George Duke: Reaching For It

Ed Hamilton reflects on the legacy of the late keyboardist and producer

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Ben Johnson

George Duke at Freihofer Jazz Festival at Saratoga Springs

Last month I saw George Duke’s last Hollywood Bowl engagement featuring Jeffery Osborne as his guest singer and George said to the overflow Bowl audience that “It sure is good to be back home here at the Bowl.” He’s lived here in L.A. for many years and last Monday he succumbed to a long bout with cancer. He was ebullient, effervescent and jovial with all his music and solemnly and lovingly sang “Missing You” from Dreamweaver—a lush tribute to his wife Corine who passed earlier last year. “This CD is a celebration of my love for my wife and also a party,” George said, as he continued to jam in all aspects of his moniker Dukey Stick ,a name taken from his most successful album Reach For It, done with Stanley Clarke.

Osborne informed the crowd that it was George who produced his first album and invited him to sing at this—George’s last Bowl gig.

George loved to play and would volunteer at the drop of an asking as he did for Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 65th birthday party at the Beverly Hilton, and at the Jazz at Drew benefit for medical students in Watts, and with Cannonball and Nat Adderley at the Lighthouse in 1975—Cannonball’s last appearance as he had a heart attack a few months later in Gary, Indiana.

The Lighthouse gig was a tour-de-force as George was rhythmically masterful on electric piano assisted by an all-star group of Walter Booker on bass, Airto on rhythmic percussion, Roy McCurdy on drums. Cannon was in rare form playing soprano and of course Nat as well on cornet. George engineered his electric piano blisteringly underneath everyone’s interaction. At intermission, KBCA’s Rick Holmes, a good friend of Cannonball’s, invited me to come hang out at the Seasprite Motel where all the Lighthouse musicians stayed when playing there. What a hip happening for me as we all sipped some Christian Bros. brandy from the same pint bottle (as pints were still bottled in in ‘75) and of course there was the familiar peace pipe being passed around. After Cannon’s passing George produced The Phoenix, a retrospective of Cannon’s music that included George’s most prolific writing at the time—“The Black Messiah.”

Coincidentally at the Jazz at Drew Benefit, I reminded George of this set and he responded, “Man that was a dynamite gig at the Lighthouse with Cannon and Nat and everyone else. A few months later, Cannon left us.” I gave him a tape I made from that gig with Cannon on soprano and his blistering piano. A memorable last Lighthouse gig for that aggregation.

I asked George how many albums had he played on and he laughingly said, “I’m like John McCain saying he didn’t know how many houses he had...I don’t know how many albums I’ve done.”

He’s produced, played, and recorded with many R&B, fusion, and jazz artists: Michael Jackson, Rachel Ferrell and Teena Marie who recorded “Ball and Chain” on Dreamweaver, his last album. George had said Ball and Chain was going to be a jazz album with Teena, but she passed. “I had worked with her on her last album Congo Square and she had said, ‘I’d really like to do a jazz album with you.’ But she passed before we could do it.” Other artists he played with were Anita Baker; Diane Reeves; Jill Scott; Al Jarreau; Harry Sweets Edison; Herb Ellis; Dizzy; Dexter Gordon; Sonny Rollins; Billy Cobham; and Stanley Clarke.

George produced and composed with Marcus Miller on Miles’ TuTu album as well as putting together a national tour with Marcus Miller and David Sandborn. I took Keilani, my 7 year old granddaughter, to the Bowl to see them and when George hit his synthesizer and they jammed, she exclaimed, “Grandeddie, I sure like that electric piano.”

George earlier was musical director for the Nelson Mandela Tribute Concert in London’s Wembley Stadium honoring Mandela’s South African presidential election.

Yoshi’s owner Kaz Kajimura told me, “George was from the Bay Area, San Rafael, and played many times helping the club to get started in the early days.”

A long-time close friend of mine Cordell Boyd known as CB who is from San Francisco had this remembrance of George, “George Duke used to be the house pianist at John Heard’s Half Note backing up Al Jarreau who was moonlighting as a social worker and they’d get together there on a regular basis. I think George was 17. In fact a CD was just released of some of their performances entitled Live at the Half Note-George Duke and Al Jarreau.

Ron Dhanifu of KSDS San Diego said, “George was musically versatile not only playing piano but also trombone as well. In fact he got a BA in Trombone and a Master’s Degree in Composition. Most people don’t know this.”

George Duke’s pianistic harmonics exemplified his gregariousness as a musician and as a great man always smiling and always coming to the gig to play.

George described how his music resonated with his audience, “I really think it’s possible to make good music and I believe it’s possible to take the music to the people”. And George did just that at every performance. He would definitely reach for It.

“My music has been a Goulash—a gumbo of sorts playing R&B with Parliament, fusion with Stanley (Clarke)and Billy (Cobham), Brazillian with Nascimento, Airto and Flora (Purim), and I’ve done jazz with Miles and Cannonball.”

George Duke’s music may be like a Phoenix and may once again rise through his two sons Rashid and John, who will carry on his legacy.

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Ed Hamilton