New Duke is an eight-piece jazz ensemble that reinterprets the sentiment of Duke Ellington’s music with a fusion of rock, hip-hop and reggae grooves. The ensemble performs mashups of other music giants such as Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Stevie Wonder and The Doors. New Duke has proven themselves as a melting pot of music history, while simultaneously displaying their passion of music and adding their own stories into the mix.
New Duke has close ties to Fairfield University. Music Program Director and Bandleader Brian Torff is responsible for the contemporary arrangements of Ellington’s charts. Darryl Tookes (vocals), John Fumasoli (trombone) and Dave Childs (piano) all teach at the University and Rick Saldon (alto sax, clarinet and flute) is a presenter with the National Endowment for the Humanities Teacher Workshops on Duke Ellington held at Fairfield.
Drummer Don Mulvaney is challenged by every aspect of New Duke. Although the music is written out, each musician must be on their toes in order to make the music sound and feel good, while maintaining a high-energy performance. These elements are critical and require each musician to listen and react to the spontaneity of New Duke.
“I love the challenge of trying to play all these styles, [and] groove the best I can while leaning toward a jazz approach. Meaning, with improvisation and experimentation,” stated Mulvaney.
Beyond their ties to Fairfield, members of New Duke all come from rich musical backgrounds. Music was passed down from parents, siblings and relatives and inspired each of these accomplished musicians. Tookes recalled the life-changing influence that his mother, grandmother and aunt had during his youth.
“My mother was a great singer and pianist. She taught me piano, the standards and how to be authentic. She would listen to the way I would practice and could tell what mood I was in, if I was happy or sad that day,” said Tookes.
As a boy, Tookes’ singing matured within his “harmonically dense” church choir and was inspired by his grandmother who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1931 for her performance in “The Green Pastures.” He still has a picture of her singing in a jazz club “and she is older than I am now,” said Tookes.
“I really don’t have a choice. It is written in our DNA. If this [music] is who you are, you will not regret it,” added Tookes.
Mulvaney, Fumasoli and Saldon all had similar experiences growing up listening to their siblings play in awe or playing with their school bands. Each musical encounter left a lasting impression on all of these, now fruitful, musicians. Collectively, the members of New Duke have performed with staples in the music industry including Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Diana Ross, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Stephane Grappelli, George Benson, Tony Bennett and Barbra Streisand, just to name a few.
In honor of Black History Month, New Duke will perform a free concert in Gonzaga Auditorium on Thursday, Feb. 19 at 7:30 p.m. The opening band will be The Lionfish, a rock band formed by a group of passionate Fairfield music students.
This special performance is all about bringing the past forward, musically and historically. Ellington once stated that “jazz is a provocative subject.” When we think of Black History Month, jazz may not be the first thing that comes to mind, but voices like Ellington’s are the ones who challenged our minds to see past the color of our skin. As a bandleader, Ellington grew close to many of his musicians and would write specific charts based on their unique voices and style.
“Duke Ellington’s music is part of our American culture and history. Americans should be aware of their own culture. I am glad to be part of a group that explores and continues the Ellington tradition,” stated Saldon.
When Fumasoli thinks about Black History Month, he recalls Dr. King’s Message of peace and equality. “We can all live by this on a daily basis. Take the time to understand other people, their feelings and their beliefs. Our diversity should be celebrated. Support the arts and live music.” stated Fumasoli.
Darryl Tookes was kind enough to share a very intimate experience that sums up the importance of these critical issues. Tookes saw Bobby Short perform for the first time at the Carlyle Hotel (35 years into Short’s run). Short would hang out after each performance or in the kitchen with Cole Porter. That night Bobby was so powerful sitting behind the piano, said Tookes. It was 2 a.m. and Tookes saw a man hobbling on a cane in the lobby. It was Short and his last words to Tookes were “just enjoy playing music!”
“Within a year Short died. Those words resonate with me to this day and appear on every syllabus I write,” said Tookes.
Moments like these are the ones that you will remember for a lifetime and they are the ones that we relive through music. These are the stories of New Duke and they are what bring Ellington’s music back to life.
Hats off to Torff, the Fairfield University Music Program, Dr. Laura Nash and the Black Studies Program for making this performance possible.