Duke, George 1946–
George Duke 1946–
Producer, jazz keyboardist
A musician with a background as varied as his musical output, George Duke has compiled an impressive record of accomplishment both as a jazz keyboard player and as a producer in the fields of light rhythm-and-blues and pop. Just as his turn away from jazz antagonized purists in that tradition, his occasional forays into serious music alienated some pop fans. Yet Duke gained respect throughout his long career as a musician of wide experience who could bring out the best in other musicians and who remained true to his own artistic instincts.
George Duke was born in San Rafael, California, on January 12, 1946. His talent at the piano keyboard showed itself early in his life, and even as a child he enjoyed the music of Miles Davis and Duke Ellington. As a college student, he headed a Latin-tinged ensemble in the style of bandleader Les McCann and played in a trio that appeared at San Francisco’s prestigious Half Note jazz club. Duke studied music at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where he expanded his jazz skills and obtained a solid grounding in classical music. He kept in touch with his musical roots by playing gospel music at a Baptist church.
Almost immediately after he graduated from college in 1967, Duke arranged music for a group called Third Wave and did a stint with the Don Ellis Orchestra. Most importantly, he worked with the French electric violinist Jean-Luc Ponty in 1969, accompanying him on electric piano. Duke’s work with Ponty brought his career to a decisive turning point, for it brought him into contact with one of the most creative and unorthodox rock musicians of the 1960s and 1970s, Frank Zappa. Zappa, Cannonball Adderley, and producer Quincy Jones attended a sizzling club date that Ponty and Duke played in Los Angeles in 1969, and Zappa invited Duke to appear on the album King Kong, a collaboration between Zappa and Ponty.
Throughout most of 1970, Duke toured with Zappa’s band, the Mothers of Invention. He also played in Adderley’s ensemble until 1973. His affiliation with Zappa put the brakes on Duke’s rising reputation in the jazz world. “[Prominent critic] Leonard Feather just quit writing about me,” Duke recalled in a Down Beat
At a Glance…
Born San Rafael, California, January 12, 1946. Education: San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Bachelor of Music degree, 1967.
Career: Jazz pianist and producer. Recorded with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, 1969; toured and recorded with Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, 1970 and 1973-75; launched solo career, 1975; released hit single “Reach for It,” 1977; released Brazilian Love Affair, 1979; signed with Elektra label and released four recordings, 1980s; produced numerous popular recordings, 1980s and 1990s; signed with Warner Brothers, 1992; released Muir Woods Suite, an album mixing classical and jazz styles, 1993; released After Hours, 1998.
Awards: Grammy nomination. Best Contemporary Jazz Performance, for After Hours, 1999.
interview. “He just chalked it up as a loss for jazz….But an artist has to be allowed to do what he wants to do.” Duke wrote music with Zappa and came into contact with musical styles ranging from rock to proto-funk to European avant-garde experiments; a fine example of Duke’s work in Zappa’s band can be heard on Zappa’s 1975 album, Roxy & Elsewhere. Most importantly for his financial future, Duke learned from Zappa the fundamentals of record production and began to grasp the possibilities of musical electronics.
Embarking on a solo career in 1975, Duke worked with fusion drummer Billy Cobham and bassist Stanley Clarke. In anticipation of the popular tendencies that were soon to dominate his musical activities, Duke turned briefly toward funk, with such chart successes as “Reach for It” (1977) reflecting the seminal music of groups such as Parliament, which was itself highly improvisatory in nature. Duke went to Rio de Janeiro in 1979 to record Brazilian Love Affair, an album that featured Brazilian jazz greats Milton Nascimento and Flora Purim. At the end of the 1970s, Duke ventured even further into popterritory by beginning to produce recordings in the R&B styles of the day.
The shift was not as great as it might have seemed, for among the successful R&B radio formats of the 1980s was the “Quiet Storm.” “Quiet Storm” favored light, sophisticated sounds that emerged in some ways from the world of fusion jazz that Duke had inhabited. He became known as a sympathetic and imaginative producer, scoring major successes with albums by singers Deniece Williams and Jeffrey Osborne. Since the early 1980s, Duke has found himself in demand as a producer.
To the jazz fans that have accused him of selling out, Duke responds candidly. “Absolutely, I’m a businessman,” he told Down Beat. Yet he also pointed to the range of his musical activities: “I feel I have to be comprehensive and put all my eggs in different baskets. So whatever I play, whether it’s rock or funk or jazz or Latin, or producer or whatever, I try to spread stuff out in terms of making an income.” A tireless worker, Duke grew more and more successful through the 1980s, becoming a prime mover in the West Coast’s music scene. In addition to his producing work, Duke released three albums and a greatest-hits collection for the Elektra label between 1981 and 1986. Featuring a smooth mix of jazz fusion and sophisticated urban contemporary sounds, all four albums continued to sell briskly several years after their release.
At various times, Duke expressed a desire to return to jazz and to work on projects that drew on the unusual breadth of his musical background. The albums he released in the 1990s showed a new diversity. Duke continued to be a consistent seller with R&B albums such as his 1997 release Is Love Enough. On his 1992 album, Snapshot, and its successor, Illusions, Duke added contemporary jazz and rhythmically adventuresome fusion to the mix, attracting the attention of jazz fans once more. Snapshot rose to the number one position on Billboard magazine’s Contemporary Jazz chart. In 1993 Duke went even further with the Muir Woods Suite, an album recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. This work drew on Duke’s classical background, combining sections scored for a symphony orchestra with those featuring a jazz ensemble. Although the album failed commercially, it drew strong critical acclaim.
As Duke entered the late 1990s, he was at the top of his game. His album After Hours earned a Grammy award nomination in 1999 for Best Contemporary Jazz Performance. Los Angeles Times critic Don Heckman commented that the album was “several steps up from his more familiar groove-based performances.” Duke was still in great demand as a producer, as the cool side of the urban contemporary market continued to flourish in the midst of sharper styles such as hip-hop. After a chance meeting on an airplane with the rapper Ice Cube, Duke lamented in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that “the biggest problem with music today is that there’s no connection between the younger artists and the artists of my generation.” As the twentieth century drew to a close, Duke had established a successful career as a jazz artist and a leading architect of pleasant pop sounds.
I Love the Blues: She Heard My Cry, Polydor, 1975.
Solo Keyboard Album, Epic, 1976.
Reach for It, Epic, 1977.
Brazilian Love Affair, Epic, 1979.
Best of George Duke: The Elektra Years, Elektra, 1986.
Snapshot, Warner Brothers, 1992.
Illusions, Warner Brothers, 1993.
Muir Woods Suite, Warner Brothers, 1993.
Is Love Enough, Warner Brothers, 1997.
After Hours, Warner Brothers, 1998.
Erlewine, Michael, et al., eds., All Music Guide to Jazz, Miller Freeman, 1998.
Kernfeld, Barry, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Macmillan, 1988.
Larkin, Colin, ed., Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Guinness, 1992.
Billboard, November 7, 1992, p. 22; March 11, 1995, p. 40; February 22, 1997, p. 18.
Down Beat, May 1995, p. 26.
Los Angeles Times, May 9, 1997, p. 1; January 6, 1999, p. 8.
—James M. Manheim
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