STLJN Saturday Video Showcase: Remembering George Duke


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Today, we keep our usual St. Louis-centric format on pause for one more week to pay tribute to keyboardist George Duke, who died this past Monday, August 5 at age 67.

Though Duke, a native Californian, had no direct personal connection to our town, he played many gigs here over the years, the last being two years ago at the Touhill with St. Louis' own David Sanborn and bassist Marcus Miller. And although it's not the usual practice here to eulogize every major jazz musician who passes away - if it were, some weeks the site would be mostly obits - Duke was a longtime personal favorite of yr. editor, and what's the use of having your own website if you can't bend the format every once in a while, right?

Known as a successful producer of pop and R&B acts as well as a highly regarded keyboardist in styles from straight ahead and Latin jazz to fusion and funk, Duke died from a type of leukemia, for which he apparently had been receiving treatments for some time but hadn't talked about much in public. In fact, at the time of his death, he was actively promoting a new album, Dreamweaver, released just a few weeks ago.

While a thorough overview of his life and many accomplishments are really beyond the scope of this post, the pieces published this past week by Down Beat and Jazz Times do a good job of covering the basics. Instead, before we get to the videos, there are two personal observations I'd like to share.

The first is that, many years ago when I was first trying to learn about jazz and how to play with other musicians, hearing George Duke helped me to understand that being a good player wasn't just about having chops or being able to play a lot of fast licks. Duke could do that, but he also was willing and able to play something very simple, like the doo-wop style piano triplets found in some of Frank Zappa's songs, if that's what best suited the material.

That ability - to do something simple if it served the song - not only was key to Duke's crossover success, it's a useful skill for any working musician, and an example that proved valuable to me personally, too.

The second thing is even simpler: In a world where many musicians make a point of taking themselves and their work very seriously, George Duke always looked like he was having fun. People liked him for that, perhaps as much as they liked him for his considerable musical skills, and it helped make his work more accessible to a wider audience without compromising his image among his peers as a serious, well-respected musician

Since he had such a long career and played with so many well-known artists, there are many videos of George Duke online - so many that a truly comprehensive sampling probably would take at least half-dozen posts like this one. What we can can do, though, is share at least a few representative examples.

We start up top with a full set of music recorded live in July 1976 at the Montreux Jazz Festival. This was during the period when Duke was co-leading a band with drummer Billy Cobham, who at the time had been quite commercially successful with the Mahavishnu Orchestra and his first couple of recordings as a leader. The band also includes bassist Alphonso Johnson, who had been a member of Weather Report, and guitarist John Scofield, who's gone on to stardom in his own right but then was just beginning his career.

A couple of years later, Duke was going it alone as a bandleader, as seen in down below in a clip that documents the recording his first real solo hit “Dukey Stick" in 1978. By then, he had started singing on his records in addition to playing keyboards, and had assembled a sympathetic and versatile band, with Byron Miller on bass, Leon 'Ndugu' Chancler and future pop star Sheila E. on drums and percussion, former Zappa sideman Napoleon Murphy Brock on sax and vocals, singers Josie James and Muffy Hendrix, and guitarist Charles 'Icarus' Johnson.

By the time today's third video - another full set recorded in 1983 in Tokyo - was made, songs like “Dukey Stick" and “Reach For It" had helped Duke achieve a level of popular success that few jazz musicians ever reach, and the larger band and more elaborate presentation reflect that.

The fourth clip brings us into into the present decade with one more full set, this time from the 2011 Java Jazz Festival in Jakarta, Indonesia, reflecting the current state of Duke's solo shows at the time of his death.

To close out, there are a couple of shorter videos that help to illuminate aspects of George Duke's musical personality. The clip in the fifth slot, recorded earlier this year for Keyboard magazine, feature Duke giving a tour of his personal studio.

And the sixth and final clip goes all the way back to 1975, during Duke's stint with Zappa, and features him in an unidentified concert improvising a spontaneous solo spot that combines several keyboards, singing and dancing, nicely demonstrating both his inventiveness and his willingness to have a good time on stage.

R.I.P. George Duke, and thanks for all the music. You will be missed.

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This story appears courtesy of St. Louis Jazz Notes by Dean Minderman.
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