Take Five! Duke Pearson and Blue Note Records

On Thursday, November 21, Wayne Wilentz will perform Duke Pearson’s Brazilian music.

Bertrand Überall on November 20, 2019
A shot of Duke Pearson at the piano

Duke Pearson. Photograph by Francis Wolff © Mosaic Images LLC

Pianist and composer Duke Pearson is remembered for his work with trumpeter Donald Byrd and his own recordings in the 1960s, principally for Blue Note records. Pearson’s involvement with the label deserves more scrutiny, as he had a major role behind the scenes in shaping "the Blue Note sound."

Columbus Calvin Pearson was born in Atlanta on August 17, 1932. He started on piano at the age of five, later switching to trumpet. Duke attended Clark College, served in the army from 1953-1954, then resumed playing piano. Duke moved to New York in January 1959, played with the Art Farmer-Benny Golson Jazztet, then joined the quintet co-led by Byrd and baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams and was soon recording for Blue Note. The label would play a major role in his life.

A 1961 tour of Brazil with singer Nancy Wilson inspired the composition "Cristo Redentor" on Byrd’s A New Perspective (1/12/63), an ambitious recording featuring a vocal choir and jazz septet, with arrangements by Pearson. This landmark recording resulted in his taking on a new role at Blue Note. Tenor saxophonist Ike Quebec had recorded for the label in the mid-1940s, and served as talent scout and impromptu arranger, resuming this role when he rejoined the label in 1959. Arranger Leon Mitchell also briefly served in an A & R (Artists and Repertoire) capacity (1960-1961), but details of their shared duties are unclear. Quebec died on 1/16/63, days after the New Perspective session. According to a 1970 interview with Pearson for Canadian radio, Blue Note founder Alfred Lion was impressed by Duke’s work on this recording and called him in the very next day to offer him the A & R job.

Duke’s affair with Bossa and Brazilian music comes from the same place as mine.

— Wayne Wilentz, musician and composer

Pearson played a critical role in the label’s history for the next dozen years. In a phone interview, drummer Joe Chambers, who played on many sessions of that era, told me that Duke, as a fellow musician, was different from other producers. He was ‘invisible’, never in the way nor obtrusive, attending all the rehearsals and quietly ensuring that the recordings went smoothly. In 1966, Liberty records purchased the label from Lion, who retired the following year. Duke stayed on at Lion’s recommendation and took on a greater role, writing arrangements for ensembles led by Stanley Turrentine, Lou Donaldson and Lee Morgan. Blue Note co-founder Frank Wolff served as producer, but by the end of the decade Duke was himself producing recordings by Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Bobby Hutcherson, as well as sessions for the sister label Solid State.

Jazz musician Wayne Wilentz

Wayne Wilentz. Photo by Lisa Winston Wilentz.

Duke continued recording and started a big band with some of the strongest session players of the day. In a phone interview, trumpeter Marvin Stamm told me that everyone loved playing Duke’s arrangements. He knew the capacities of each soloist, and every note felt good, the music always swung. Duke also began collaborating with Brazilian musicians such as Flora Purim, Airto Moreira, and Hermeto Pascoal. According to pianist Wayne Wilentz, "Duke’s affair with Bossa and Brazilian music comes from the same place as mine. He says in the [radio] interview that the complexity in both rhythm and harmony combined with the beauty of the melodies make it irresistible."

Although Wolff died in March 1971, Duke continued his production work for Blue Note until the mid-1970s. He taught at Clark College, toured with vocalists Carmen McRae and Joe Williams, and reformed his big band. Duke Pearson died on August 4th, 1980 from multiple sclerosis.

Bertrand Überall has been a Take 5! volunteer since 2012. In addition to his work at SAAM, he also helps plan the Jazz in the Basement series at the DC Public Library (in conjunction with the Goethe-Institut), as well as the Jazz at UUCSS series in Silver Spring.

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