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George Duke - Appreciation

Every jazz journalist knows they will eventually write about the passing of a great artist. Needless to say it is not something we look forward to. We also realize eventually that artist will be one of our own favorites.

I received the news in the modern day equivalent of the 4:30AM phone call. You know, the phone call telling you a family member had just died. The text message, from a friend who is never up that early, simply said, "Brother Duke has left the planet". Walking down the street, I was stopped in my tracks for more than a few minutes while the magnitude of the void sunk in. Next, the images flowed through my mind, then the music, back to the images, finally to the times shared with this gentle giant.

There was watching him perform at many of the outdoor shows when he came "home" to the Bay Area. His introduction of 15 year old superstar in the making, Sheila Escovedo", in his band at the long lost Circle Star Theater. Catching up with him every year at minimum at NAMM, hoping he was going to be playing somewhere with whoever dropped by the booth that was featuring him. Then there were the personal moments. Hanging out backstage at Yoshi's and Kimball's between sets sharing a glass of wine and swapping tasting notes, and the late night calls and emails discussing the merits of the vintage year and coordinating wine orders and shipments. The thought of all that and more had to be swept aside because I still had to get through the day; at least until I could get in front of a keyboard and pour it all out onto virtual paper.

Duke was the same whenever you saw him. Big smile, happy face dominated by those big cheeks, big hug, and a warm handshake. Seems he was always smiling. When he wasn't smiling, he was laughing. In one of the monologues between tracks on the album "The Black Messiah", Cannonball Adderley talked about Duke smiling, "He's always that way!”


George Duke's impact on the music is likely far beyond what some of his fans realize. Those that came along with the "Dukey Stick" / "Reach For It", or the Clarke-Duke Project waves, may have missed another complete legacy of music that preceded that era. There was the work with Frank Zappa, projects with Jean-Luc Ponty, working with George Clinton, following the great legend Joe Zawinul in Cannonball Adderley's band and more. When he wasn't working on his own projects, he was teaching, mentoring, guiding, and/or developing dozens of other artists. Duke was a super-producer before the term was even thought of. The credits page for George Duke at lists a staggering 2,707 entries as pianist, keyboardist, vocalist, composer, arranger, and producer.

The flood of Twitter and Facebook posts from the musicians and vocalists expressing their condolences and prayers for the Duke family has been remarkable. After posting the broader messages paying their respects while informing their own followings that a legend had passed, many reached out to the closest members of George's musical family. Collective hearts went out to George's sons, followed by his two closest musical brothers, Stanley Clarke and Ndugu Chancler. The breadth of traditional genres represented is startling, even to those of us who shouldn't be surprised. So many artists shared a personal relationship with him, I can't imagine where a homegoing celebration could be held that would accommodate all those who felt it was mandatory to personally say goodbye.

I last saw George perform at this year's Playboy Jazz Festival. He closed the Saturday show as the headliner with another one of his close friends, Jeffrey Osborne. He had lost a significant amount of weight, but most probably associated that with the recovery from the loss of his wife Corrine's last July. Other than that, it was the same happy, smiling, energetic, phenomenal keyboard wizard we all new. Looking back, if he knew his time was close; the last thing he would have wanted was for his audience to know. There were tour dates lined up through the end of the year, with a pretty aggressive world-wide schedule. His very recently released "Dreamweaver" CD was a labor of love, dedicated to Corrine's memory. My guess is, he's enjoying a heavenly wine cellar, seated at a keyboard next to Corrine, practicing for the funkiest jam session the kingdom has yet to behold.

Peace, Brother Duke, peace.


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