When I woke up this morning and logged into Facebook (who knew I’d ever open a blog with a statement like that), I was greeted by news that hit like a lead balloon. George Duke had passed away at the age of 67. Understanding that this was a man who lived an very clean life, I was extremely surprised that he passed away so suddenly and at a relatively young age of chronic lymphocytic leukemia as it turns out. Immediate speculation within my family suggested the old folk lore of the deceased. George’s beloved wife Corine,mother of his son Rashid as well,passed away a year ago and on the liner notes to George’s current album The DreamWeaver it was made perfectly clear that Duke was incredibly broken up about her passing. So the folk lore said that perhaps George died of a broken heart-a physical symptom of the stress he was under from losing a loved one. Sad as that sounds, it was equally as sad and confusing for me to hear of his death. As if this writing I’ve processed it of course. But it doesn’t quite feel right. What does George Duke mean to me personally? And does that relate in any way to the views of other Duke admirers.
Even though I had bought a couple George Duke albums on recommendations from literature including his Don’t Let Go and Dream On CD’s beforehand, my first true exposure came when listening to keyboardist Nigel Hall’s radio show at WMEB in Orono Maine. Nigel was (and likely still is) an enormous George Duke admirer. It was Duke who inspired him on using the suitcase Fender Rhodes electric piano as his main instrument of choice. It also inspired Nigel to make use of the pitch bend on the DX-7 synthesizer he played sometimes when performing. During these performances George Duke’s 1970’s songs “Don’t Be Shy” and “Daisy Mae” were almost always part of Nigel’s repertoire. During this time he told me of Duke’s website George Duke: Online. This site is still in operation today. One of things I liked about it was the fact that George Duke not only had created a well designed discography of his own records-complete with his own personal critiques of each of his albums. But also that he had an area he called “Musicians Corner”,where he discussed articles and his own musings on the state of the music industry and musicians working within it. He provided for his admirers a wealth of great insights through this system.
Born in San Rafael,California on January 12th,1946 George Duke’s entire career as a pianist apparently began after a concert by a another jazz icon with a similar name: Duke Ellington. Earning first a bachelors degree in trombone and composition,the latter of which he would eventually receive his masters for it was a dizzying paced ride from their through working first with Jean-Luc Ponty,then with Cannonball Adderly and finally winding in in Frank Zappa’s Mothers Of Invention in 1972. By that time he was a pianist of some note with a few independent albums under his belt. Zappa encouraged Duke not only to resume his trombone playing with him,but also to play a synthesizer and sing. When Duke again resumed his solo career with 1974’s Faces In Reflection album. After several successful albums for the MPS label during his years with Zappa,Duke finally left the label and Zappa in 1977 to sign with Epic. Later that year he had his first major radio hit with “Reach For It”. And after a series of solo smashes Duke also began a successful career as a hit making pop/R&B/jazz producer as well as a musical director for such events as the 1988 Nelson Mandela tribute at Wembley Stadium in London.
Considering at one not too far away point I had the impression of most funk/soul/jazz musicians as being highly educated and having dynamic musical reputations, George Duke was one of a very few who really did fit that criteria. He had the education, helped create his own wonderfully expansive career as well as that of many others from his cousin Diane Reeves to Howard Hewett and the tremendously vocally talented Anita Baker. Of course as my friend Henrique pointed out, one of the most important things his education and experience level earned him as a career as a musical director. This came from and resulted in his ability to orchestrate music as well as play it which,as too many aren’t aware, are actually entirely different musical concepts. Normally I would present some of Duke’s music here for the uninitiated. Instead I am going to post a link to George Duke’s website. It was evident to me long ago that no one probably spoke better about Duke’s own music,in a rather egoless and often self critical way I should add,than the man himself. And on that note I would like to extend my deepest regrets to his son Rashid Duke who,within a years time has lost both his mother and now his father. George Duke,your music shall live on to those who will listen.
George Duke: Online Weblink