Issue # 148, INTERVIEW with Duke Way

I feel extremely fortunate to have made Duke’s acquaintance, and after you read this interview, you’ll feel like you know him, too.  My sincerest thanks to him for taking the time to examine my questions (and the meaning behind them) and add his thoughts in to the point where it’s almost like sitting right there, listening to him speak.  If you haven’t listened to his new CD yet, Alligator Wings, (as Duke says) – DO IT!

Zzaj: I’ve read that you grew up in Louisiana, and eventually wound up in Huntsville, Alabama. Please give our readers an “off the cuff” bio sketch that lets them know where you grew up, where you went to school & how you wound up in Huntsville…

DW: I was born in the little town of Hammond, LA and grew up in the even smaller town of Port Sulphur, about 45 miles downriver from New Orleans and on the west bank. Got fascinated with science fiction as a kid, and when Eisenhower announced the Vanguard project, that decided me to go into engineering and get work in the space race. Later, when Vanguard rockets  kept blowing up on the pad and Russia beat NASA with the launch of Sputnik, I got even more determined to get that technical education and contribute to the effort. Got engineering degrees at LSU Baton Rouge and eventually was able to land a job with a NASA contractor in Huntsville. Marshall Space Flight Center was (and may still be, I don’t know) the big booster center for NASA, and we ran computer simulations of the Saturn V launch vehicle to find out what would happen with various failures during a launch. Later, I got into orbital analysis and flight dynamics work for Marshall’s Advanced Projects Office. We laid out flight profiles for various interplanetary missions, including early conceptual work on the Voyager mission – it was called the Grand Tour mission back then – Mars mapping orbits, that sort of thing. As the computer software supporting the field got more and more complex, I evolved into a software engineer.   My last assignment before retiring was software testing for the International Space Station.

Zzaj: Your recent CD release, Alligator Wings, is a favorite of mine, probably because I first got my start in performance with spoken-word….how did the idea for creating this CD come about? Was it a lot of fun – or a lot of work – to put together?

DW: Both. A lot of fun and a lot of work. Most of the “work” part was by Jim Cavender, the producer; he and his wife, Terri, are the driving force behind Startlingly Fresh Records. The project got started when my friend Jane DeNeefe, author of Rock & Soul in Rocket City, Huntsville Musicians Remember the Sixties, made an off-the-cuff video of me reciting The Ballad of the Battle of Balihu (which eventually became one of the tracks on the album) and posted it on FaceBook. Jim saw it and cornered me one day in a local coffee shop and proposed the project. I dug out some of my old poems and writings and together we found we had enough material for an album. I got busy and laid down voice tracks on my own home recording system and passed WAV files on to Jim. He then created music and corralled more than 25 local musicians to fill out the tracks. You wouldn’t believe the number of world-class jazz musicians we have in a town the size of Huntsville. Jim did a masterful job of marrying the music to the words, so that the thing comes out a seamless whole, with music and words carrying equal weight and creating an even fuller environment for the listener. I’m blown away by how the final product came out.

Zzaj: Where did you pick up your affinity for jazz? Was that in your earlier years, or a more recently acquired taste? On that note, who are some of your heroes in that genre?

DW: Growing up in such close proximity to New Orleans, I was immersed in New Orleans culture. I remember my parents taking me to NO on Mardi Gras day to hang out on Canal Street and watch all the maskers and the Rex parade. I was just a little tyke, then, six or seven years old. Years later, little old Port Sulphur High School band was even invited to march in one of the minor parades. That was a big deal for us. Then when I was at LSU, jazz was to college students of the late ’50s what acid rock was to college students of the late ’60s. During those years, I got a cheap drum kit and became part of the Leonard Root Trio, with Leonard on piano and Frank Rickey on bass. We had fun playing cocktail parties and such. The people who hired us on those occasions just wanted some tinkling in the background, so we could get as experimental as we wanted, so long as we didn’t get too loud. We didn’t make much, just enough to pay our union dues – Baton Rouge was a union town back then, may still be. I learned a lot from those guys, mainly what good time was – is. I also collected as many jazz LPs as I could afford on a college budget. Unfortunately, I had to jettison my whole collection when I was between layoff notices and had to pare my worldly possessions to a bare minimum. But I continued to listen good jazz whenever I could, and kept some kind of instrument, even if it was just a pair of cheap bongos. I still have swamp mud and New Orleans rhythm in my veins.

My heroes of the genre . . . I’d have to include Art Blakey in that pantheon. His fiery rhythm and volcanic chops, plus his invention of the “hard bop” sound. I loved that big, bold sound with trumpet and tenor playing the melody line in octaves. Plus a lot of his Jazz Messengers – Lee Morgan, ‘Trane, of course, Wayne Shorter, Hank Mobley, Blue Mitchell, Donald Byrd, Horace Silver . . . Mingus, of course, for his penchant for telling it like it is and the unique big-band sound he could evoke from his ensembles. Herbie Hancock for sheer genius. Also Monk – his compositions and angular style of playing always reminded me of Stravinsky. Miles, because he wasn’t content to stay in the same straight-ahead idiom. He had the musical cojones to boldly go where jazz hadn’t gone before. And, of course, in more recent years, Jim Cavender, Ken Watters, Newt Johnson, Keith Taylor, Billy Bargetzi and a whole gaggle of other Huntsville musicians that contributed to this album.

Zzaj: I served for many years in or with the U.S. military… it appears that you also worked for NASA… did working in that capacity create any conflicts with your artistic endeavors, or did it not have any impact at all?

DW: Believe it or not, there’s a lot of artistry involved in engineering. When it’s done right, engineering is a creative activity and relies as much on intuition as on analysis. Unfortunately, most managers in technological enterprises are more interested in engineers who follow orders, but the real quality engineering is the product of creative minds. Case in point: Nicola Tesla. Actually, I think working in that field stimulated my artistic endeavors. It was a most pleasant alternative to eight hours in Dilbertland. I began to see interesting parallels in technical writing and poetry. In the printed form, both depend highly on visual layout. You want to lead the eye to the significant points, or at least not distract it. And both forms strive to deliver as much information in as tight a form as possible. Of course, the two forms of writing have different goals in mind, but their techniques in achieving those goals are quite similar.

Zzaj: I’ve also read that you studied African hand drumming over the years… please tell us who you studied/played with, and how your studies (or performances) have influenced your spoken-word performances.

DW: Jazz has its roots in African rhythms, and I wanted to explore those roots more deeply – plus the fact that I was a lot better on hand drums than I was on drum kit. Art Blakey’s explorations into African rhythms got me started on that track. Later, I was lucky enough to receive world-class tutelage from Master Drummers Babatunde Olatunji and Khalid Saleem. The last I heard from Khalid, he was Music Director for the African Dance school at SUNY Stony Brook. Baba Olatunji, of course, was very active on the jazz scene, working with many of the jazz leaders of his generation, and later with artists like Carlos Santana. Baba discovered jazz when he came to the states as an exchange student, and one night, happened to tune in to a jazz radio station. He listened a while, then said “Those are the kind of rhythms we play back home!” He started sitting in with jazz groups around Atlanta, and the rest is history. I felt very lucky to get in on his workshops; those studies alone made me a much better jazz percussionist. And of course it influenced my spoken-word performances. That kind of rhythm gets into you, becomes a part of you, the way you speak, the way you move, the way you live, your very spirit. Remember , it’s African-Americans who coined the word “soul” to apply to certain qualities in music.

Some of your readers may be familiar with the Congo Square story. Back when the French still owned Louisiana, hand drums were illegal. This was because the only successful slave uprising in human history had taken place in Haiti, and was said to have begun with the drumming in a Vodoun meeting. Of course, it didn’t work; the Africans would drum on packing crates, furniture, whatever. Later, the French relented and allowed the Africans to drum on Sunday afternoons in an area in New Orleans called Congo Square (I think it’s now called Louis Armstrong Park). Meanwhile, the New Orleans creoles were high-society people, and were considered some of the world’s best music teachers. But when the US bought the Louisiana Purchase, everything became segregated, and creoles – because they were part African – were no longer allowed to teach white kids. So they began hanging around Congo Square and teaching the Africans trumpet, clarinet, trombone, sousaphone, etc. as well as music theory and notation. The result was the music we know as jazz. To this day, New Orleans jazz has a vibe and rhythm you don’t hear anywhere else.

Zzaj: I’m a firm believer that music and the arts hold great power to heal many of the ills that plague society today… do you also believe that? If so, why? If not, why not?

DW: Oh, yes. Historians know that the earliest uses of music were spiritual, and music was the foundation of healing ceremonies, both for individuals and communities. As my own musical activity evolved, I became very interested in the spiritual applications of music and especially rhythm. African Diaspora religions in the Western Hemisphere, such as Vodoun and Santeria still depend on music and rhythm to stimulate altered states in which worshippers can channel spiritual beings. In parts of the world where shamanism is still practiced, shamans still use rhythm to send them out-of-body on their healing “journeys.” I used to drum for dance classes, and more than once, a dancer would sail off into “trance dancing,” dancing on well after the rest of the class had stopped. I have also done some healing drumming myself, and it’s very effective in settling emotional crises. I highly recommend Mickey Hart’s book Drumming at the Edge of Magic to get an idea of what drumming and rhythm can do. Oh, yes, music has power that we’re only beginning to glimpse.

Zzaj: I “came of age” right at the tail end of the “beat” generation that’s been tagged with your work… Lenny Bruce, Jack Kerouac & others… since you’re a few years older than I am, I’m expecting it influenced your thoughts and writings a bit more than mine… is that accurate? If so, why? If not, why not?

DW: Yes, I was an undergraduate during the beat era, and the beatniks were to my generation what the hippies were to that generation. Actually, I never read Kerouac’s On the Road, but I did pick up a copy of The Dharma Bums. Also got into the poetry of Ferlinghetti and Kenneth Rexroth, who did a guest lecture at the Baton Rouge campus. I’m sure it influenced my thoughts and writings a lot, that consciousness was in the atmosphere during those years. Theatre of the Absurd was also in its ascendancy at that time, and I was much into the absurdists – Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter – their off-the-wall surrealism appealed to me. Some of that is echoed in The Ballad of the Battle of Balihu.   A kind of Samuel-Beckett-meets-Lewis-Carrol vibe. Ken Nordine’s Word Jazz and Son of Word Jazz were a big influence on me, as well as an LP of his titled Next! I’m told he’s still around and active. The dude’s a master wordsmith. In a darker vein, Kafka’s novel The Trial resonated strongly with me. By the time I read it, I was already aware of how bizarre life can get.

Zzaj: Since this magazine is primarily focused on jazz and blues, tell us who (if any) are your favorite jazz players/bands.

DW: I’ve already named some of them when listing out my jazz heroes. Herbie Hancock, for instance, I still love listening to his work. Cannonball Adderly and his quintet laid down some really nice stuff; their Jive Samba is still one of my favorites. I still occasionally get nostalgic for that generation – Dizzy, for example, his Jambo Caribe album is still a lot of fun. Of the more contemporary players, I like Pat Matheny’s work. Wayne Shorter seems to always be exploring new territory. And especially the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, keeping that vibe alive. And of course, some of my favorite favorite artists are right here in Huntsville. Rolling Jazz Revue, with Jim Cavender on guitar, Nick Walker on Bass, Newt Johnson on keyboards, Mike Dendy on Drums and Jeff Woods on percussion. Sometimes they’ll add Billy Bargetzi, killer trombonist. Then there’s Trio el Camino, which is Rolling Jazz Revue minus Nick and Jeff. They’re more of a jazz/rock fusion group. Jim also does vocals in that ensemble, and Newt covers the bass line on organ. Also the Watters-Felts Project – Ken Watters on trumpet & flugelhorn, vocals by Ingrid Felts, Abe Becker on Bass, Keith Taylor on piano, Marcus Pope on drums, and Darryl Tibbs on percussion. When the band lays out and Darryl and Marcus start throwing it back and forth, it sets the house on fire, and Ingrid can belt out a version of Fine and Mellow that makes you think Billie Holliday came back to life. Ken does masterful work representing Johnny the Lip on those Alligator Wings tracks. Then there’s the Keith Taylor (yeah, him again) Trio, Keith on piano, Jim Cavender (yeah, him again) on bass and Tom Branch on drums. I’m also crazy about the Dawn Osborne Band, with Dawn doing lead vocals, Andrew Sharpe on bass & vocals, Newt Johnson (yeah, him again) on keyboards & vocals, and until recently, Aaron Cox on drums. Aaron fell in love with and married a girl from South Africa, and . . . guess where he’s living now. I forget the name of their new drummer, but I’ve heard him play with the band, and he fits in perfectly. This band is more rock-leaning, but with the original material they come out with, they excel as a jazz/rock fusion band. You’re hearing Dawn as Mammy Magic on the Johnny the Lip Act 4 track. In the blues vein, there’s Huntsville’s own Dave Galliher, aka Microwave Dave. This guy is a top-tier blues artist that can belt them out with the best, and his cigar-box guitar playing will take you on a trip. He’s also a blues scholar and historian, hosting Talking the Blues on local Huntsville PBS stations. These players are all well-loved in Huntsville, and deserve a much wider audience. Watters-Felts Project has a CD out on Summit Records. Microwave Dave has recorded for several different labels. The others mentioned record on the same label as Alligator Wings, Startlingly Fresh Records.

Zzaj: Why is it important (as I believe it is) to perpetuate the marriage of rhythm & words? Can language be a form of music? Or is that a ridiminous question?

DW: I’m trying to imagine how a rap artist would respond to that question. Rhythm is in everything – your heartbeat, your breathing, your brainwaves, even the atoms that make up your body and everything else. The seasons are rhythmic, the orbits of the planets around the Sun are rhythmic, and the Sun itself even has a kind of heartbeat. One of my teachers once told me, “Listen to the rhythm in thunder.” I said, “What?? Thunder doesn’t have a rhythm.” “Oh, yes it does,” he said, “it’s not a pulsed rhythm like 4/4 or 6/8, but thunder is rich in rhythmic content. Listen carefully, you’ll hear it.” I did, and sure enough, it does. That experience gave me an even greater appreciation of the rhythmic richness in free-form jazz. So – in a way, I don’t think it’s important to perpetuate the marriage of rhythm and words. I think that marriage is self-perpetuating. Even though English is not considered a very musical language, listening to your own and other people’s speech rhythms can open up new rhythmic dimensions for you.

Zzaj: Our readership has many aspiring poets, performance artists and players…give us your “words of wisdom” for why a musical/performing career is worth pursuing. Is it worth the sacrifices that must sometimes be made? Or not? If so, why?

DW: Whether such a career is worth pursuing and worth the sacrifices is, of course, up to the individual artist. In my own case, all I can say is – hell yeah, it was worth it. Sure, it was frustrating having so much work come to nothing, but I was lucky enough to qualify for the kind of day job that paid for a lot of drums and rhythm instruments, and the work itself kept life well worth living. Even if the Alligator Wings CD had never happened, bringing the poems and drawings and music out of my heart and into the light of day made life mean something to me. And I have been able to give back to my own community, doing readings and gigs at venues like Huntsville’s Flying Monkey Arts Center, and teaching private lessons, classes and workshops. The value of that trumps a multitude of difficulties. Vonnegut had an often-quoted thing to say about it. I don’t remember the exact words, but basically he just said – do it! Make some kind of art, a poem, a picture, a sculpture, whatever. In the end, you will have created something.

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