Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Duke, George

Keyboardist George Duke's style is heavily rooted in bebop, while his solos are reminiscent of old stride players, with heavy emphasis on the blues. A versatile and prolific artist who has played with everyone from Cannonball Adderley to Frank Zappa, Duke has also enjoyed success as a producer.

George Duke was born on January 12th, 1946 in San Rafael, California which is a small town best known as a hub for technology companies like Lucasfilms. From a very young age Duke’s mother exposed the young musician to jazz music. Duke has stated that his mother enhanced his cultural life with everything from Duke Ellington to ballets.

Duke started piano lessons when he was seven years old. He has said that he absorbed many valuable lessons from his local Baptist church. He continued to study music as he attended Tamalpais High School. Duke attended the San Francisco Conservatory of Music where he studied trombone and composition. He graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in 1967.

While living in San Francisco in the late 1960s, Duke witnessed the music revolution of the Bay Area firsthand. Santana, Miles Davis, and the Grateful Dead were all playing on the scene and Duke soaked all of this music up and combined it with his formal training. Along with vocalist Al Jarreau, they formed a group that played on Monday nights at the Half Note in San Francisco. They backed many well known musicians who traveled through the Bay Area including saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins.

In 1969, Duke recorded with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty for his album The Jean-Luc Ponty Experience Featuring the George Duke Trio. This album also featured John Heard on bass and Dick Berk on drums. That same year the band toured Europe and performed at the Newport Jazz Festival. Also in 1969, Duke played his first gigs with guitarist/composer Frank Zappa. Zappa first encountered Duke performing with Ponty in Los Angeles and was very impressed with the young pianist.

From 1969 to 1970, Duke joined Zappa’s band and appeared on the album Chunga’s Revenge, which documented Zappa’s experimentation with extended jazz forms and solos. Also in 1969, Duke appeared on the Jean-Luc Ponty album King Kong: Jean-Luc Ponty Plays the Music of Frank Zappa. This album was also produced by Zappa as he wrote the song “Music for Low Budget Orchestra” specifically for the album. The band can be heard on the song "King Kong." . Duke left Zappa at the end of 1970 to join alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley's group, though he recorded again with Zappa while still playing in Adderley’s band.

Duke performed with Adderley for several years in the early 1970s. He appeared on several albums in which Adderley continued his procession into funk and R&B styles heard earlier from his recordings in the 1960s with Joe Zawinul. Duke can be heard on the Adderley albums The Black Messiah from 1971, The Happy People and Music, You All in 1972, and Love, Sex, and the Zodiac from 1974. Duke experimented with ARP synthesizers for several of these albums and his bluesy, swinging solos are still intact with the new sonic possibilities.

Duke rejoined Zappa’s touring band in 1973 though Duke can be heard on several Zappa albums before his rejoining including Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo in 1972. On The Grand Wazoo, Zappa experimented heavily with extended jazz forms and Duke provided a riveting solo on the waltz "Blessed Relief." Duke appeared on several other Zappa albums in the mid 1970s, including the live album Roxy and Elsewhere, which chronicled the band’s shows at the Roxy Theatre in Hollywood, California in December of 1973. Duke is heard both playing and singing on the "Bebop Tango." Other notable appearances from Duke on Zappa recordings include Apostrophe in 1974, One Size Fits All in 1975, and Bongo Fury in 1975.

In 1974, Duke appeared on drummer Billy Cobham’s Atlantic album Crosswinds, which featured Duke on electric piano, Cobham on drums, Randy Brecker on trumpet, and John Abercrombie on guitar. The group is heard on the songs "The Pleasant Pheasant" and "Spanish Moss: A Sound Portrait."

Duke appeared on trumpeter Eddie Henderson’s 1975 Blue Note album Sunburst, which featured Bennie Maupin on reeds, Julian Priester on trombone, Alphonso Johnson on bass, and Harvey Mason on drums. The band can be heard on the song "The Kumquat Kids." Also in 1975, Duke appeared on bassist Stanley Clarke’s album Journey To Love Duke can be heard on the song "Concerto For Jazz/Rock Orchestra" with drummer Steve Gadd and trumpeter Jon Faddis.

Following his departure from Zappa’s band, Duke started a band with drummer Billy Cobham. They released several albums and their group featured a young John Scofield on guitar. Duke released several albums as a solo artist in the late 1970s, including 1976 Solo Keyboard Album, on which Duke plays all of the keyboards as well as the drum parts, with the aid of drummer Chester Thompson coaching him through. Other notable albums include From Me To You and Reach For It in 1977. The latter became Duke’s best selling album to date, achieving Gold (500,000) status in the United States. In 1979, Duke traveled to Brazil to record his 1979 release Brazilian Love Affair, an album recorded with local musicians. That same year he recorded his Epic album Master of the Game.

In the 1980s, Duke’s performance career took a backseat to his role as a producer. Though Duke had been producing some during the late 1970s, his career began to flourish in the 1980s. On the other hand, Duke also began a partnership with bassist Stanley Clarke. The two formed the Duke/Clarke project and released several albums during the 1980s. These include Clarke/Duke Project (1981), Clarke/Duke Project II (1983), and Clarke/Duke Project III (1990). In 1983, Duke released his album Guardian of the Light, which featured the hit song “Reach Out,” that became a hit in France but not in the United States.

Duke’s success as a record producer in the 1980s began with his production A Taste of Honey’s number one single “Sukiyaki.” He produced a wide array of artists including vocalist Al Jarreau, Anita Baker, Smokey Robinson, and even Barry Manilow. Duke continued to produce through the 1990s and in 1992 he traveled to Spain to be the musical director for the largest guitar festival ever held in the world at that time. In 1990, Duke was voted R&B keyboardist of the year by Keyboard magazine and he also contributed regularly to the publication in its first years. In 1997, Duke won a Grammy award for his work on vocalist Natalie Cole’s album Stardust. In 2001, Duke produced the Grammy award winning album The Calling by Dianne Reeves. In 2006, Duke took part in Tom Scott’s Cannonball Adderley tribute recording and can be heard on "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy," with Steve Gadd on drums and Marcus Miller on bass.

Duke lives in the Los Angeles area and continues to perform, record, and produce. He uses Apple’s Logic software for sequencing and Sibelius for software notation.

Select Discography

With Frank Zappa

Waka/Jawaka (1972)

The Grand Wazoo (1972)

Roxy and Elsewhere (1973)

Apostrophe (1974)

As George Duke

Reach For It (Epic, 1977)

From Me To You (Epic, 1977)

Brazilian Love Affair (Epic, 1979)

Master of the Game (Epic, 1979)

With Stanley Clarke

Journey To Love (Epic, 1975)

Clarke/Duke Project (Sony, 1981) Clarke/Duke Project II (Sony, 1983)

With Jean-Luc Ponty

Jean-Luc Ponty Featuring the George Duke Trio (1969)

King Kong: Jean-Luc Ponty Plays the Music of Frank Zappa (Blue Note, 1970)

With Eddie Henderson

Sunburst (Blue Note, 1975)

Contributor: Jared Pauley