By Kimmie Collins
Jul 23, 2020
Though it made his fingers bloody and raw, a $50 guitar from Kmart lit an inextinguishable spark in eleven-year-old Antonio (Anthony) Duran’s heart. A naturally artistic family and a DVD of a live ACDC concert fanned the flames into reality, lighting his path to a degree in music performance from Indiana State University.
He felt instantly drawn to ACDC’s performance and an intense desire to engage with an audience and bandmates in the same way. “I still remember the exact moment,” he reminisced. “I was sitting on my dad’s bed. I remember just deciding I was going to buy a guitar and I was going to play for people, no matter what. It was just so natural to me.”
“I would study the movements of the guitarists and see how their hands moved, see how the crowd reacted, the energy that they were giving off,” he said. “It was just this whole dynamic that I wanted to be a part of, and to be a part of a band was kind of the goal.”
Duran worked hard to earn the Kmart guitar — his first foray into learning an instrument, though not into performance. “I actually grew up in a very art-based family,” he revealed. “My dad taught dance for about 25 years, and my mother actually still is an instructor. My whole life was in a dance studio. I grew up with a wide array of, first, Latin styles. Then as they developed their business more, that got me into all kinds of music – jazz, big band, salsa, merengue, foxtrot. My mind was just grounded in eclectic music.”
He obsessively spent hours pouring over his newfound passion, clinging to his guitar until he wore it — and his fingertips — down. Duran worked doggedly at his dream, craving more skills and more knowledge every step of the way. His hunger to grow led him to jazz. “Jazz was my way of being able to really understand the roots of where everything came from,” he explained. “I really liked the idea of improvisation and composing without an eraser. Every idea needs to have a very strong place that it’s coming from.”
“I got into bebop, which kind of turns away the common ear because there’s so much going on and so much flying at you at the same time,” he continued. “But that intrigued me because I wanted my ear to be able to adjust to all of that. I can slow things down in my brain and really tear apart what these musicians are playing and why they’re doing that. Then I literally take everything I know about jazz and apply it to every other style that I do. I felt that the best way to access the entire universe of music was through jazz.”
Jazz, in turn, steered Duran, ’20, toward Indiana State University. Duran completed his associate degree at Riverside City Community College, where he studied under “jazz god” Jody Fisher. A South Bend, Ind. native, Fisher has traveled the world, taught jazz clinics, and published over 40 books discussing jazz theory. “He is just always at the top of the game,” Duran admired. Duran asked his mentor’s advice about the universities with the best jazz performance programs, and Fisher was quick to point Duran toward Indiana State. “I just thought it was kind of crazy that Jody was from Indiana, and then I went to school in Indiana,” Duran said. “It was another deciding factor – just kind of following a legacy that I knew was successful in some way.”
His decision was also strongly influenced by Indiana State professor Brent McPike, who had a unique connection of his own. On a visit to Spain twenty-five years ago, McPike had purchased a guitar, handmade by a different Antonio Duran, who passed away about thirteen years ago. When McPike saw the living Antonio Duran’s name on an incoming application to Indiana State, he believed it to be a cruel prank or a mistake, and he called Duran’s California home to confirm that he was, indeed, a serious applicant.
“Dr. McPike would call me every morning from Terre Haute,” Duran remembered. “We’d end up talking for about an hour or two, about guitars or what I’d be doing if I went there. He mentioned that he knew my former professor and that my favorite guitarist had come from Indianapolis. He was kind of building the relationship beforehand.” McPike’s efforts sealed the deal for Duran, and he chose Indiana State over six other schools. “He put up a good sales pitch for Indiana State,” Duran said wryly.
Antonio Duran’s guitar continued to play a role in the similarly-named Sycamore’s life, even after he and his own guitars moved to Terre Haute. His senior recital happened to be scheduled during the coronavirus pandemic, erasing his plans to perform with a band in front of a cheering audience. McPike, however, stepped in to ensure the experience was still memorable. “He took it upon himself to be my band, and during the performance, he played that guitar,” Duran reflected. “It was very much the perfect wrap-up at my time at State. I got to play with my professor, who I had gotten to know very well, on the guitar that has my name on it. It was just the best way to go out.”
Duran, a performer at heart, has been practicing other creative mediums throughout the coronavirus pandemic. “Performing is my everything. I just get the biggest feeling of euphoria from playing,” he gushed. “It’s been very hard recently, but I’ve turned my attention to creating music. I like to set a lot of intention on the chords I use in order to evoke certain emotions because every sound triggers a different part of the brain.”
As he strums the chords on his guitar, the notes practically leap onto the page. “When I hear the songs in a certain style, it immediately triggers a memory of something closely related to that style, and I imagine my parents dancing to it,” Duran explained. “It makes it easier to emulate that when I actually compose or write for other artists because I can put myself in that spot and make it come across organically.”
Although he performs several of his songs, he also has worked closely with Ilka, a singer from Los Angeles, for the last seven years. One afternoon, Ilka abruptly called Duran to ask if he knew the song “Jolene” by Dolly Parton. He didn’t, but he quickly set his sights on Ilka’s odd request: adding a Latin flair to Ilka’s Spanish translation of the song.
Ilka and Duran’s creation is now the official Spanish version of Dolly Parton’s musical sensation.
Duran’s dreams for the future outshine the astounding success he’s already earned. “My career, in my brain, honestly hasn’t even started yet. I’m going to get my master’s in jazz pedagogy at West Virginia University, and I happen to be accepted on a full-ride and apprenticeship there. After that I plan to go back to Los Angeles, and that’s when my career actually starts.” He grinned. “My greatest accomplishment has yet to happen.”