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In memoriam: George Duke

By Ted Gioia


When a famous musician dies, journalists reach for a handle, some short phrase to summarize what a performer did to gain a dose of fame. Keyboardist George Duke, who died on Monday at age 67, resists such pigeonholing.

Most of the published tributes call Duke a jazz musician, and he certainly left his mark on that idiom. But I first heard George Duke in a rock band—and one of the best rock bands of all time. As a sideman with Frank Zappa, Duke participated on a series of pathbreaking albums from the 1970s. If you evaluated rock LPs on musicianship and sheer bravado, albums such as Waka/Jawaka, The Grand Wazoo, and Roxy & Elsewhere, Duke would have earned double-platinum status long ago. Zappa sold more records in the 1980s, when he dished out “Valley Girl” and other humor-driven bits of musical cynicism, but I’ll take the albums with Duke over any of those later efforts.

I also admired Duke’s work with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, another Zappa sideman with deep jazz credentials, and his projects with Miles Davis are classics of late-stage jazz-rock fusion. But Duke was equally comfortable with pop, even with the King of Pop—you can hear him on Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall.” He also worked with Phil Collins, Jeffrey Osborne, George Clinton, and even kept it in the family with his cousin, vocalist Dianne Reeves. Duke could fit in with old school jazz performers such as Harry “Sweets” Edison and Marian McPartland or match the groove with Brazilian artists Milton Nascimento and Flora Purim. He was most famous for his synthisizer work, but he could also sing, produce, compose, or do whatever else it took to turn vinyl into gold. And when he wasn’t playing the music, others were sampling what he had played in the past. You can hear his borrowed licks on tracks by everyone from Kanye West to Daft Punk.

Then, of course, we have the albums under his own leadership—around 40 releases that built a huge following for Duke with their pleasing mix of funk, R&B, pop and jazz. Just a few days before his death, Duke released Dreamweaver, a musical tribute to his late wife Corine who died a year ago. But now Dreamweaver will also be heard by fans as a posthumous celebration of Duke himself. The song “Missing You” from the album very much sums up the feeling his many fans are experiencing today. He will continue to be missed, but in the music business, where it’s always hit or miss, George Duke will be remembered even more for the hits.

George Duke
12 January 1946 – 5 August 2013

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Ted Gioia is the author of eight books on music, including The History of Jazz and The Jazz Standards.

Image credit: George Duke and Miles Davis in 1986 at Montreux Jazz Festival. Photo by Dr Jean Fortunet. Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Commons.

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