Legendary Jazz Artiste George Duke’s Final Bow

                     Photo: Courtesy

By Murimi Eston

The timing of his death was so cruel as he was not even able to sit down and cherish the fruits of his most recent artistic and physical sweat upon completion of his recording of Dream Weaver.

The 15-track album brims with vitality and exceptional arrangements that would make it hard for anyone to believe that Duke was ailing (indeed terminally) during the recording.

Most jazz musicians and fans acknowledge Duke as a prolific composer, arranger and musician. Some of his other recordings include Peace, Dukey Treats, Duke, After Hours, Snapshot, Cool, Face The Music, Illusions, and a 1975 session titled I Love The Blues, She Heard My Cry.

But his single most important recording was The Primal George Duke, a 1966 album released by the then 20-year-old fledgling pianist. The compositions that make up the album are an interesting but understated examples of how he sounded at that time, giving little hint of what genius was to come.

Thirteen years later, in 1979, Duke recorded one of his most exceptional albums, A Brazilian Love Affair. It was done in Brazil with local musicians, notable among them Milton Nascimento and Flora Purim. This album contains some of his enduring and explosive work.

As a leader, session musician and producer, Duke, who is survived by sons, Rashid and John, worked alongside some of the best in both popular, jazz, and classical music.

For example, in July 1993, while performing at the world-renowned Montreaux Jazz Festival, Switzerland, he recorded a live concert featuring his classical compositions titled Muir Woods Suite.

Accompanying him were Stanley Clarke on acoustic bass, Paulinho Da Costa on percussion, Chester Thompson on drums, and Patches Stewart on trumpet. And L‘Orchestre National de Lille was conducted by Ettore Strata. In this performance, Duke fused classical with jazz sensibilities.

And as a producer, Duke was instrumental in the arrangements and recording of his cousin Dianne Reeves’ self-titled jazz CD. Dianne is a leading jazz vocalist.

Other notable jazz musicians he worked with in his formative years included, Don Ellis, Bobby Hutcherson, the bebop pioneer Dizzy Gillespie, big band leader Gerald Wilson, Frank Zappa (who introduced him to the limitless possibilities with synthesizers), and saxophonist Cannonball Adderley.

Duke’s interest in jazz piano started early at age six when his mother, Beatrice Burrell Duke, took him to a Duke Ellington concert in his home city of San Francisco, California.

After a classical grounding, he put together a Latin band in high school inspired by pianist Les McCann. While at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music he majored in trombone and minored in piano.

 In 1962, while a freshman at the conservatory, his cousin, Charles Burrell, a contra bass violin player with the San Francisco Symphony, taught him the dos and don’ts of accompaniment, voice leading, how to build a solo, chord structure, when not to play, and so on.

George’s improvisational skills improved and Burrell encouraged him to abandon his classical career to play jazz piano.