Heaven Just Got Funkier

by J. Kavin Ross


When you witness God-given musical gifts, those moments are forever frozen in your memory. On Monday, August 19, Duke fans across the world were able to say goodbye to the legendary and incomparable George Duke, who died August 5 in Los Angeles. George Duke was perhaps the most exuberant pianist the world’s seen. He was indeed a free spirit and a warm soul who gave life to music. His musical gifts soothed the soul or evoked the savage beast within all of us.

Duke’s death was from cardiac complications from treatments for leukemia. But, those who knew him believe his passing was caused by a broken heart over the loss of his wife and lifetime friend, Corine, who died last July of cancer. The couple was married more than 40 years. George held on for the July release of Dream Weaver, new recordings dedicated to his late wife.

Upon learning the news of his friend’s illness, Stevie Wonder was at the hospital the day George died. As he began to sing “If It’s Magic” during the memorial service, he recalled their conversation at the hospital, “Are you ready for this fight?” Wonder asked Duke. “He said, ‘Yes, count it off .’ I, too, did my crying. We, too, must be as was he, an angel to protect the world.”

At the memorial service for Duke, I also shared the same linkage as those who performed along with him over the years. My opportunity came in 1992 when I attended my first George Duke performance at a venue called Rockefellers in Houston, Texas. Spending an afternoon with the pianist and music producer was a memorable encounter.

Seated next to me at that venue in ‘92 was George’s mother, who befriended me instantly. Nearly a decade later, Duke and I realized that night was memorable for both of us. For me, to finally see and hear one of the world’s most prolific pianists was the thrill of a life time. Unfortunately, the passing of George’s father marked the night for him. Earlier, the family had memorial services for the Duke patriarch. “It was the most difficult performance in my life,” Duke said.

I had studied Duke’s career all through high school. After graduating from Booker T. Washington High School, I furthered my studies at Texas Southern University. A music scholarship enabled me to share classes with Memphis saxophonist Kirk Whalum and Houston gospel artist Yolanda Adams.

Houston was rich with musical legends who would visit the urban university: Ornette Cobb, The Crusaders, Everette Harp, and the Laws family—Ronnie, Hubert, and Debra. “If for a few years earlier, I would have been born in Houston,” Duke, who was born in San Rafael, California, said. “My mom and dad moved to the Northern California because of the war situation,” Duke recalled. George’s family left Texas for the West Coast to search for better career opportunities. Duke’s father wanted to work in the shipyards.

George began his piano studies at age seven. A church pianist was Duke’s first job in music. Little Duke consumed the roots of gospel at a local church. “My earliest influence was Les McCann. When I first heard Les, he sounded like a funky gospel player, but he was playing secular music.” George said. He later sharpened his natural gifts at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. “I got into a Miles Davis record called Kind of Blue, and it messed me up,” Duke remembered. The recording also featured the works of saxophonists John Coltrane and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley. Excited by jazz music, George began to collect the albums of every musician who performed on Coltrane’s albums. He even purchased all of the sidemen’s records and studied each musician. At the age of 18, Duke began playing at the famous Half Note Club in San Francisco. It was there he encountered Al Jarreau, an unknown social worker who wanted to sing. Their friendship and collaboration would last for decades. “In 1965 we were just trying this thing out,” Jarreau said. “We were in the Haight-Ashbury District in San Francisco. We played everything from jazz, fusion, to bebop, and also played funk to make your behind fall off.”

George’s earliest collaboration was with Cannonball Adderley. “Cannon was a walking history book. For hours he would talk about Sarah Vaughn and Carmen McCrae,” Duke remembered. “Adderley would tell stories of other legends that were first his friends and later musical mates.” George absorbed the parting of information as it was being handed down by way of oral presentation.

Philadelphia bassist Stanley Clarke said: “This is surreal for me. George and I played so many years, performing and recording music together.” Clarke met Duke in a jazz festival in Europe in the 1970s. The duo was playing in two different bands. Duke was performing with Cannonball Adderley, and Clarke was with pianist Chick Corea. “George was bigger than life. George had the ability to make you feel better. His smile and his sense of humor made you feel better,” Clarke said.

In the early ‘70s, Duke joined Frank Zappa for much of the decade. “You would have to be a proficient musician to be able to play that music, still have a sense of humor, and live in Frank’s world,” Duke explained. As a jazz musician, the standard dress code for a performance was a black suit with a thin black tie. “When I joined Frank, I was a straightlaced kind of jazz player. That was my thing: I was a jazz player. When I got with Frank it was a whole different trip. I was dealing with not just rock and roll, but all kinds of music. So Frank really opened my mind up to the world of music.” In general, Frank taught George not be so serious—to to have a sense of humor and not to be afraid of it.

About 30 years ago, while on tour in the southern region of the United States, Duke performed in Tulsa. Once with Zappa and then with Cannonball’s brother, Nat Adderley. Zappa performed two concerts at the Brady Theater. “The first show was sold out and the second show nearly three-fourths full,” recalled Chuck Jones, who worked at the Brady. Duke left Zappa’s band in 1976.

Duke then began to work with Sonny Rollins and coled a group with drummer Billy Cobham. Duke performed all over the world, and he admitted that playing live was purely for fun. His role as a music producer was really his bread and butter. As a television and movie score producer, Duke composed and produced music to such films as The Five Heartbeats and Leap of Faith. Duke also produced a new twist to the Soul Train theme.

Duke was always a busy producer for such artists as Dianne Reeves, Anita Baker, Kirk Whalum, and Jeffrey Osborne. Duke produced the unforgettable ballad “On the Wings of Love” for Jeffrey Osborne. “George was the most multi-dimensional producer who introduced me to the world. I never seen George down, he was always up and he found a way to uplift everyone,” Osborne said. Duke produced three hit solo albums for Osborne, a former drummer for the 1970s group LTD.

George’s career spanned more than six decades, constantly pushing the limits to what was expected in any specific genre. George was a song’s best friend. He was a musician’s musician. Creating music with such great artists, Duke’s list is lengthy while naming his collaborations. Tulsa’s Wayman Tisdale is among them. Duke and Tisdale recorded a number of retro-inspired
songs for Tisdale’s last recording, The Fonk Record. Upon Tisdale’s passing, Duke declared: “Heaven just got funkier.”

Chuck Cissel, former Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame executive director, also reflected upon his moments with George: “The brilliant, amazing pianist, composer, bandleader, and genius musician George Duke was my friend whom I had the utmost respect for.” When Cissel resided on the West Coast, discussions began for Duke to produce Cissel’s second album for the Arista label. However, due to schedule conflicts, the connection could not be made. Years later, Cissel invited him to perform for the 2002 Juneteenth Music Festival. Soon after, Cissel inducted Duke into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame as a Lifetime Achievement Award recipient. “So glad we acknowledged and honored him,” Cissel said.

Saxophonist Gerald Albright, who also performed at Juneteenth Music Festival in Tulsa’s historic Greenwood District, recalled his fondest thoughts of Duke: “He was my music industry father and a deep friend. He illuminated genius status on a daily basis, and at the same time, he would be just George, a regular guy that loved everyone. We all lost a true genius and a great spiritual brother.”

Award-winning gospel recording artist Richard Smallwood reflected upon his first encounter with Duke: “I remember working with Philip Bailey on his gospel project, Family A air. Philip informed me that we were going to George Duke’s house to do this particular track because of the incredible piano he had in his studio. I remembered feeling terrified and totally intimidated as we approached his home, but only to be met by one of the kindest, gentlest, and most welcoming people that I had ever met in person. It was an experience that I will always treasure.”

Texas saxophonist Tom Braxton also shared his moments with Duke. “It is difficult to sum up the musical legacy of George Duke because it is so varied and so expansive. I listened to the funky George Duke with ‘Dukey Stick’ on a 45-r.p.m. as a teen growing up in West Texas. I experienced ‘Reach For It’ and so many other great songs from that era. He was also an amazing musician and performer that always left an audience wanting more. I was blessed to perform with him on the Smooth Jazz Cruises, and it was thrilling to hear him explore new frontiers in jazz and funk every night,” Braxton said.

George Duke was four years old when he had his very first encounter with greatness. He remembered his mother taking him to see Duke Ellington perform live in concert: “I don’t remember it too well, but my mother said that I went crazy. I ran around saying, ‘Get me a piano!’ ”

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 17. Sept. 1, 2013.