Duke Groner

About Duke Groner

Something of an institution on the Chicago jazz scene, Duke Groner hailed from Oklahoma where he grew up in a musical family. His father was picking banjo and guitar, his mother singing, and his sister ticking the ivories. He began with a few violin lessons, which he apparently detested. By high school he was playing piano at dances. After receiving a scholarship to Wiley College in Texas, he joined the college quartet and also sang in a college band. He joined the Nat Towles band as a vocalist after graduating. A partner in both college and the Towles band was the fine tenor saxophonist Buddy Tate, who described Groner as "a house-stopper...Duke used to sing...and women would just fall out." After a few years of hard work with minimal financial returns, Groner found himself part of a clutch of Towles' musicians that were hijacked to New York by Horace Henderson. Other members included trombonist Henry Coker, trumpeters N. R. Bates and Money Johnson, and tenor saxophonist Bob Dorsey. The group played week-long stints at both the Apollo Theater and Savoy Ballroom, and then were fired by Henderson, down to the man, leaving one and all stranded in New York. Groner was determined not to crawl back to Towles, as some of the other players did. He stayed in New York and became a house singer at Minton's along with Betty Roche. The house band at this club included some pretty heavy hitters such as Thelonious Monk on piano andKenny Clarke on drums. Groner regarded this as one of the key periods in his career, even though his responsibilities included the unpleasant task of waking Monk up every time an intermission was over. Henderson eventually made amends by getting Groner a gig with the Jimmy Lunceford band which lasted several months, after which Groner went back to Chicago. He rejoined Henderson in 1942, a gig that ended abruptly when Uncle Sam drafted practically the entire Henderson band. From his new Chicago base Groner began working with musicians such as tenor saxophonist Buster Bennett, organist Wild Bill Davis and a band named Jelly Holt and His Four Blazers. Groner began playing the bass sometime in 1942, despite a distaste for the instrument. "I use to laugh at the bass players and ask them why they didn't learn to play a flute," Groner said in a series of archival interviews for the Chicago Jazz Institute. He soon realized that as awkward as it was carrying a bass around, a good bassist will always be offered more work than a vocalist. Near the end of the '40s he organized his first trio as a leader with pianist Horace Palm and guitarist Emmett Spicer. He continued in the '50s with players such as Kirk Stuart on piano, Hurley Ramey on guitar, and Wallace Burton on sax. He also worked as a sideman in groups such as the Four Blazes and the traditional jazz combo of Jim Beebe. Groner fell into ill health gradually and eventually was placed in a nursing home. His musician liked him so much that they gave monthly concerts there. ~ Eugene Chadbourne