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Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Good bye, George Duke - and thank you, thank you very much

Today I got the news - George Duke died at the age or 67, which is too young, too young.  George Duke changed me.  Here is the story.

I was 13 years old, in eighth grade at John Muir Junior High School in San Leandro, California.  George was about 22 years old at that time, one year out of college,  with some great gigs under his belt (Don Ellis Orchestra, Carmen McCrae, Jon Hendricks, Anita O'Day, Bud Shanks, Clark Terry, and on and on).  I was a mediocre trombone player who was recruited to be in the junior high jazz band - a world was opening to me (Charles Mingus, Don Ellis, Miles Davis, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, J.J Johnson and many more), but my interest was mild at best.  In late 1967, I learned that the George Duke Trio was going to play a free concert at my junior high school after the new year.  And, sure enough, on Saturday, January 13. 1968, George Duke and his two colleagues showed up in the multi-purpose room at my junior high.  I was front and center.  After 15 minutes, I was amazed, eyes as big as pie plates, jaw hanging open.  The talent and stunning beauty of the music created by these three young adults shook and changed me.  George was still playing quite a bit of mainstream jazz back then, but he did drop a couple of contemporary tunes on us ("Last Train to Clarksdale" was one of the funkier tunes he did that night, I think).  I resolved that night to practice my trombone every day (fat lot of good it did me).  More importantly, George Duke's performance that night caused me to love jazz, blues, R&B and funk - that love has sustained me through my life's turbulence.

George grew up in Marin City, the one poor, black town in ritzy Marin County California.  His mom took him to see Duke Ellington when he was four years old, and he demanded to play piano and he started lessons.  He went to high school in Mill Valley - Mount Tamalpais High School - one of the few black kids there.  He played many instruments, including trombone (he majored in trombone performance in college). 

George went on to be a founding member of the funk fraternity.  Check out "Dukey Stick" from 1978!! He tapped the deep soul of the African American musical tradition by playing piano in gospel churches. He toured with the jazz-rock violinist, Jean-Luc Ponty, in 1969.  George joined the Frank Zappa band in the early 1970's.  He was tapped by Cannonball Adderly in 1971 to fill the keyboard chair in the that pioneering soul/jazz group. In the mid-70's, George launched his solo career in earnest, but  he still played on Michael Jackson and Phil Collins  records, and also worked with Quincy Jones. George was a major factor in the development of jazz fusion, playing with bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer  Billy Cobham.  He played with Miles Davis!  He loved Brazilian music and played with Airto Moreira and Flora Purim. He became a much sought-after record producer.  He was frequently sampled by the current generation of musical artists, including Kanye West, Common, Ice Cube,  Daft Punk and even Vanilla Ice!

So, good bye George, and thank you for making me a better person.

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