Last week the music world lost one of the greatest keyboardists, composers and producers of our time in electronic jazz fusion, acoustic jazz, R&B, funk and soul. George Duke pioneered the keyboard with his innovative chord changes and note bending, which brought a new sound to the electric keyboard. He became recognized in 1969 with the album The Jon Luc-Ponty Experience with The George Duke Trio and for his multitude of collaborations with friend and mentor, the late great guitarist, Frank Zappa. He was also prolific in many genres producing, writing and arranging for some of the most well-known artists in the world such as Miles Davis, Smokey Robinson, Dionne Warwick, Natalie Cole and many others. Duke also played keyboard on Michael Jackson’s multiplatinum album, recorded in 1979, Off The Wall.
Many of us remember George Duke’s longtime collaborations with world-renowned bassist, Stanley Clarke (Clarke/Duke Project); most especially their 1980 Billboard Top 20 hit, “Sweet Baby”.
My personal experience with George Duke has been almost a lifetime of saturation in his music. I remember the first time I heard his music riding in the car with my mother listening to WBMX in Chicago. The year was 1977, a time when funk music had taken over the airwaves and the synthesizer now the instrument of choice to emphasize creative sound. At first, I thought the funky, grooving music I was listening to was that of funk bassist and singer, William “Bootsy” Collins. However, when the radio announcer said ‘that was George Duke with his new song “Reach For It”‘; I knew I had to have it and begged my mother to go to the record store to buy it immediately! My fascination with George Duke never ended and from that time on, I became a huge fan and collector of his music.
In April of 2011, I had the distinct honor of interviewing George Duke on my jazz radio program, GG’s Steamin’ Greens for my interview series GG’s Jazz Greats & Legends. We pre-recorded the interview one evening which was done in three parts, due to its length. In between takes we had many laughs, as his witty sense of humor was second to none. We talked about his life’s work and career in music. I wanted to take my time with this genius and master of music. I wanted to learn and explore what made him George Duke and how he came to be so well-respected and loved in this industry. The funny thing about interviewing artists is that the mutual love of music creates a friendship of sorts, which I am so grateful for. I called him friend.
It is now with both joy and sadness that I share this interview with you. Let us remember the man and his music; we honor and celebrate today and forevermore George Duke!