Music's Brightest Stars Remember George Duke


I first got to know George Duke in a “manufacturer-to-artist” relationship, but over time he realized I was a musician and a deep fan. Our friendship grew over the years and I always visited his studio when I was in L.A. Many times I got to be a fly on the wall and watch him work with artists and with his engineer Erik Zobler. I was fascinated by how quickly and musically he worked, always doing the right thing, and developing an artist’s performance in a supportive and organic fashion. He was always there for me when I needed a sound demo or a critique of a product, and he never asked for anything in return. When he asked me to do the interview for the September 2013 issue, I was honored. Little did I know that it would be the last time we got to speak. For over four hours we talked of everything I ever wanted to discuss with him about his career and playing. It was his last favor to me, and my favor back to him. I love his music, I love his spirit, and I’m forever humbled that he took me into his world. Here, some of music’s best and brightest share their memories of the maestro. -Jerry Kovarsky

Image placeholder title

Hello—I’m talking to you! Yes, you, who’s reading this. Especially you, if you’ve touched a keyboard. And you too, if you’ve ever nodded your head or snapped your fingers in response to music. You were touched by George Duke, and his long reach across genres, and the artists he befriended and with whom he made music. All of us were moved by his joy and love for the craft, his open-heartedness and generosity, and powerful work ethic. George would say, “Don’t stop, and stay funky!” Well, we were there! -Al Jarreau

It’s times like this when I realize no matter how large one’s vocabulary, there are no words to describe the loss of my peers—especially a keyboard and musical giant like George Duke. When I first heard his records I was living in England in the ’70s, and the kinship I felt to his music inspired me to push forward with my own band the Oblivion Express. -Brian Auger

I’ve admired George Duke for as long as I can remember. I’ve been inspired by the breath of his musicianship and the joy he always brought to every musical situation he was a part of. When I finally had the great honor of knowing and working with him, I realized he was an equally remarkable human being. He nurtured and encouraged countless musicians, many of whom regarded him as a mentor and father figure. Through his huge heart, his generosity, and his immense talent, he has made an indelible impact on the world of music and his legacy will be remembered forever. -Russell Ferrante

After sharing my life with Joe Zawinul, T. Lavitz, and George Duke, I realize how much they’ve made this world a special place to be an artist. They’ll be missed, but the journey continues! -Alphonso Johnson

George Duke represented the best of the best in all aspects of the musical genres of which he was such a vital part. He will be missed on all levels to be sure, but his contributions through the music he created will live on forever. -Billy Cobham

Of course George was a huge influence, and I’d been a big fan of his before I ever got to meet him or work with him. To me he personified the best of both (or all four) worlds: a consummate true jazz pianist played bebop with Cannonball, who evolved seamlessly into jazz-rock fusion and became a synthesizer innovator, then morphed into an avant-garde rock musician with Zappa, and scored a huge pop hit as a vocalist while producing pop records! All of it was done with the most incredible, personable, and warm attitude towards everyone that approached him. -Philippe Saisse

It’s hard to wrap your head around everything George Duke was. For the past 40 years he was everywhere: playing fusion, writing classical suites, wearing a tux while conducting award show orchestras, producing million-selling pop hits . . . I’ve spent the last week trying to describe George to people who inexplicably had never heard of him, and it’s very difficult. In the end I just tell them, ‘”Set aside a few weeks, look up ‘George Duke’ on the Internet, and follow the links. You’ll literally be taken on a trip through the history of African-American music in the 20th century.” George Duke was music. -Marcus Miller

As a kid studying the music of George Duke, it became a dream come true to grow up and play the same rooms he played. But it became an absolute honor to get to know him as the person he was and not just the well-rounded and versatile artist, musician, and producer. He became a mentor and an advisor, and above all, a friend. Though I will miss him dearly, his work is timeless. -Frank McComb

The loss to me is greater than huge. He was my other brother. Without George Duke, I would not be what this life has blessed me to become. -Napoleon Murphy Brock

The legacy George Duke leaves is one of musical integrity. It shows the world what can happen when you apply yourself, and don’t put cages around what kind of music you can and can’t do. Cats like George and I always had, and have the goal to play any type of music we can get our hands on. -Larry Dunn

Ever since I first heard George Duke (with Jean Luc Ponty in the late ’60s) he’s been a favorite of mine. When I got to actually know him and spend time with him, it became evident that he was one of a kind, not just as a musician but also as a superb human being. We will miss him forever. -Dave Grusin

George was first a hero from afar, then my producer, then my frequent employer, then one of my closest friends and mentors, then coming full circle being an even bigger hero than ever. This man never stopped being a musical giant to me, but after a certain period, he always made me feel like he was my friend first. In fact, I think everyone who knew him potentially feels the same way. -Christian McBride

I first heard George with Frank Zappa in the early ’70s and was immediately drawn to his prodigious talents as well as his humor. I based my pitch-bending technique after George on “The Aura Will Prevail.” I already had an ARP Odyssey and loved what George was doing with it so I integrated his approach into my soloing. George used our horn section (the Hey Horns) on many of his recordings and productions as well as me on tenor [sax] solos: “Brazilian Love Affair” is one of my favorites. He was as much fun in the studio and on the road as any person I ever worked with, and always totally took care of business when it was time to make music. -Larry Williams

I remember after a show with George at North Sea Jazz in Holland. We were downstairs at the hotel where the all-night jazz session was happening, and all these bad cats were sitting in. George says to me, “Why don’t you sit in, Mo-town?” (That’s what he nicknamed me.) I was completely intimidated by the incredible jazz players there and I said, “C’mon, Big Daddy, you know I ain’t no jazz musician.” George turns to me and says, “Jazz has many names.” It stuck with me. I still can hear him saying that to me. -Morris “Mo” Pleasure

I first heard George Duke when I was a teenager, with Cannonball Adderly, then Zappa. He was a master at blending genres—jazz, funk, R&B, rock, Brazilian—and creating his own voice and vision. He paved the way musically for the next generations to bring it all together, creating a gumbo. I wanted to be just like him. We witnessed how deep and broad George’s talent was producing and writing with major artists, stepping up as music director for Nelson Mandela’s tribute concert at Wembley Stadium, to the annual concerts for the Monk Institute. He always gave back to the community as an educator, and was gracious to recommend me for work with the Monk Institute as an MD for some of their concerts, so I’m indebted to him for that honor. George, you will remain my inspiration for life. -John Beasley

I first met George in 1979 at Westlake Studios in Los Angeles. I remained his engineer for 35 years up until the day I helped carry his casket. It was a sad day and a giant loss to the world. George’s creative output was extraordinary. He made something like 40 solo albums, and that doesn’t include all of the overdubs or tracking dates he did for other people. His skill level was so high that I’d often watch him do complete takes with zero mistakes. He’d listen to every track he played and assess whether he’d struck the perfect blend of leading, accompanying, soloing, and of course, grooving. On many of George’s songs you can hear a symphony of keyboard sounds. He was a master at playing multiple keyboards on the same song and each instrument would have its own personality. He’d fit them all together like a puzzle where each instrument’s voice was distinct and complementary. George was also easy to work with. He knew what he wanted to hear, he knew how to get there, and he knew when he got there. Although many might say George’s productions were perfect, we rarely struggled with any part of the production process. Part of the reason was that George’s skill was so high that his “off” stuff was still amazing. -Erik Zobler, George Duke's longtime recording engineer

The first time I really appreciated George was when I got Frank Zappa’s album Apostrophe.On the last track, right after Frank sings “you got stink foot,” George replies with a scrambled Wurly lick that amazingly, actually sounds like stinky feet. How the heck did he do that? - Thomas Dolby

George Duke was a true musical pioneer, bridging jazz with rock into fusion. From his work with Jean Luc Ponty and Frank Zappa, as well as his presence with the great Miles Davis and his many soulful solo outings, he stands out as one of the international vanguard keyboardists of our time. His contributions to the musical community will be missed. -Jonathan Cain of Journey

I was lucky enough to meet and play on the same stage as George Duke a couple of times, and was also fortunate to meet his wife Corine. George was a musical giant—a vivid talent that knew no bounds—and a beautiful, generous spirit. -Helen Sung

I can’t think of any more apt remembrance of George Duke than the September 2013 issue of Keyboard, which details his enormous talent as a jazz and funk keyboard player, producer, composer, and synthesizer innovator. If you read between the lines, you can also feel his generous, warm spirit—which would immediately touch anyone he met. I’m grateful for the vast legacy of music he left, and I’ll miss him immensely. -Jeff Lorber

George had an energy, a life force, and a soul that jumped out of your speakers. Recently, I was given a board tape of George playing at a rehearsal. It was a treat to hear his beautiful voicings and amazing timing in such an intimate setting. -Clifford Carter

George Duke’s synth work with (Frank) Zappa was revolutionary, hilarious, and brilliant. -Matt Rollings

George Duke was a wonderful person and a fantastically eclectic and creative musician. I met him when I was a teenager at a master class he gave at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in the early 1970s. I’ll never forget one thing he said, which was “By the time a record comes out, the musician is always on to something new.” That certainly applied to George. He was open to all styles and modes of performing and composing music, instrumental or vocal. I was fortunate to follow him as keyboardist in a couple of gigs: Jean Luc Ponty and Cannonball Adderley. He was always positive, giving me encouragement and support. I remember when George came when I was playing with the Cannonball Adderley Quintet at the Playboy Club in L.A. in 1975. He came up to us and said, “Man, I ought to cut off Mike Wolff’s right hand, it’s so burning!” It was a great compliment. We’re all so lucky we have so much of his music recorded to keep him in our hearts and souls. -Michael Wolff

Image placeholder title

George Duke was unquestionably a legend—a great giant of the piano and one of the most versatile musicians ever. He showed us that it’s possible for jazz musicians to do it all and to do it all well. I was honored meet him and to see him perform live in Japan with his band. Duke was a superstar, but also a really humble, down-to-earth guy. I wish him safe passage into the next level. -George Colligan

George Duke was a friend and a mentor to me. He was responsible for my very first gig (Anita Baker) and many musical experiences that followed after that. I will miss him dearly. -Darrell Smith

I’m so grateful to have had the chance to hang out with George Duke while we were recording Dianne Reeves’ last record When You Know, and also at the Thelonious Monk Institute competitions. George was so kind, warm-hearted, and supportive to both me and my wife Susan, who played in the string section on those Dianne sessions. Among the top five scariest things I ever had to do, was to play a “funky” eight-bar piano solo in E flat on Dianne Reeves’ “Midnight Sun,” with George in the booth producing. I practically begged him to come play the solo himself! News of his departure truly came as a shock. -Geoffrey Keezer

George Duke’s music was full of joy, and it has been a huge influence on me. I wish I could havemet him, but even without doing so I can tell he had fun, as it speaks loudly through his music. I remember listening to his song “Brazilian Love Affair” all the time as a teenager. It’s amazing, juicy music. Thanks, George! May the next section of your journey be wonderful. -Jason Rebello

George Duke represents everything a musician should stand for: excellence, beauty, versatility, virtuosity, and musicality. I got to know George better in 2011 as part of DMS (George Duke, Marcus Miller & David Sanborn). I will miss his quick wit, kindness, camaraderie, humility, and vast musicianship. George the musician was an amazing genius—that we know. George the person was honest, intelligent, considerate, loyal, and compassionate. He was a straight shooter who was loved by multitudes and a friend to many. -Federico Gonzalez Peña

George Duke is gone way too soon. He left us a rich musical legacy of swinging, soulful, powerful, and heartfelt music. He inspired and delighted me and legions of musicians, and he will continue to inspire and delight those who follow. -Andy LaVerne

Listening to Duke’s playing with Zappa when I was growing up was always a trip. His amazing technique and Rhodes tones pushed the limits and inspired me to play outside the box and push my own boundaries. He will be missed and always remembered. -Jacob Jones (Fictionist)

I will never forget nearly dropping my entire food tray in Germany in 2011 when I looked up from the catering line at the Ingolstadt Jazz Festival where I was performing and saw George Duke in front of me. “Whoa, you’re George Duke,” I said in shock. And then we laughed our way through lunch. The world just got a lot less funky, but Heaven is grooving like a mother right now. -Jon Regen

My first experience hearing George Duke was from his work in Frank Zappa’s band in 1974. His musical gifts were perfect for that group. He could play burning Rhodes solos in seven, make a great Moog filter sweep, and sing a crazy bebop tango. He will be greatly missed. My favorite Zappa songs are the live 1974 versions of “Florentine Pogen” and “Inca Roads” because of George’s incredible playing, sounds, and singing. -Brian Charette

George Duke was at the top of my influences as a keyboard player. My favorite album of his was Face the Music. His virtuoso technique, playful style, and soulful feel seemed to capture every emotion possible. As a songwriter, producer, and arranger, he was equally as gifted. Not only was he one of the baddest musicians ever, but he also had a humble and inspiring spirit. He was truly one of a kind and will be sorely missed. Thank you, George, for your gift of music to this world. -Brian Culbertson

George’s passing is another sobering reminder of how important the memories we leave behind are. My greatest memory of George is from a series of videos we did for Spectrasonics’ Trillian software. Along with the unspeakable joy of listening to him play right next to me, George’s second most recognizable feature was his hefty, infectious laugh. I can tell you we shared many of those during the tapings. Despite having graduated from the Zappa “School of Insane Musical Stylings,” George never let his technical prowess overshadow his deep blues roots, as evidenced in one of my favorite instrumentals, “Sister Serene.” He had the nerve to have a scorching falsetto, toobeautifully displayed in one of my all-time favorite songs, “Someday.” George was one of the most underrated musicians of our time. I will greatly miss my friend, but I’m comforted knowing he’s reunited with his beloved wife Corine. -Greg Phillinganes

I’m heartbroken. George was my hero, and probably the most influential keyboard player in my life. I’ve studied him since I was a kid. Rest well my dear friend. We’ll all see you soon. -Ricky Peterson

I still can’t believe how many different albums George Duke played on, and the different kinds of artists he played with and genres he tore through. Check out “Alone-6AM” from A Brazilian Love Affair and, damn, it’s just all in there. -David Cook

On what felt like the hottest, most humid Atlanta day, I remember George keeping a packed crowd on its feet for what seemed like an hour just playing the “Dukey Stick” vamp. They were dancing and literally screaming for more funk! Then he sat at the piano and played the most beautiful, elegant, improvised intro to “Sweet Baby.” Then he topped it off with a screaming version of Zappa’s “Echidna’s Arf” at breakneck speed with complete precision, letting all the “players” know what a technical expert he was. He had all this talent while still being the consummate gentleman. There will never be another multi-faceted champ and mastermind like George Duke. -Jeff Babko, keyboardist on Jimmy Kimmel Live

I was honored to share the stage with George on several occasions and work with him on music prep for a Burt Bacharach TV special. He was a bridge between jazz, funk, rock and pop music like no other. His studio was killer, and I loved how he was always in tune with current technology. In addition to his amazing talent, George was just the nicest man you could know, and he had a wicked sense of humor when you got him going! He once told me his behemoth Mitsubishi X-850 digital recorder that sat unplugged in the corner was the most expensive coat rack in recording studio history. -Rob Shrock

George Duke was one of those rare artists that transcended genre. Though his home base was jazz, he was a musician that knew how to make great music regardless of the category you’d find it in. -Tony DeSare

I used to consider George Duke the first “serious” jazz player who could hang with a rock band. I remember hearing him for the first time on 200 Motels and all of those amazing Zappa records of the ’70s. But then he’s tearing it up with Sonny Rollins and Jean Luc Ponty and Miles and so on. So when you actually consider the depth of Duke’s contribution to contemporary music, all talk about genre and style is meaningless. George was a bad-ass genius who could play and do everything—and did. -Scott Healy, longtime keyboardist with Conan O'Brien

I first heard George Duke with Cannonball Adderley’s band. He was a marvel then, and only continued to amaze me in the succeeding years. That he had fans who didn’t even know they were listening to a great jazz musician is a tribute to his astonishing versatility.-Mike Finnigan

As a young kid starting in this business as a recording engineer, I had the honor to work with George’s engineer Kerry McNabb and to be involved with many of George’s recordings starting in the mid 1970’s. George was very kind and supportive to me when I was a 20-year-old kid trying to find his way in this crazy business. We remained friends and although I didn’t see him as often as I’d have liked, every time I did he was always welcoming and friendly. He was a wonderful human being and a legendary artist and he will be truly missed. -Dennis Moody

There have been many changes in music over the years, but few keyboard players today will ever be as influential as George Duke was. -Korel Tunador (Goo Goo Dolls)

What can one say about George Duke? He had one of the most eclectic careers one could ever hope for, from Miles and Herbie and Zappa to popsters including Michael Jackson and Deniece Williams, not to mention Brazilian artists like Airto. It boggles the mind. The one thing that remained constant was his undeniable feel. That’s his true legacy, and the musical community as a whole is so much better off for having had George Duke in its ranks. -Matt Beck (Rob Thomas, Rod Stewart)

George Duke bridged the world between mainstream and contemporary jazz without inciting the keepers of the temple. He did that by being a superb keyboardist with great imagination, style, and a careful eye on the future. -Bill King

-“We’re all better, wiser, and maybe—maybe—more attentive groove players because of George Duke.” Don Grusin

I first heard George Duke on the Cannonball Adderly album The Black Messiah. I was overwhelmed by his playing; it was so percussive and funky. He had great command of the Rhodes. What always impressed me about George (besides of course his musicianship) was that he was real. He didn’t put himself above others and always respected the music and the musicians. George’s presence on the scene is really going to be missed. He’s a giant who will not be easily replaced. -Jason Miles