George Duke Dies at 67
George Duke—the Grammy-winning keyboardist, composer and producer whose vast artistic output spanned the worlds of jazz, r&b, funk and rock—died Aug. 5 in a Los Angeles hospital, where he was being treated for chronic lymphocytic leukemia. He was 67.
Duke’s new CD, DreamWeaver (Heads Up International), released July 16, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz chart. The album was dedicated to Duke’s late wife, Corine, who died of cancer last July.
Like the bulk of Duke’s discography, DreamWeaver accentuates eclecticism with tracks that range from swinging jazz and sweaty funk to gospel-inflected pop and sensual r&b ballads. In press materials for the CD, Duke examined his stylistic dynamism in philosophical terms. “Everything is in transition—from hot to cold, from life to death,” he said. “I wanted to incorporate that kind of thing and include a lot of things that are a part of my life.”
Duke, who began his career as a keyboardist and bandleader in the late 1960s, collaborated with some of the music industry’s most prominent figures, including Frank Zappa, Miles Davis and Michael Jackson. A producer since the ’80s, he crafted scores of recordings—many of them Grammy winners—for artists representing every corner of the contemporary American musical landscape.
Duke was born in San Rafael, Calif., on Jan. 12, 1946. Obsessed with the piano after attending a Duke Ellington performance as a child, Duke began formal training on the instrument at age 7. By his teen years, his influences had expanded to include keyboardists Ray Charles, Les McCann, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Cal Tjader and Herbie Hancock, as well as horn players Davis and John Coltrane. He led several jazz and funk groups while attending Tamalpais High School, from which he graduated with honors in 1963.
He received scholarships to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and earned a bachelor’s degree in music composition and trombone in 1967. He received a master’s in music composition from San Francisco State University in 1969. He taught jazz and improvisation courses at Merritt Junior College in Oakland, Calif., in 1969 and at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in 1970. While still a student, Duke released his first LP, The George Duke Quartet, Presented By The Jazz Workshop, 1966.
During the ’60s, Duke maintained a regular trio gig backing singer Al Jarreau at the Half Note in San Francisco for three years. He left the Half Note in 1967 and began performing with such artists as Zappa, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Jean-Luc Ponty, Cannonball Adderley, Nancy Wilson, Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Cobham and Stanley Clarke over the next several years.
Duke launched a solo recording career at age 20 and shortly thereafter began cutting LPs for the MPS label in the ’70s. As the decade progressed, he veered more toward fusion, r&b and funk with albums like From Me To You (1976) and Reach For It (1978). During this period he recorded one of his best-known albums, 1980’s Brazilian Love Affair, which included vocals by Flora Purim and Milton Nascimento and percussion by Airto Moreira.
By the end of the ’80s, Duke had made his mark as a versatile producer working with artists such as Jarreau, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Melissa Manchester, Barry Manilow, Smokey Robinson, Take 6, Gladys Knight and Anita Baker. Duke also worked as a musical director for numerous large-scale events, including the Nelson Mandela tribute concert at Wembley Stadium in London in 1988. The following year, along with Marcus Miller, he served as musical director of NBC’s late-night music performance program “Sunday Night.”
In a November 1984 cover story in DownBeat, Duke cited Zappa and Quincy Jones as producers he tried to emulate. “A lot of producing has to do with psychology … dealing with musicians who might be a little frail or maybe have an active ego,” he said. “The ultimate goal is to make them feel relaxed so they can be creative. My philosophy of production is to try to make the best record I can for the artist, have it be successful in the marketplace, and give the artist something musically.”
Often the subject of controversy in jazz circles for his tendency to cross over into popular forms like r&b, rock and funk on his own albums, Duke enjoyed more commercial success during his career than many of his straightahead peers. “I think each style has validity,” Duke said in a March 10, 1977, cover story in DownBeat. “I can play [many] styles of music reasonably well, and I gain invaluable experience with each one. While most people get involved with only one style of music, becoming mono-thematic, I’ve studied all of those styles and learned what makes them work. I consider myself comprehensive. In other words, I can play in various settings and still be myself. I’m still gonna be me, even though I may have different hats on. And I’m very sincere with all of it.”
Later in that 1977 interview, Duke defended his use of electronic keyboards and his decision to sing on his own albums. Both practices were frequently criticized in the jazz press as disingenuous attempts to generate record sales and radio play. “I think it is possible to maintain your artistic integrity and be commercial at the same time,” he said. “I dedicate myself to the proposition that it is possible to play good music and still sell more than 3,000 records. Besides that, there is my attitude toward music. Certain musicians are extremely serious. They don’t like humor. I do.
“I have a certain amount of humor, because I don’t believe musicians should be so stuffy. I know a lot of people say I’m just jivin’ around. And a lot of times I am, because I like to have a good time. Life’s too short to just see the serious side of everything. But I am very serious about music, and I am very serious about myself. I don’t feel that having a sense of humor should in any way devalue your musical worth.”
Duke signed with the Warner Bros. label during the ’90s. In addition to recording noteworthy albums such as Snapshot, Muir Woods Suite and Illusions, he continued to produce recordings for a variety of artists, including Najee, George Howard and Natalie Cole.
In 2000, Duke launched his own label, BPM (Big Piano Music). He joined forces with the Heads Up label with the 2008 release of Dukey Treats, which marked a return to old-school funk sensibilities. His 2010 Heads Up album Déjà Vu revisited the classic synthesizer sound that characterized some of his memorable recordings from the mid-’70s.
Duke also composed and recorded numerous scores for film and television. In addition to nine years spent as the musical director for the Soul Train Music Awards, he contributed material to a number of films, including Karate Kid III, Leap Of Faith and Meteor Man.
Duke is survived by sons Rashid and John. Funeral services will be private.