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George Duke Is Dead at 67

Prolific keyboardist, composer, producer reigned in jazz, R&B, funk and fusion

George Duke
George Duke (photo: Ben Johnson)

George Duke, the keyboardist, composer and producer who crossed genre lines effortlessly beginning in the mid-’60s, died yesterday (Aug. 5) in Los Angeles. He was battling chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), according to a statement from the Concord Music Group, which released Duke’s latest album, DreamWeaver, on its Heads Up International label just three weeks ago. The album was a tribute to his wife, Corine, who passed away last year.

Duke was a highly prolific artist who released more than 30 albums as a leader, served as a sideman and collaborator with dozens of artists, and produced recordings by a wide variety of singers and musicians. An early experimenter within the emerging fusion and funk genres, he was equally at home playing straightahead jazz, mainstream rhythm-and-blues and Brazilian music.

Like many other jazz musicians, his first influence was gospel. Born in San Rafael, Calif., on Jan. 12, 1946, Duke began taking piano lessons at age 7, inspired by the keyboard sounds he heard in his local church. By his mid-teens, Duke had immersed himself in jazz. He played with local jazz groups while still in high school (including a trio with singer Al Jarreau) and went on to study at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where he majored in trombone and composition, minoring in contrabass. He received his Bachelor of Music degree there in 1967.

Duke released his debut album as a leader, The George Duke Quartet Presented by the Jazz Workshop, in 1966, on the local SABA label. On his website, he called it “the worst album I’ve ever made.” In 1969, following a stint with the Don Ellis Big Band, Duke collaborated with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty on an album titled The Jean-Luc Ponty Experience with George Duke. He also contributed to Ponty’s Canteloupe Island and Electric Connection albums during that period.

Duke’s next leader recording, 1970’s Save the Country, was his first attempt to blend pop material with funk, but it was his high-profile gig as a member of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, beginning in 1970, that brought him wide recognition. The experimental rock guitarist had re-formed his group and brought Duke in for his superior keyboard chops. Duke appeared on several Zappa album in the 1970s, beginning with Chunga’s Revenge, and in the 1971 film (and its soundtrack) 200 Motels. Duke can be heard on the Zappa albums Waka/Jawaka (1972), The Grand Wazoo (1972), Over-Nite Sensation (1973), Apostrophe (‘) (1974), Roxy & Elsewhere (1974), One Size Fits All (1975), Bongo Fury (1975) and others released after he left Zappa’s employ.

Duke also worked with Cannonball Adderley for some two years in the early ’70s (he appears on several albums from that decade), and with Brazilian artists Flora Purim and Airto.

Duke continued releasing solo albums during the ’70s, adding his own vocals to his solo recordings beginning with 1974’s Faces in Reflection, also the first album on which he played synthesizer. Describing the expansive orchestral feel of 1975’s I Heard the Blues, She Heard Me Cry on his website, Duke noted, “I grew up listening to all kinds of music, and I didn’t see why I should be kept in a box musically. I felt, and still feel, that there is intrinsic worth in all forms of music, even the simpler forms. I’ve always wanted to bring cultures and music together-you know, make a nice stew.”

In the mid-’70s, Duke also co-led a band with drummer Billy Cobham, the first recorded result of which was the 1976 album “Live” On Tour in Europe. That same year, Duke recorded his first solo piano album, although it would not be released until 1982.

Duke continued to move more toward funk in the late ’70s and ’80s, although he never abandoned jazz. His musical association with his cousin, singer Dianne Reeves, began with Duke’s 1977 From Me to You LP and would continue through the years as he produced several of Reeves’ albums. That same album featured bassist Stanley Clarke, with whom Duke would work often in subsequent years. The pair’s 1981 single “Sweet Baby” became a No. 19 hit in Billboard, the highest placement for either artist in the trade magazine’s charts. The Clarke/Duke Project, their first full collaborative album, reached No. 33 in Billboard in 1981.

Duke’s solo albums began charting in Billboard as early as 1975’s Feel, but it was Reach for It, released in late 1977, that became his biggest seller, peaking at No. 25 and achieving RIAA gold-record status. The self-explanatory A Brazilian Love Affair was released in 1979. Duke recorded for the MPS/BASF label early in his career, then primarily for Epic, Elektra, Warner Bros. and Heads Up.

As a sideman, Duke appeared during the ’70s and ’80s on recordings by such artists as Michael Jackson (keyboards on Off the Wall), Jeffrey Osborne, Sonny Rollins, Al Jarreau, Freddie Hubbard, George Benson, Aretha Franklin, Miles Davis (Tutu, Amandla) and many others.

His compositions have been covered and sampled by an array of diverse artists including Kanye West, Ice Cube and Daft Punk.

Duke also began producing other artists prolifically during the late ’70s, his credits including Deniece Williams, Anita Baker, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Smokey Robinson, the Pointer Sisters, Take 6, Gladys Knight, Rachelle Ferrell, A Taste of Honey, Barry Manilow and many others.

Duke often served as musical director for television specials and large-scale jazz events, most recently the International Jazz Day celebrations. He also taught a course on Jazz and American Culture at Merritt Junior College in Oakland.

Nominated for several Grammy Awards, Duke won once, for his production work on Dianne Reeves’ 2000 In the Moment album.

Originally Published