By Olu Alemoru, Staff Writer
Early tributes are coming in for legendary jazz artist George Duke, who died Monday at age 67.
According to a representative, the keyboardist, known for his blend of acoustic and electric jazz, funk and R&B, said he was being treated for chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
In a stellar career, Duke played and recorded with a galaxy of star names, including Frank Zappa, Dizzie Gillespie, Miles Davis, Quincy Jones, Al Jarreau, Michael Jackson, Deniece Williams, Anita Baker and Jeffrey Osbourne.
Acclaimed bassist Marcus Miller, who was recording with Duke for Jonathan Butler six weeks ago, said the whole music community was shaking with the news.
“I heard the news this morning; I was traveling from the East Coast back here to L.A.,” he explained. “Not the best way to wake up. It’s just a tremendously profound event for all of us.”
Miller recalled that Duke told him that the doctor thought he saw something, but that Duke thought it was going to be okay.
“George lost his wife [Corrine] a year ago, which makes this thing so doubly tragic,” Miller added. “He had lost a great deal of weight and we all assumed that it was the grief. We were getting used to him looking different and hoped that time would heal his pain.”
As for his legacy, Miller, who will be doing a tribute to his friend this Sunday on his Sirius XM show, replied that Duke was truly a 360 degree musician.
“He started with Al Jarreau, went to Frank Zappa, to Cannonball Adderley, then to the George Duke funky period, he went to Brazil and then starred with Jeffrey Osbourne and Deniece Williams.”
In a Facebook post television writer/producer and playwright Michael Ajakwe, who interviewed Duke for Ajakwe’s one-hour “Unsung” TV One documentary on Williams, called the funkster “one of the most innovative keyboard players who ever lived.”
“Simply put, George Duke was one of the greatest American musicians who ever lived,” Ajakwe wrote. “I remember him being very nice and personable with a great sense of humor. I also remember him telling me that he did not want to produce the biggest record of his career — ‘Let’s Hear It For The Boy.’
“He didn’t believe it would be a hit. He said he only did it because Deniece all but put a gun to his head. His wife Corrine left him in 2012. Now, just one year later, George has moved on to be with her.”
Meanwhile, Nina Gordon, whose eponymous PR firm has repped The Playboy Jazz Festival — where just a couple of months ago Duke enthralled jazz lovers — said she was “shocked.”
“I had no idea he was ill,” Gordon told The Independent. “I am deeply saddened. He was a real gent, a fabulous artist, somebody who will be truly missed. He did a great show; very upbeat and joyful.”
Duke’s son, Rashid, thanked his father’s fans in a statement Tuesday.
“The outpouring of love and support that we have received from my father’s friends, fans and the entire music community has been overwhelming,” he said. “Thank you all for your concern, prayers and support.”
Previewing his June set with Osbourne at The Hollywood Bowl, Duke promised fans a treat.
“I want to keep it lively, but I’ve also got a couple of ballads in my repertoire as well,” he told The Independent prior to the show. “We’ll pretty much be playing what we’re known for. Jeffrey will be doing some of his popular songs and I will be doing some of mine. [Mind you] somewhere in there we will experiment and just stretch out a little.”
Stretch out is something Duke did throughout his career. Born in San Rafael, Duke first became known playing keyboard for Frank Zappa. He also played in the Don Ellis Orchestra, Cannonball Adderley’s band and with bassist Stanley Clarke.
He also played keyboard on Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall” album in 1979.
He began taking piano lessons when he was 4 years old, after seeing Duke Ellington perform. He also credited the church for his early appreciation of music.
Heavily influenced by Miles Davis, Duke formed the George Duke Trio after earning degrees at the San Francisco Conservancy of Music and San Francisco State University. At a Los Angeles show he met Zappa, Adderley and Quincy Jones and soon became a highly sought after keyboardist.
He launched a solo career in 1976 and released more than 30 solo albums. He also produced albums for Miles Davis, Smokey Robinson, Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick and Natalie Cole.
Funeral services are pending.