El Duke O Time has taken its toll, but it can't keep jazzman down

November 21, 1991|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Evening Sun Staff

DUKE BUCHANAN struggles across Thames Street toward the Cat's Eye Pub, where his good friend Mark Brine is playing guitar.

Duke pulls himself along with two canes. In the middle of the street on this Wednesday night he stops and says somberly: "I wish you'd have known me 20 years ago."

He was a whippersnapper, he says, traveling from bar to strip joint to ballroom, playing piano in jazz groups and big bands, sharing stages with some of the great musicians of his time. Now he is 71, enduring the debilitating effects of two strokes, carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis and attacks of pain over much of his body -- his back, hips, shoulders, legs, fingers, wrists, all areas vital to a piano player.

As he steps into the crowded Cat's Eye, Brine is on stage with his band, tuning his guitar.

"Tune that thing, baby!" Duke roars over the rumble of the bar. "That's right, baby, tune that guitar!"

All eyes turn toward the booming voice. Duke's face begins to glow.

Brine has little choice but to introduce him. "El Duke O . . . The Duke!"

Then Brine invites the old jazzman on stage where Duke, supporting himself on his canes, leads the band into one of his favorite songs, "Flip, Flop and Fly."

Duke is dressed in a tan sports coat, brightly colored tie and brown slacks. He has a salt-and-pepper goatee and wire-rim glasses with "El Duke O" inscribed along the edge of the left lens.

He is a classic with an irresistible mix of personality, talent and style, says Brine, who has known him six years. "That's the sort of magic some people have. That's the magic he has."

Duke also has a rich voice and a skilled, mischievous manner.

"Flip, flop and fly," he sings. "I don't care if I die."

Soon he has the whole bar singing. People in their 20s slugging beer who plan to live forever bellow: "Flip, flop and fly. I don't care if I die."

They hoot and holler for El Duke O. Brine, who had been singing country songs, tries to regain at least some control over the show, suggesting that he and Duke sing together "Your Cheatin' Heart."

But Duke keeps jazzin' up his part, and finally, near the end, sets his canes aside, straddles the microphone stand, throws out his arms and commands the band to stop playing.

Duke begins to scat. Other than his deep voice slashing through the thick air, the bar is absolutely quiet. All age has left his face.

After the burst of applause, the futile calls for an encore, and after Duke has settled onto a stool at the bar, three newfound fans buy him drinks. Duke, who is drinking Old Grand-dad on the rocks, consumes them cheerfully.

Twenty-three years ago in Newport, R.I., five doctors told Duke that if he didn't stop drinking he'd be dead in six months, Duke says. The doctors were consulting on the replacement of his left hip.

Duke didn't stop drinking, didn't hardly slow down. When he suffered his second stroke two years ago in Baltimore, Duke says, his doctors here searched his medical records and discovered that all five doctors in Newport had died.

"They're gone. I'm still here. And I still have a taste," Duke says with a disarming smile. "I say God's been good to me. . . . I'm still able to function, still able to play the piano."

He plays Wednesday nights and Saturday afternoons at The Brewery, a bar in the 2100 block of Fleet Street in Canton. Newcomers at the bar watch skeptically as El Duke O leans his canes against the piano and, grimacing, lowers himself onto the bench. He slips on white gloves, which cushion his fingers from the painful blows against the keys.

On the old piano facing the wall under the huge portrait of a naked woman, he plays grandly.

"It's music and people keeping me alive, not medicine," he says.

He plays a variety of music -- jazz, rhythm and blues, classical, standards. He has played at The Brewery about a year, but during the past 11 years in Baltimore he's played all over the city, including Artscape, Ethel's Place, Park Plaza, Danny's, Victor's, Howard's Deli, Cat's Eye Pub, Society Hill and the Peabody Book Store and Bier Stube, whose owner, the late Rose Hayes, dubbed him El Duke O.

"I play anywhere George Washington is," Duke says. "If they got a piano and a dollar, I'll play."

He earned his first buck when he was 5, playing "junked-up gospel music" on piano at a church function in Winchester, Va., where he was born; the converted tossed him coins. His mother played piano and organ for the church choir. His father played jazz saxophone.

After his family moved to Providence, R.I., Duke played at clubs, bars, weddings and funerals. He started traveling throughout the East in jazz groups, cruising into Baltimore when he was 17.

He ended up playing three years, on and off, in the pit band at the old Royal Theatre, backing such acts as Cab Calloway, Redd Foxx, Red Prysock and Billie Holiday. Duke later played in Billie's band whenever she played in Harlem, he says.

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