George Duke was born in San Rafael, California, and reared in Marin City, a working class section of Marin County. When he was just four years old, his mother took him to see Duke Ellington in concert. “I don’t remember it too well,” says George, “but my mother told me I went crazy. I ran around saying ‘Get me a piano, get me a piano!’“ He began his piano studies at age seven, absorbing the roots of Black music in his local Baptist church. “That’s where I first began to play funky. I really learned a lot about music from the church. I saw how music could trigger emotions in a cause-and-effect relationship.”
By the age of sixteen, George had played with a number of high school jazz groups. He was heavily influenced by Miles Davis and the soul-jazz sound of Les McCann and Cal Tjader. Attending the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and majoring in trombone and composition with a minor in contrabass, he received his Bachelor of Music degree in 1967.
George and a young singer named Al Jarreau formed a group which became the house band at San Francisco’s Half Note Club. “There was another club up the street called The Both/And and I worked there on Mondays with everybody from Letta Mbulu to Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon.” George later received a Masters Degree in composition from San Francisco State University and briefly taught a course on Jazz and American Culture at Merritt Junior College in Oakland. It was about this time that George began to release a series of jazz LPs on the MPS label.
One night, on a local jazz station, George heard a record by the violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. When he found out that Jean-Luc was coming to California to record, he sent a tape to Dick Bock at World-Pacific Records, along with a note saying “There is no other pianist for this guy but me.”
The George Duke Trio which emerged from those sessions was soon burning a path of creative excitement through the jazz world. It included a major European tour and an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival. The group’s first gig in a rock-oriented venue came in early 1969. “It was a club in Los Angeles called Thee Experience,” George recalls. In attendance were Cannonball Adderly, Quincy Jones, Frank Zappa, and the unexpected presence of an electric, rather than acoustic, piano on-stage. The Ponty-Duke performance wowed the crowd, and ushered in the West Coast counterpart of the Eastern fusion revolution sparked by Miles Davis, The Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report. Before ‘69 was out, George joined Frank Zappa (as he put together a new “Mothers of Invention” lineup) and toured for an entire year.
At the end of 1970, George Duke received an offer he couldn’t refuse from veteran jazzman Julian “Cannonball” Adderly. “I joined the group in January ‘71, and stayed two years. Through Cannonball, I was given the opportunity to meet and work with Nancy Wilson, Joe Williams, Dizzy Gillespie - all these great artists I’d been listening to since I was a kid.”
I met Stanley Clarke through my association with Cannonball. We played a festival in Pori Finland where I heard Stan with Chick Corea for the first time live - I was astounded! Through my recordings and live performances with Cannonball and Stanley, I developed a musical, and even more importantly, a family relationship with Flora Purim and Airto Moriera. The ‘70s were filled with musical experimentation with all of these great musicians and more.
In 1973, George rejoined Zappa and brought Jean-Luc Ponty with him. That band stayed together for the next three years, until Duke left to join forces with drummer Billy Cobham. Together, they formed a powerhouse jazz fusion unit even more popular and influential than the earlier Duke/Ponty group.
George Duke became a solo artist in 1976, and enjoyed success with a series of fusion-oriented LPs such as his debut CBS LP, From Me To You. In 1978, the funk-flavored sound of the gold album Reach For It propelled George Duke into the upper reaches of the charts, and from small clubs to large arenas.
In the late ‘70s, George decided to get into producing as a career. George began by producing the Brazilian instrumentalist Raoul de Souza, then made his first vocal album with singer Dee Dee Bridgewater. His breakthrough came with an album by A Taste of Honey. The single, “Sukiyaki,” went to Number One on the Pop, Adult Contemporary, and R&B charts, ultimately selling over two million copies.
“From there,” says George, “things started snowballing.” He went on to produce three albums for Jeffrey Osborne (including the Top Ten pop singles “Stay With Me Tonight” and “On The Wings Of Love”) and two best-sellers for Deniece Williams (including her across-the-board number one smash “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” and the chart-topping R&B single “Do What You Feel”).
Duke also wrote and produced the number one single “Sweet Baby” for his own recording with Stanley Clarke (The Clarke/Duke Project). Duke’s special expertise was even tapped by such unlikely mainstream artists as Melissa Manchester and Barry Manilow. By the end of 1988, he had produced four songs for Smokey Robinson and several songs for saxophonist George Howard. George’s other production projects included the number one chart hit “Call Me” by Phil Perry and several songs for Miles Jaye, vocalist Dianne Reeves, The Pointer Sisters, 101 North, Najee, Jeffrey Osborne, Take 6, Howard Hewett, Chante Moore, Everette Harp, Rachelle Ferrell and, most recently, Gladys Knight, Keith Washington, Filipino star Gary Valenciano, Johnny Gill and Anita Baker.
George Duke made his debut on Elektra in February, 1985 with the Latin-flavored Thief in The Night. A second album, simply titled George Duke, was issued in August 1986, followed by Night After Night, George Duke’s final release for Elektra.
Through the years, along with his own releases and busy producing schedule, George has acted as musical director for numerous artists and television specials, including the Soul Train Music Awards (nine years), NBC’s Sunday Night Show and Anita Baker (Duke took Anita and a fourteen-piece band to Washington D.C. to perform at the Kennedy Center for The Democratic National Committee). He served as musical director for Disney’s concert to benefit the Foundation for Pediatric AIDS For Our Children (featuring an all-star cast that included Michael Bolton, Paula Abdul and Kris Kross) and Disney’s Salute To Youth during the President’s Inaugural celebration. In ‘92, he went to Spain to be music director for the largest guitar festival in history, featuring such artists as George Benson, Stanley Clarke, Larry Coryell, Paco de Lucia, Rickie Lee Jones and John McLaughlin. He also was at the helm for Legend to Legend with George Burns, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis, and others.
In addition to his non-stop musical adventures, George appeared on NBC’s soap opera Generations in ‘89, playing the role of a night club owner. He also found time in his schedule to appear on Comic Relief with Doc Severinson, donating his funds to the homeless. That same year George recorded a third album with Stanley Clarke for Epic Records, titled Stanley Clarke & George Duke 3.
In 1990, George Duke was named “R&B Keyboardist of The Year” by Keyboard Magazine for the second consecutive year. Other honors include Grammy nominations for his production of “We Are The World” by the Children of The World; “Sweet Baby” by the Clarke/Duke project; “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” by Deniece Williams; “Stay With Me Tonight” and “On The Wings Of Love” by Jeffrey Osborne; and “Fumilayo” by Dianne Reeves. Tutu, by Miles Davis with selections produced by George Duke, won a Grammy in 1986. Both Miles Davis Amandla (selections produced by Duke) and Al Jarreau’s Heart’s Horizon (produced entirely by Duke) received Grammy nominations in 1990.
Duke has also established a reputation for television and film scoring work with “The Five Heartbeats” film soundtrack, the title song for the movie “Karate Kid III”, music for Paramount Pictures “Leap of Faith” and “Meteor Man”, and NBC’s Leeza and Marilu daytime talk shows.
Highlights of ‘91 included a sold-out U.S. tour with Dianne Reeves and Najee, with a performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival’s 25th Anniversary and headlining the first annual Japanese Playboy Festival at the Tokyo Dome.
In ‘92, George’s Warner Bros. debut Snapshot captured the number one slot on the jazz charts for five weeks and generated the Top Ten R&B single “No Rhyme, No Reason.”
The following year, George Duke’s Muir Woods Suite, a major orchestral piece, premiered at the Montreux Jazz Festival and, in 1994, Duke began work on Illusions.
Reflecting on Illusions George said, “I wanted to continue what I started with the Snapshot record, to continue doing that type of music . . . and I wanted to do a follow-up to ‘No Rhyme, No Reason.’“
Following the release of Illusions in January 1995, Duke began mixing the Muir Woods Suite which was recorded live, when originally performed at the Montreux Festival in 1993. When not locked in the studio with the Suite, George arranged, produced and performed on songs and albums for a number of artists, including: Najee, George Howard, and the Winans (he arranged and produced three tracks on their Qwest album Heart and Soul which was nominated for a Grammy). George Duke also traveled extensively, performed a European tour with Anita Baker and a Brazilian tour with Rachelle Ferrell, as well as toured the states with his own Duke and Friends tour featuring Phil Perry, Howard Hewett, Dianne Reeves and George Howard. He ended the year performing in Jakarta with Phil Perry.
George was involved in conducting and arranging for numerous award and episodic TV show in 1995. He maintained his long time association with Soul Train, and served as Music Director for their 25th anniversary special and also wrote, performed and produced the theme for the Walt Disney show Inside Out.
The beginning of ‘96 saw the release of his musical and emotional tour de force Muir Woods Suite, which was performed by a jazz quartet made up of George Duke (piano), Stanley Clarke (bass), Chester Thompson (drums) and Paulinho Da Costa (percussion) with L’orchestre National de Lille, Ettore Stratta, conductor.
This was followed by more production with work on songs for Marilyn Scott, Al Jarreau and Natalie Cole. (George produced one-third of the songs on Natalie Cole’s Stardust LP which was nominated for two Grammys and won one). George also wrote and produced the main title for The Malcolm and Eddie Show on UPN.
The year 1997 on a high note, with a trip to the Arkansas Ball for the President’s Inaugural, where George Duke was a featured performer and special guest. This was followed by the spring release of George Duke’s 30th solo album and fourth release on Warner Bros. Records, Is Love Enough? It displayed myriad influences and boundless energy, continuing his tradition of posing questions, inspiring thought and requiring reflection.
George Duke immersed himself in more “Love,” serving as executive producer on Warner Bros. Records artist Marilyn Scott’s album, Avenues of Love. (George also produced the Grammy-nominated hit “The Look of Love,” from the same album.) That same year, he played on yet another labelmate’s album, Kirk Whalum’s The Gospel According To Jazz, recorded live at the Roy Acuff Theatre in September of ‘97 (and released in late ‘98). The two teamed up again, along with Michael McDonald, headlining the inaugural event for a weeklong celebration entitled “Memphis Remembers Martin,” in March of ‘98. Around the same time, he served as musical director for the critically-lauded Burt Bacharach television special on Fox Network entitled One Amazing Night, which featured Bacharach and an array of legendary and breaking artists including Dionne Warwick, Elvis Costello, Winona Judd and Barenaked Ladies.
In addition to doing his annual Soul Train Music Award stint in ‘98 and recording and releasing his “for lovers only” Grammy-nominated After Hours, his first completely instrumental album since 1975, he also produced three tracks for Dionne Warwick and one for Take 6. Next he hit the road, touring with Rachelle Ferrell, subsequently serving as music director for The Lady of Soul Awards and the Kansas City Jazz Festival.
George also produced the Grammy award-winning In the Moment CD for Dianne Reeves, and Rachelle Ferrell’s Individuality, delaying completion of his own year 2000 solo release, Cool. In the midst of production of his wonderfully diverse and vocally revealing sixth Warner Bros. solo release, he headlined a tribute to Jesse Jackson at a special birthday celebration for the renowned reverend, along with Stevie Wonder and Erykah Badu and continued his longstanding association as musical director for the Soul Train Awards. During the summer, Duke toured with the Montreux Jazz Festival on Tour in the USA, for which he served as both musical director and a featured artist, along with an all-star cast of musicians and vocalists including Al Jarreau, David Sanborn, Roberta Flack and Joe Sample.
Immediately following the tour, George began work on another Dianne Reeves CD, a special tribute to Sarah Vaughn with full string orchestra. It is entitled The Calling. On October 19th George received the Prism award and began shooting a one-hour biographical television special for BET called “The House of Duke.” Once again, Duke served as music director for the Soul Train Christmas Star Fest, and on December 16th plays at The Forum in Los Angeles as part of the Stevie Wonder Toy drive for disadvantaged kids.
In January, Duke flew to New York to sit on several panels for the International Association of Jazz Educators, including a one hour “One on One” discussion and interview with Quincy Jones. Live performances in January 2001 include Las Vegas, Vale, Colorado (with Chante Moore) and a week at Catalina’s Bar and Grill in Los Angeles. George also began work on a flag song for the Arthritis Association featuring artists such as Steven Seagal, Donnie McClurkin, Bonny James and more. George’s CD Cool, is nominated for a Grammy and an Image award. While not winning either, George did win a Grammy for producing the Best Jazz Vocal Album In the Moment for Dianne Reeves.
In April, George re-releases Follow The Rainbow and From Me To You on CD via his Web Site. On April 19th, a special performance of Muir Woods Suite at St. John Devine Cathedral to aid various battered women’s shelters in New York was scheduled. Upon his return, George began work on three tracks for a Christmas CD featuring Kelly Price.
The summer of 2001 finds Duke on the Tom Joyner Cruise, with a combination vacation and gig. Live dates include a special performance for the 100 Black Men of America Convention in Atlanta. Off to Europe where Duke is artist in residence at the North Sea Jazz Festival featuring performances with Dianne Reeves and Rachelle Ferrell. A special performance of Muir Woods Suite with the Prima la Musica Orchestra form Brussels was amazing! Also various performances at the Montreux Festival kept George busy. One special moment was a tribute to Miles Davis featuring Marcus Miller, Christian McBride and Richard Bona on basses; Herbie Hancock and Duke on piano and synths; Terri Lynn Carrington and Chester Thompson on drums; Wallace Roney on trumpet and Jeff Lee Johnson on guitar.
Upon his return from Europe, rehearsals for a USA tour with Al Jarreau and Rachelle Ferrell begin. Once again immediately following the tour, George begins rehearsals for the Lady of Soul Award Show featuring performances with Johnny Gil, Tyrese, Luther Vandross, Ronny Isley, Genuine, and El Debarge. In September, work began on his new CD to be released the Spring on 2002. George also was part of Wave for Peace, a concert to raise money for the victims of the WTC incident.
Predictably, the energetic, unstoppable George Duke keeps moving from strength to strength, bringing invention, dimension and texture to music that is alive with personality and rich with artistry. In the case of his passionately performed Cool, which was nominated for an Image Award and a Grammy, Duke takes the lead on vocals adding presence and power to his ever-evolving view of others and himself. This deeply revealing and yet thoroughly accessible edition of Duke celebrates life, love…and the “Ancient Source.”
The year 2001 was a great year for Duke! Tami Willis from BET produced and directed a profile called “House of Duke.” We also find the release of the Duke-produced Grammy award-winning Dianne Reeves album, The Calling.
He hooked up with Kenny Lattimore to write and produce a Gospel song entitled “Healing.” George also enjoyed producing three tracks for the incredible Kelly Price for her first Christmas offering on Def Jam.
After returning from a brief European tour, George did a USA tour with Rachelle Ferrell and Al Jarreau. After another Soul Train Awards ceremony, George set about writing and recording the first CD for his new label, BPM (Big Piano Music) called Face the Music.
The beginning of 2002 finds Duke editing and enhancing Rachelle Ferrells live CD Live In Montreux 91-97, and putting the final touches on his new solo CD. This year also marks his debut performance in South Africa. In May of 2002, George began rehearsals for the second installment of Kirk Whalum’s Gospel According To Jazz. He also worked on Eddie Griffin’s movie “Undercover Brother” with Stanley Clarke, and played a “vacation” date in Bermuda.
Duke returned to Rotterdam for several shows with Randy Crawford before returning to LA to put the final touches on Dexter Gordon’s CD for BPM.
Face The Music was released on September 3, 2002. The rest of the year finds George on the road doing one promotional activity after another. Between these dates, George found time to play for the Emeril Show, and a trip to Holland to perform with the Metropole Orchestra.
The end of the year, he is quite busy scoring a film for Whoopi Goldberg and Danny Glover called “Good Fences,” directed by Ernest Dickerson for Showtime. It is now available on DVD.
The year 2003 finds Duke still touring and promoting his new CD, while handling the MD chores for Soul Train, The Trumpet Awards, and BET’s Gospel Celebration. The Dexter Gordon CD, Live at the Both/And Club 1970 was released on BPM, and George found time to recorded a tribute project for Jimi Hendrix and played several tracks on a new Will Downing CD.
During the summer, George takes his band to Moscow to perform, and secures the release of Face the Music in Europe through Challenge Records in Holland. George spends several weeks re-establishing contacts in Europe, and then returns to finish the DMX film.
The year 2004 began with George performing “Muir Woods Suite” at Disney Hall with The LA Philharmonic, followed by a performance with The U.S. Air Force Band at Constitution Hall in Washington DC.
MD for the Trumpet Awards was again on tap followed by an Artist in Residence series at Berklee College of Music.
George produced albums for Regina Belle and Marilyn Scott, and continued to tour with his band in the U.S. and Europe. He also found time to score his second film for Ernest Dickerson “Never Die Alone” staring DMX.
Duke completed work on DUKE, his second solo CD on his label, BPM. In September he was MD for the Black Caucus Gala and the Thelonius Monk Institute Awards in D.C.
George received the coveted Edison Life Time Achievement Award in Rotterdam in November. January 2005, George served as artist and MD for a special series of concerts in India featuring Al Jarreau, Stanley Clarke, Earl Klugh, L Subramanium and Ravi Coltrane. BET and MTV India documented some of the shows.
Duke composed the theme for the “News & Notes” PBS radio show staring Ed Gordon, and flew to Jakarta, Indonesia for the 1st Annual Jakarta Jazz festival. More live dates followed with George promoting his new CD.
Another Marilyn Scott CD was on the way (to be released in 2006), and a very special George Duke & Friends show was presented at the Hollywood Bowl featuring Billy Cobham, Christian McBride, Airto, Bobby Hutcherson, Kenny Garrett, Roy Hargrove and Joe Sample. George and Joe also began playing some duo piano gigs in the US and Japan.
At a New Year’s Eve fundraiser, George saluted the Symphonic Jazz Orchestra with his jazz trio at the Bakery. Brain Bromberg was on bass and Terri Lyne Carrington was the drummer. A week later, Duke was in the studio with this band recording his new jazz CD for release in June 2006. At the end of January another project took place in Nassau, the Bahamas for the Michael Jordan Celebrity Golf Tournament. George put a band together for himself, Michael McDonald and Philip Bailey.
“T-Jam” from the Duke CD was nominated for a Grammy as “Best Instrumental Pop Performance.” The Clarke/Duke Project begins touring at the end of May. Also some very interesting production projects are coming up including a foray into the Broadway Musical scene.
George Duke died on August 5,
2013 of chronic lymphocytic leukemia in Los Angeles. He was 67.