August 08, 2013
By Shirley Hawkins
LAWT Contributing Writer
Jazz fans around the world were stunned to hear of the recent passing of legendary Grammy-winning keyboardist and producer George Duke, who died Monday night in Los Angeles from chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Duke, who composed, sang, arranged and produced in both jazz and popular mainstream musical genres, was most noted for his love for electronic jazz, funk, R&B, and acoustic jazz. His lengthy career spanned forty-plus decades.
His penchant for experimentation led him to collaborate with artists such as Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, George Clinton, Barry Manilow and several of Brazil’s top musicians. The prolific musician also worked with jazz greats Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Cannonball Adderly, Al Jarreau and Stanley Clarke. Duke was well known in the music industry as a successful record producer as well--his “magic touch” graced the recordings of Miles Davis, Smokey Robinson, Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, Jill Scott, The Pointer Sisters, Anita Baker, Jeffrey Oborne, Deniece Williams, and Rachelle Ferrell.
The multi-faceted musician is also noted for playing keyboards on Michael Jackson’s 1979 album, “Off the Wall.” Duke became entranced with music at the age of four years old after seeing Duke Ellington perform.
“I don’t remember it too well…but my mother told me I went crazy,” Duke said on his website. “I ran around saying, ‘Get me a piano, get me a piano!”
Born in San Rafael, California, Duke said he learned a lot about music by going to church. He played in high-school jazz groups and was heavily influenced by his idol, Miles Davis. He earned degrees in trombone, composition and contrabass from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and a master’s degree in composition from San Francisco State University.
He first won international acclaim on 1969’s “The Jean Luc-Ponty Experience with The George Duke Trio,” considered one of the first fusion jazz recordings. Duke also played with the Don Ellis Orchestra, Cannonball Adderly’s band and with jazz musician Stanley Clarke. Eager to strike out on his own, Duke became a solo artist in 1976 and released more than 30 albums.
Duke brought jazz-funk fusion to the forefront with several groundbreaking albums in the ‘70s, including “Faces in Reflection,” “The Aura Will Prevail” and “Liberated Fantasies.” All three albums are considered classics of jazz-funk fusion.
Leon “Ndugu” Chancler was one of Duke’s close associates and fellow musicians who knew him for 45 years and began playing with him 42 years ago and will most remember his friend’s spirit and being jovial all the time.
“He had a saying for everything, and his favorite saying was ‘I’m Just trying to Make a Living!,’” Remembered Chancler.
“My fondest memory of him is the two of us in the studio and drinking wine. I made about 20 albums with him including ‘Reach For It’ and ‘Don’t Let Go’ which were big at the time. He loved his wife, loved his music and loved his wine,” Chancler told the Sentinel.
Longtime friend and respected bass player Byron Miller played with Duke for over 40 years and recorded three songs with him that will be released on his upcoming CD, but it is the legacy of his friend that he will carry with him going forward.
“I knew him for 40 years and played with him for 40 years. I last played with him in June when we were recording my CD and we recorded three songs. I will keep the funk alive and my legacy with him is always going to be his biggest hits, so every time they play his hits they play me,” said Miller.
His prodigious talent did not go unnoticed--Duke earned a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album as the producer for Dianne Reeve’s “In the Moment—Live in Concert (2000)” and for “The Calling” (2001). A little more than a year ago, Duke’s wife, Corinne, died of cancer. Duke was devastated and could not make music for months. But last month, Duke overcame his grief and released “DreamWeaver,” which many consider a touching and poignant tribute to his wife.
Among his many achievements, Duke also worked as musical director for the Soul Train Music Awards and other special events. Several of his songs were featured on soundtracks for “The Five Heartbeats” and “Karate Kid III.” Duke’s son, Rashid, thanked his father’s fans in a statement released Tuesday.
“The outpouring of love and support that we have received from my father’s friends, fans and the entire music community has been overwhelming,” he said.
Neil Portnow, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), was saddened by Duke’s passing.
“Grammy winner George Duke was a multitalented producer and keyboardist whose sound infused jazz, funk and R&B throughout his 40-year-plus career, he said in a statement.
“His immense talent will live on through the hundreds of recordings he’s given the world, and we send our sympathies to his family, friends, and all who were touched by his soulful music.”
Assistant Managing Editor Kenneth Miller contributed to this article.