George Duke dies at 67; keyboardist was jazz-fusion pioneer
Keyboardist George Duke, one of the pioneers of the jazz-fusion movement that merged jazz, rock and funk in the late 1960s and 1970s, died Monday in Los Angeles, where he was being treated for chronic lymphocytic leukemia, his record label announced. He was 67.
The Northern California native was one of the leading forces in bringing jazz and rock together, genres that not only were typically separate in the 1950s and early ‘60s, but whose proponents often were philosophically at odds. Duke found the common ground between the styles.
In a career stretching over five decades, Duke collaborated with a wide range of musicians, among them Frank Zappa, Miles Davis, Barry Manilow, Dizzy Gillespie, Al Jarreau, Don Ellis, Cannonball Adderley, Nancy Wilson and Joe Williams.
“His 1969 date with violinist Jean Luc Ponty at Thee Experience, a club on the Sunset Strip, was attended by Zappa, Adderley, Quincy Jones and others and was one of the seminal events in West Coast fusion,” jazz writer Bill Kohlhaase wrote in The Times in 1997.
The scorching performance led Duke to perform with Zappa and his band, the Mothers of Invention, for most of 1970. While writing music with Zappa, Duke was exposed to musical styles that included rock, proto-funk and European avant-garde experiments. Zappa also taught him the basics of record production and helped him see the potential of electronic music.
In 1975, Duke embarked on a solo career, recording so many of own albums he claimed to have lost track of the exact number. By one count, he released more than 30 solo works; several of his early albums, including “Faces in Reflection” and “Liberated Fantasies,” are regarded as jazz and jazz-funk classics.
At first, jazz critics did not react favorably to his combinations of funk, disco and soul elements nor to the variety of musicians with whom he performed. Duke once told Downbeat magazine that Leonard Feather, a longtime jazz critic for The Times, “quit writing about me. He just chalked it up as a loss for jazz.... But an artist has to be allowed to do what he wants to do.”
Duke also became a producer of note of jazz and pop artists, including the Pointer Sisters, Gladys Knight, Smokey Robinson and Melissa Manchester. In 2000, Duke won a Grammy Award as producer of Dianne Reeves’ “In the Moment — Live in Concert,” which was named jazz album of the year.
Born Jan. 12, 1946, in San Rafael, Calif., Duke started playing piano at age 7 on an upright he once said his mother bought for $15. He performed with high school jazz groups and later said the music he heard at church influenced his funk sound.
While in college, Duke played in a house band at San Francisco’s Half Note with Jarreau and regularly backed big names in jazz. Duke earned a bachelor’s degree in 1967 from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and a master’s in 1970 from San Francisco State.
Through Adderley, Duke met jazz-rock bassist Stanley Clarke and formed the Clarke/Duke Project, which had a Top 20 crossover hit, “Sweet Baby,” in the early 1980s.
Duke’s wife, Corine, died of cancer last year, a loss that hit him hard. He had two children, Rashid and John.
“I didn’t feel like creating any music,” he said, “which was odd, because normally that’s the easiest thing for me to do.” But after months of grieving, he returned to the studio and recorded a new album, “DreamWeaver,” as a tribute to her. It was released last month.
“I don’t want people to get the idea that this is a morbid record,” Duke said in an interview issued by his label, Concord Records, “because it’s more about celebration.”
Times staff writer Valerie J. Nelson contributed to this report.
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