Todd Duke was a fine guitarist and, importantly, a musician who listened. Those qualities made him a much sought after and appreciated sideman and carried through to his work as a leader. Duke, who spent 20 years backing, recording and touring the globe with vocalist John Boutté, was renowned for his work with bassist/singer George French, and received praise for his tasteful playing on vocalist Germaine Bazzle’s 2017 release, Swingin’ at Snug, died on January 6, 2019 at the age of 48.
“Todd was my legs—he was my support,” a saddened Boutté says. “It’s hard to find an accompanist that knows every bit of your nuances and can straighten up your messes when you mess up.”
Duke, a New Orleans native, began playing guitar at age eight and naturally dug into the rock ’n’ roll of the times, with Steve Cropper being an early influence. “I liked the sound of the guitar and thought it looked cool and like a lot of fun,” Duke said in a 2009 interview when he was inducted into New Orleans Magazine’s Jazz All-Stars.
The guitarist became more aware of jazz while attending Slidell High School and the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA). During that time, he discovered masters of the instrument like George Benson and Kenny Burrell. “Jazz really bit me,” Duke once remembered while crediting guitarist/educator Hank Mackie as offering him a “lifetime of knowledge.”
Duke gained greater recognition on the city’s music scene when he began playing at Donna’s Bar & Grill, especially at drummer Bob French’s immensely popular Monday night gigs. It was at Donna’s that he also met and eventually played with trumpeter Leroy Jones and drummer Bunchy Johnson. Duke credited Johnson with introducing him to Wardell Quezergue, which led to him to getting a spot in the legendary bandleader and arranger’s big band.
“I loved his musicality and versatility,” says Boutté, with whom the guitarist is most associated. Duke was heard on some five-plus albums released with Boutté as leader. “Todd wasn’t stuck in one style because he couldn’t do that with me. First thing I told him was ‘Man, you have to listen to some Danny Barker.’ He adhered to Danny’s advice: ‘Keep all your pockets open—your gospel pockets, jazz pockets, bebop, country western pockets.’ Todd was just able to switch over where some guys are just like, ‘I’m not playin’ that.’ We had so many musical adventures all over the world. He was humble and the best sideman you could get. He just played the music. He tried to chill people out. Our last gig together was at a NOCCA benefit—he was still giving.”
Todd Duke, a well-loved and well-respected man and musician, once expressed his reflections on music by simply saying, “It’s all about time.”