RIP George Duke:
Always a Jazz Man

Keyboard ace George Duke, a longtime favorite in the jazz/fusion world,  passed away this morning, August 6, after a long illness. Best-known for his collaborations with Frank Zappa and Stanley Clarke along with a string of solo albums, Duke performed a well-received set with Clarke at Jazz Fest here in New Orleans just three months ago.


George Duke at New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival 2013 (Photo: Kim Welsh)

Duke first made his mark in the late ‘60s in a band with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. This led to his being spotted by Zappa who recruited Duke for two different incarnations of the Mothers. With the later version in 1975, Duke was a key part of One Size Fits All, an album whose high musicality makes it stand out from a lot of Zappa’s more satire-driven work of that era. In particular, “Inca Roads” is considered one of Zappa’s later peaks and is highlighted by Duke’s work on keys.

Duke spent most of his career jumping the boundaries between jazz and R&B. He played with some of the greatest jazzmen including Cannonball Adderley (joining his band between stints with Zappa) and Ornette Coleman. He began dipping into funk and R&B with the 1975 album From Me To You, and had a major hit with 1977’s “Just For You” off Reach For It, making him one of the few jazzmen at the time to enjoy crossover success. He crossed even further when he produced A Taste of Honey’s 1983 hit “Sukiyaki.”  But Duke often returned to jazz, notably on the 2002 album, Face the Music.

The Clarke/Duke set at Jazz Fest was a great one for the fusion fans, with dazzling solos from both players. One of the set’s few R&B numbers was Duke’s tune “Sweet Baby,” which was a Top 20 pop hit in 1981. Though it didn’t get much recognition that day, Duke pointed out that it was the biggest hit song both he and Clarke had ever had. Before the standard “Autumn Leaves” Duke noted, “Whatever else we might play, we’ll always be jazz musicians.” Duke’s influence on New Orleans musicians was borne out this year, when Terence Higgins’ Swampgrease II included a version with Nigel Hall of his 1975 composition “Chariot” on their album Rage Til Sunrise.

According to a statement by Concord Music Group, Duke had been battling chronic lymphocytic leukemia. He was 67. His last and latest album, Dreamweaver was released July 16, not even one month ago.


Stanley Clarke / George Duke Project live at New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival 2013:


View more photos from the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on OffBeat‘s Flickr stream here.

  • Bk native

    Really sad to hear. He was a joy to see at Jazzfest. He sounded great, looked great and played amazingly. Rip George Duke