To the average music fan under 40, George Duke might have been a footnote. He was the guy who made “Seeing You” that was sampled by Big K.R.I.T. (“Yesterday”) and Hiero (“You Never Knew.“) Or maybe you know him as the inspiration for Thudercat’s cover of “For Love (I Come Your Friend.”). The latter cut set off a minor Duke revival. It inspired people like me whose first language wasn’t jazz to dig deeper into the avuncular Bay-bred, LA-based jazz fusion legend. Once you knew, you understood why he was one of the greatest players of the last half century.
If Duke’s keyboards sounded familiar, that’s because they were. He was the ultimate musician’s musician’s. That’s a cliche, but Duke’s notes never were. That’s why he played on Off the Wall and with Miles Davis and Frank Zappa and classical musician, Jean-Luc Ponty. That’s range and virtuosity. As Dam-Funk tweeted in requiem: he used some of the smoothest chords in his creation. He had heart.
I spoke to George last year for a series of concerts he played at the Catalina Jazz Grill in celebration of his 66th birthday. He had Stephen Bruner, Thundercat’s brother on drums, and they were in the trio formation, blasting astral jams and cosmic keyboard riffs that worked some weird nerves that you forgot you had. Fusion taken to the furthest realm, as though Duke had visited planets no telescope had ever spotted, smoked a hookah with the inhabitants, and returned back to earth to play the role of genial Uncle Phil of Funk. The profile is here if you’re interested. I can run the full Q&A if there is demand.
Duke came down to LA in his mid-20s and never left. He joined Zappa’s band shortly after the move, settling in Chatsworth when there were still farms that woke him up every morning at 5:30 a.m. with a rooster. Eventually he moved to Hollywood to be closer to Zappa’s complex at 5831 Hollywood Blvd. They rehearsed there in a massive facility, with Zappa in full fascist mode. But when I asked Duke about it, he said that for all Zappa’s bad reputation, he was always kind to him. He said the same thing about Miles. You didn’t need to demand more from Duke, he was a master.
He was instrumental in the advent of jazz fusion, a sub-genre that got a bad reputation in the 80s with it’s dentist’s office Kenny G solos. But when Duke was bridging modal notes with rock beats in the late 60s and early 70s, it was practically revolutionary. An experimental musician at heart, he bridged Brazilian and rock and R&B. Listen to any of his 70s records and you’ll understand what I’m babbling about.
Duke signed to Epic in the late 70s and led the genre at its high point, when the sound was big enough to headline soccer stadiums in Europe. In his later years, his stature was significantly smaller. He still played big jazz clubs and the occasional genre festival, but he was far from a household name. The tragedy is that he still had further to travel. But he’d already ascended a long time ago. RIP to the Duke.