Mr. George Duke, in addition to being one of the major artists of funk, jazz-funk and jazz-fusion, adult contemporary, smooth jazz, and many other late 20th century musics derived from gospel, blues and jazz, was also one of the preemininet Bay Area artists.
He was an artist who came of age in the Bay Area in a time where artists such as Sly & The Family Stone, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jefforson Airplane, The Greatful Dead, and many others came out of the Bay Area with music that defined the essence of the ’60s youth movement. George Duke was a classicly trained childhood music prodigy who’s musical eccelcticism lent itself to playing with giants like Cannonball Adderley and Frank Zappa. He’d go on to work with other giants like Anita Baker, Miles Davis, Jefferey Osbourne, Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson. Duke was one of my personal favorites of his time for the energy and wide range of his music, as well as the funny, humorous, joyful and welcoming prescence his personality represented, which came across in his hits such as “Reach For It” and “Dukey Stick.”
George Duke was a Bay Area man, born and raised in San Rafael. The word was he began playing piano at a very young age, inspired by a Duke Ellington concert his mother took him to.George Duke is another artist who explodes the stereotypes of black music in America because he was formally trained. He graduated with a BA in trombone and Contrabass from the San Francisco Conservatory. He also earned a MS in composition from San Francisco State University.
This combination of classical and jazz training with a background in blues and gospel qualified George Duke to take all kind of gigs, which he would distinguish himself at doing for almost 50 years. Two of the most signifigant I believe, were with the jazz great Cannonball Adderley, and with progressive music genius Frank Zappa. Both of those gigs would help mold the approach that helped Duke get the wealth of music inside of himself out in a broad way that would reach many more people than musicians of his level of skill tend to reach. Duke was very much a musician of the type of the legendary Quincy Jones, one based in jazz who also had the ability to do pop music.
Cannonball Adderley was a jazz musician who was reputed for being able to play like one of the most advanced soloists of all time, Charlie Parker. He also was a memeber of the famous Miles Davis group, playing with Miles Davis and John Coltrane. But in the ’60s Cannonball emphasized his gospel and blues roots to make a kind of soul inflected jazz that was very popular in the Civil Rights era. Musicians like George Duke and Quincy Jones would keep that gospel, blues root that Cannonball emphasized in his brand of jazz and use it to overcome the trap of communication that some jazz artists, no matter how skilled or forward thinking, failed at. George Duke would have direct ties to this source, playing in Adderley’s band in the early 1970s.
Frank Zappa was simply one of the most forward thinking musicans of all time, and in his band Duke was able to become familiar with the synthesizer technology that Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock were also making famous and that would be so useful to Duke as a composer and arranger in his career.
Duke was able to take all of his influences and hit it big, as few jazz artists ever have. He was a part of that ’70s wave that included artists such as Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, the Crusaders, George Benson, Al Jearru, Grover Washington Jr, and several other artists who’d been trained in jazz but were able to break free with records that communicated. His band was very unique because it included men and women, male and female singers, and in the late ’70s, Oakland sensation Sheila E.
Duke’s music was amazing to me because he was such a well educated and well schooled fellow but his music had such a sense of fun. His two biggest Funk hits, “Reach for It”, and “Dukey Stick”, were serious grooves with lighthearted, silly vocals, very much in the vein of P-Funks classic hits. In fact, legend goes he was funking so hard, George Clinton and Bootsy Collins came to give him a funk liscence!
But Duke’s style was very wide and broad, encompassing P Funk type styles, but also taking in the stylings of a group like Earth, Wind & Fire. Duke had a passionate interest in Brazillian music, similar to members of EWF and Wayne Shorter, who released an album with Milton Nascimiento entitled “Native Dancer.” George Duke’s album “Brazillian Love Affair” would come out of that interest.
Duke was also a great collaborative artist, releasing “The Clarke Duke Project” with prominent fusion bass player Stanley Clarke. He had a huge hit in another style entitled “Sweet Baby” with Stanley Clarke.
Duke would go on to be a first call producer in Los Angeles throughout the ’80s and ’90s, producing Anita Baker, Jefferey Osbourne, Phillip Bailey, and many other artists. He also was a first call music director for awards shows such as the Soul Train awards. One of the things that struck me about Duke is how he kept his funk, unlike some artists from the ’70s, funk was never just a fad to him, every album he released until the day he died had some serious funk on it!
George Duke was very special to me because he was a local musician made very good. He showed that technical schooling and training do not have to diminish ones sense of fun and funk. My close friend Dameion is a huge fan and excellent keyboardist, for whom Duke was a major influence. When I first met Dame, he used to teach me pretty George Duke chords on Fender Rhodes electric piano. When we’d hit the strip on various musical adventures in the Bay Area, it’d often be done to a soundtrack of various George Duke tunes. Duke’s music will always remind me of my native Bay Area and my early 20s.
I also remember when Duke released the “Illusions” album in 1995. I think of how my late father used to play that album daily. Songs like “Life and Times” have a special resonance for me, coming into my life in those difficult teen years. Duke’s music, still funking and testifiying into the decade of the Terrordome (the 1990s) were part of my “system of survival.” I thank George Duke for that and although I’m sad he took his leave from us one year after his beloved wife, I thank him for the music, his example, and the warm, welcoming personality he left behind for those of us still here on terra firma.
Nobody talks about Duke’s music better than Duke! I got this idea from my friend Andre Grindle over at The Rhyhtmic Nucleas! Check out what Duke has to say about his own music