George Duke died Monday night in Los Angeles at the age of 67. As reported by Billboard, he had been battling chronic lymphocytic leukemia. He leaves behind a body of work that stretches from the deepest trenches of jazz and avant-garde rock to the highest echelons of R&B and pop.
Duke was born in San Rafael, California, in 1946 and began playing piano at the age of seven. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in 1967, later getting his master’s from San Francisco State University while jumping into the vibrant West Coast jazz scene just as the genre was splintering into free jazz and fusion. Duke chose both. After sharpening his chops by backing hard-bop stars such as Bobby Hutcherson and Kenny Dorham– not to mention Dizzy Gillespie– Duke began writing and touring with his own George Duke Trio, eventually hooking up with French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. After he and Ponty recorded a 1970 album of music written by Frank Zappa, King Kong, Zappa poached Duke for his band, the Mothers of Invention. Across numerous albums and tours with Zappa over the course of a decade, Duke sharpened his sense of absurdism, improvisation, and stagecraft, whipping up artful funk that stuck to the Mothers’ avant-garde ribs.
At the same time, he pursued a solo career as a fusion artist. His more challenging work with Zappa was counterbalanced by his own albums and side gigs with the likes of Flora Purim, Airto Moreira, and Billy Cobham, which flirted with pop, Latin jazz, and funk. By the time Duke’s association with Zappa petered off in the early 80s, he had recorded numerous minor soft-jazz hits– and he also started to pivot, along with fusion as a whole, toward disco. The culmination of Duke’s disco ambition was his integral contribution Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall, where his sleek-yet-syncopated synthesizer lines and sequencing helped form the blueprint of pop’s future.
Duke had his own hit in 1981 with the breezy, wistful “Sweet Baby”, a crossover jazz/pop jam that was the high point of his many recordings with bassist Stanley Clarke. Throughout the remainder of the 80s, Duke again deftly split his attention between pop– teaming with chart-topping artist such as Deniece Williams and Phil Collins– while finding time for fellow jazz stars like Al Jarreau, John Scofield, and Dianne Reeves, as well as a 1983 reunion with his old partner Ponty. One of his earliest heroes and influences, Miles Davis, also enlisted Duke’s aid; during his late-80s upswing, Davis tapped Duke to play, arrange, and compose for his albums Tutu and Amandla.
With the advent of the 90s, Duke’s cache rose once more– this time as a staggering source of samples. Crate diggers and producers of hip-hop, pop, and electronic music found many treasures to be salvaged in the smoothly funky, immaculately sculpted grooves of Duke’s 70s output. The roll-call of artists and producers who have sampled George Duke over the past three decades includes Ice Cube, MF DOOM, Kanye West, Common, 9th Wonder, Lil Jon, and Thundercat. In 2001, Daft Punk paid homage to Duke as much as sampled him on the group’s bubbly Discovery single “Digital Love”.
Following a 1999 Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Jazz Performance for his album After Hours, Duke found himself in demand again. One of his most fruitful collaborations in the 21st century was with Jill Scott, as he appeared on “Whenever You’re Around”, a single from the R&B singer’s 2007 album The Real Thing: Words and Sounds Vol. 3. The pairing of Duke’s vintage warmth with Scott’s retro soul was superb– and a sterling, latter-day showcase of Duke’s undimming vitality and relevance.
Duke’s final solo album, DreamWeaver, was released in June. It includes two gently melodic tracks, “Missing You” and “You Never Know”, that pay tribute to his wife Corine, who died of cancer last year. On his website, Duke elaborated that “You Never Know” is “a respectful look at what we know and what we don’t know about this life.” Judging by his music alone, Duke’s own life was richly lived, deeply felt, and deceptively complex.