They keep leaving us, our music legends. In one way or another over the last seven years, some of the greatest and most prolific artists in music history have departed this earth, leaving us devoid of their presence as well as their thoughts and feelings on music, politics and love…on life in general. It is the legends that contribute the most to our musical landscapes, painting both broad and defined strokes for all to hear and see, while adding color and texture to the bland, black and white lives we live. They provide us with hope, inspiration, and honestly, escape from the mundane world that we are forced to live, if only for five or 40 minutes, depending on the single or album you’re of the artist you’re listening to.
George Duke, is now one of those music greats who left us too soon. Duke, 67, died of chronic lymphocytic leukemia on August 5th. The music world, musicians, entertainers and fans alike, are all reeling from the tremendous void left behind by Duke’s passing. It’s a void that may never be filled, especially in today’s music world. After all, when you think of George Duke, you think of a music master whose brilliance and consistency lasted for the better part of six decades. That consistency and brilliance spanned multiple genres, ranging from jazz and fusion to soul, funk and rock and includes a who’s who list of artists that Duke has either produced, collaborated or performed with.
The music resume of George Duke is so expansive and impressive, who he worked with shouldn’t be the question. The more accurate
question would be, who didn’t George Duke work with? Michael Jackson? Yep. Check “Off the Wall.” Denise Williams? You bet. Duke produced a number one hit, “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” for Niecy. Cannonball Adderly? Yes even Cannonball. Frank Zappa? Oh yeah. Duke with was Zappa during his most innovative phase. Miles Davis? Duke was there. Phil Collins? Yes sir. And you can add Jean-Luc Ponty, Dianne Reeves, Stanley Clarke, Al Jarreau, Teena Marie, John Scofield, Regina Belle, Joe Sample, Jeffrey Osborne and A Taste of Honey, among many, many other artists.
That was the beauty of George Duke. He never missed the opportunity to add his magic to an already magical moment. He was the quintessential right-guy-at-the-right-place-at-the-right-time musician. And that’s not something every music legend can hang their hat on. The greats understand that opportunity makes careers, and history. George Duke understood this better than most. If there was beautiful music to be made, Duke was there in whatever capacity he could serve best. Artist collaborations today outside of jazz rarely consists of musicians working together; it’s mainly about vocal team-ups these days. George Duke, however, was old school to the core. Duke’s brilliance was that not only did he seize the music moment, he gave that moment a longer, richer life. Duke delighted in working with great singers and musicians and even scoring music for films. And he collaborated with all in every capacity arguably better than anyone else ever did.
George Duke understood the better the project he worked on, the more not only the artist or band shined, he shined individually as well. And the more spotlight George Duke could grab, the more he could expose us to his own music brilliance, which was considerable in its own right, from the very beginning. How immense was Duke’s talents you ask? The man stood on his own, despite the impressive list of artists he worked with, and carved his niche as a solo artist. The Bay Area native was jazzy, soulful, funky, and could rock it out for his audience doing his own thing. This is the man responsible for giving us “Dukey Stick” after all. And over period of 40-plus years, George’s “Dukey Treats” just kept coming. It’s amazing how an established music legend can influence and even spark the career of another future great, just by doing nothing more than performing. Duke Ellington did for that for George after he saw “Sir Duke” perform live. The rest, as they say, is history.
Honestly, George Duke was a student of music until the day he died. After earning a bachelor’s degree from the San Francisco Conservatory in the late 60’s, Duke moved into fusion jazz, performing with the likes of Jean-Luc Ponty and Cannonball. In the early 70’s, it was rock with Zappa. Ever the innovator, Duke pushed the boundaries of music and in the late 70’s, he established himself as a premier funk artist. The early 80’s saw Duke join with Stanley Clarke to create one of the best duos in the R&B/Soul music world of their era. While the 90’s proved to be a swan song to most of the artists from the 70’s, and 80’s, George Duke kept it moving, kept pushing the boundaries, often switching back from jazz to funk and stretching out both genres in the process. And that’s the thing about George Duke. While other artists suffered lean years in the 1990’s, he never did. He worked when other artist’s stars were fading, due to the sign of the times of the decade, when hip hop controlled R&B. And while hip hop producers often sampled Duke, he never catered to the genre. Duke was well-established before Hip Hop, so he wasn’t going to succumb to the pressure of producing rap tracks, although he took elements of the genre and added it to his already expansive sound.
Words cannot express the hurt we fans feel from George Duke’s passing. But if you believe in signs, we fans can take solace in Duke dying a year to the day his beloved wife, Corine. Duke produced his final album, “Dreamweaver” in her honor. If anything, I can take solace in knowing Duke went home to join the love of his life. I can also appreciate that George Duke left a legacy of music behind for me and his fans to listen to for the rest of our lives. Still, we’re going to miss the music master who left an indelible imprint so many genres of music.