go to Fairfax, unless you moved up there. Of course, there were very few blacks who lived outside of Marin City. At a certain point when I started going to high school things began to change. We’re talking about the late 50s and 60s. I mean, blacks began to move to other areas. I know many people moved to Sausalito and some people moved to Mill Valley. A few moved to San Rafael but there are more (blacks) living in San Rafael now than used to. Of course, more whites and others moved into Marin City because it became a whole different kind of place.
JASON: There are some really nice condos up in the hills of Marin City.
DUKE: Upper Marin City, yeah. I used to walk those hills. I used to deliver the Sun Reporter. 10 cents a paper. That’s how I got my exercise — walking up those hills and selling those papers. I remember very well walking up those hills! (laughs)
JASON: Did you go out to watch other musicians while growing up in Marin?
DUKE: Oh absolutely. I was involved with most of the local musicians I could find. I found out who they were and tried to get involved with playing with them. I would mostly go to The Trident which has a different name now.
DUKE: Yeah, I used to see EVERYBODY at The Trident. I mean, I saw Sergio Mendez, Bill Evans, John Hendricks, there were so many Jazz acts that I saw come through there with a guy named Lou Ganapoler who kind of booked the room. It was amazing! The whole Bay Area during the late fifties and sixties was an amazing place for music — period. Whether it be Marin County, San Francisco, the Bay Area was amazing for music of different genres and everybody kinda living together. It was a great environment, man.
JASON: Do you have any anecdotes from your old Trident days?
DUKE: After they were done serving dinner it was a wonderful place to listen to music. It was beautiful, right off the water. In terms of anecdotes, I was so busy listening to whomever I could, trying to soak all this music in, that I didn’t have time to know what was going on other than the music. The main thing was that Lou Ganapoler brought in class acts — really good music. He used to tell me from time to time, “You should come in to see this group, Brazil ’65, I think you’ll like it.” And I’d say, “Who’s Brazil ’65???” Or some guy named Sergie, Sergio, I couldn’t even pronounce the name. (It was) Sergio Mendes!!!! Of course, Sergio Mendes and I went onto become friends and blah blah blah but that was my first exposure to Brazilian music and, of course, now it has had a HUGE influence on me. In fact, I have a song called “Sausalito” on an album called “Duke”. I’ve written several songs over the years about my experiences in the area. “Sausalito” exactly describes what Sausalito means to me. So I have two (songs that describe my Marin memories) — “Sausalito” and “Marin City”. “Sausalito” has kind of a Brazilian vibe because Sausalito has always reminded me of a strange kind of Brazil, a sleepy little town.
JASON: What are your thoughts about other well-known musicians who came from Marin back then?
DUKE: I went to school with The Sons of Champlin. They were older than me but they made it. Bill Champlin is STILL doing it!!!! He’s been with Chicago forever. He’s a great singer and we co-wrote a song together. Of course, people like Tupac were younger than me so I was gone when he made it. There were so many that made it — from Santana, Country Joe and the Fish, whoever. I mean, because of what Bill Graham did in San Francisco you could see pretty much anybody from any genre of music all in one show. That’s what was so great about that area. You had Latin, Jazz, Pop, Country, everything, all kind of co-surviving. And it was a wonderful place and that’s how that music became fused — especially with Jazz fusion. And a lot of that has to do with Bill Graham, I think. He was an amazing cat. I played at his Fillmore several times with Frank Zappa and with my own band at the old Fillmore. Every time you came to the area Bill Graham was the promoter and that’s who you were there with.
JASON: What were your feelings about the Marin psychedelic groups like Big Brother? Was that kind of music of any interest to you?
DUKE: Yeah, to tell you the truth! When I was going to school at the SF Conservatory of Music I used to go down to see whoever I could see. Like I said, the whole music scene was so fused then. If I went down to the Fillmore I could see any kind of psychedelic group with along with some Jazz. and I thought, “This might be a good idea to combine with Jazz.” So it started my thought process of “Is this possible? What would it sound like?” There were a lot of new genres that came out of that. I truly believe that when all these musicians from different genres came together (in the Bay Area at the time), experiencing each other’s music, they took what they wanted from each other and used it for their own music.
Visit George Duke’s own website by clicking HERE.