Jazz, funk and soul keyboard maestro George Duke (pictured) passed away at the age of 67. According to USA Today, the musician reportedly battled chronic lymphocytic leukemia, according to his record label, Concord Music Group.
Duke, who had worked with countless creme de la creme artists from Gladys Knight, to Anita Baker and Miles Davis, had a celebrated career that spanned nearly five decades. He was born in San Rafael, Calif., but was raised in Marin County. Duke’s love of music developed at the age of 4 when his mother took him to see Duke Ellington in concert. Upon experiencing Ellington’s music for the first time, young George went bonkers and begged his mother to buy him a piano. Three years later, Duke began taking piano lessons and was soon banging out funky tunes, as well as playing gospel.
By the time his mid-teens rolled around, Duke, who was heavily influenced by the giant of jazz, Miles Davis, was in pretty high demand, performing with various high school jazz bands. He decided to pursue his dreams of becoming a jazz musician and entered the San Francisco Conservatory Of Music, majoring in trombone and composition with a minor in contrabass. He would obtain his bachelor’s degree in 1967.
Duke’s thirst for higher learning did not end with a B.A. He later earned a master’s in composition from San Francisco State University and even taught a course on “Jazz And American Culture” at Merritt Junior College in Oakland for a brief period.
Duke’s career as a jazz musician began picking up steam when he assembled a self-named trio. Together, they managed to snag tours in the U.S. and abroad and even landed a much coveted appearance at the famed Newport Jazz festival. The trio soon began receiving nods of approval from jazz enthusiasts and fellow grade-A performers like Cannonball Adderly, Quincy Jones and Frank Zappa.
In 1970, Duke was presented with a primo offer that he could not let slip through his fingers: Cannonball Adderly asked him to join his group where he remained for two years. During his stint with the Adderly, Duke hobnobbed with the likes of Nancy Wilson, Joe Williams and Dizzy Gillespie, recording artists he had longed admired growing up.
Duke made the decision to step out as a solo artist in 1976. It was an excellent move. Duke’s debut, fusion-infused album, “From Me To You,” recorded in 1976, was a success. He followed his debut LP two years later with “Reach For It,” a mix of fusion and hard funk which is still a fave today. It went gold.
The late seventies turned Duke into a mega producer. When he worked with the girl duo, “A Taste of Honey,” to produce their chart-topping smash single “Sukiyaki,” which sold over 2 million copies. He became the man of the hour that every recording artist wanted to work with.
Duke went on to produce such Top-10 pop successes as Jeffrey Osbourne’s “On the Wings Of Love,” and songbird Deniece Williams’ “Let’s Hear It For The Boys” and “Do What You Feel.”
By the end of the eighties era, Duke’s collaborations ran the gamut. He worked with artists whose musical genres varied from pop, to jazz, to R&B and to soul. Barry Manilow, to Melissa Manchester, to Smokey Robinson, to Anita Baker, to Howard Hewitt were among the artists he worked with. The complete list of performers is endless.
Throughout later years, Duke served as musical director for various recording artists and even television specials such as the famed “Soul Train Awards.” Duke also received numerous Grammy awards and nominations. He built a reputation for doing television and film scoring work as well.
Over a year ago, his much beloved wife of 40 years, Corinne, succumbed to cancer and this reportedly left him devastated. During his entire career, Duke released more than 30 solo albums and his latest work, “DreamWeaver” released in July of last year, is a touching tribute to his undying love for his spouse.
RIP jazz maestro and thank you….