…Ladies and Gentlemen, Duke has left the building.
It is with a heavy heart that I write of the passing of one of the top reasons I have such a passion for music (especially of a certain vintage), the incomparable George Duke. At the time of this writing, there are no details surrounding what seems to have been on the outset a sudden passing, but as far as I am concerned they are irrelevant. This man has left an impression on the world that even in his absence, I am not so sure will be fully understood. To explain how passionate I am about his music — I believe in his wake, there should be a statue of his likeness erected in his home of California, somewhere.
The center of my musical universe revolved around keyboard instruments: the piano, the synthesizer, even oddities like the harpischord and the clavinet — and George Duke was one of the greatest living evangelists of such instruments. His style was so distinct, the voices he programmed on his synthesizers so identifiable, that even Korg found it fit to pay tribute Mr. Duke by naming one of its preset patches after him on a number of their products (the R3 and the MicroKorg XL to name a couple). George Duke represented one third of a Holy Trinity of keyboardists (the others being Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea) who broke out of their shells in the 1970s and showed the world that those cold machines known as synthesizers could be just as expressive as their acoustic and otherwise traditional counterparts. He also represented a wealth of musical knowledge and experience: classical, jazz, R&B, rock and roll, so on and so forth — of which he was always glad to share with others. His website GeorgeDuke.com contained detailed recounts of his own expansive discography, as well as links to song sheets, and even albums of his that were out of print from conventional sources (that he sold far cheaper than what could be had importing from Japan, but with the same quality). George also offered frank discussion on contemporary musical happenings (he once lamented on the expression found in modern acoustic jazz, that some players sounded more like recitals, and that the African-American tradition of musical expression found in the genre seemed to be fading), but never tread so far into curmudgeonly ranting.
Like many in his field, George recalled his shift to electric sounds was met with much resistance on his part. It was at the urging of Frank Zappa that he took up the synthesizer in the first place, and also while under Zappa, George admits that sometimes simplicity had its place in “heavy” music. This philosophy spoke much to his later success… the exploratory sounds found during his tenure at MPS records which blossomed into a fruitful venture at Epic/CBS records where George became a force not just in jazz but in R&B music as well, as primary artist and producer for himself and others, earning international fame. When his time at CBS ran out, George moved on to other labels, notably Warners in the latter half of the ’80s and ’90s, where he found a bit of resurgence. He also managed to break Stanley Clarke out of his shell for a few albums as the Clarke/Duke project (as a result, Stanley himself started to find himself embracing other styles of music). Yet, for all of the hits and would-have-beens, his name seemed to mostly ring bells around the musical cognoscenti. Perhaps that too was appropriate, for George Duke was serious about his craft, and would not be tied down to conventions, moving left with albums such as the Muir Woods Suite when many might have expected another Snapshot out of him.
The thing that always made George Duke who he was — was that no matter how complex his music became, he always seemed to have fun — he had a sort of “prankster” element to whatever he played, and this was especially apparent should you ever had seen him in a live setting (or perhaps have heard his “live” album with Billy Cobham). In that vein, one of the most enduring “Tales of Duke” could be found on the Fender Rhodes piano documentary Down The Rhodes, in which he tells a rousing story about a run-in with Chick Corea (whose response to being asked about the piano George borrowed is worth more than the price of admission).
Thankfully, much of George Duke’s greatest recordings have been reissued in recent years and can still be found in stores (online and otherwise); for those that aren’t, his many fans (such as Yours Truly) have picked up the slack. If you haven’t, I urge you to look back in the Vault, and check out his album The Dream, which later was formatted into one of his greatest albums, The 1976 Solo Keyboard Album. It was a frequent companion on my many trips through various highways, and if you’re at all curious about George Duke, it should be on yours.
I leave you all with one of my favorite George Duke clips, a bit from the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival featuring the Billy Cobham/George Duke Band:
To George: May you and your wife Corine forever Rest In Peace.
Thank you for everything.