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Keyboardist, George Duke Dies at 67


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/2013 03:31:21 PM PDT | Updated: a day ago

Keyboardist George Duke, a jazz prodigy from Marin County who turned into a kingpin pop-music producer and Grammy winner, died Monday in Los Angeles. His career, spanning 40-plus years, was a potpourri -- everything from performing with Michael Jackson ("Off the Wall"), Miles Davis ("Tutu") and Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention ("Hot Rats") to putting together the 25th anniversary show for "Soul Train" and scoring the film "Karate Kid III."

Duke, 67, had suffered from chronic lymphocytic leukemia, according to a representative.

Born in San Rafael, he was raised in working-class Marin City and fell in love with the piano at age 4, when his mother took him to see Duke Ellington.

"I don't remember it too well," Duke once recalled, "but my mother told me I went crazy. I ran around saying, 'Get me a piano, get me a piano!'"

He began studying piano at age 7, played in church, and music took over. In 1967, he graduated from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, majoring in composition and trombone, minoring in double bass.

But it was as a pianist that he made his name, first in the Bay Area, where he was a fixture in the rhythm sections at the Half Note and Both/And clubs, prominent San Francisco venues of the era. A soulful player with immense technique -- the discerning Davis later cited him as among his favorite pianists -- it didn't take him long to make a reputation.

But he didn't stick with jazz.

First, Duke fell for the electric jazz-rock "fusion" of the period, collaborating with French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. He once recalled performing in 1969 at a Los Angeles club where the audience included producer Quincy Jones, as well as Frank Zappa and saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. Later that year, he went on tour with Zappa for the first time. In 1971, Adderley recruited Duke to be his keyboardist, and Duke's career kept spiraling. Over the years, he collaborated in one way or another with dozens of artists across a wide spectrum: Tony Bennett, Rickie Lee Jones, Anita Baker, Johnny Mathis, Barry Manilow, Melissa Manchester.

He was taken to task in DownBeat magazine, and many of his early jazz fans were critical, as well. Had he sold out?

"Absolutely, I'm a businessman," he told DownBeat. "I feel I have to be comprehensive and put all my eggs in different baskets. So whatever I play, whether it's rock or funk or jazz or Latin, or producer or whatever, I try to spread stuff out in terms of making an income."

Critics couldn't fault Duke's musical chops, which were prodigious, wherever he applied them. Other fusion collaborations included albums and tours with bassist Stanley Clarke (their "Sweet Baby" was a Top 20 Billboard hit) and drummer Billy Cobham. In the '70s, he began releasing solo albums; eventually, there were more than 30. He also produced for Davis, Smokey Robinson, Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick and Natalie Cole.

In 1989, Duke played the role of a night club owner on the NBC soap opera "Generations." In 1993, harking back to his Marin roots, he premiered an orchestral work title "Muir Woods" Suite at the Montreux Jazz Festival.

Duke's wife, Corine, died from cancer last year. He was unable to make music for months, but overcame his grief to record the album "DreamWeaver," released last month. It features a tribute to his late wife on the romantic piano-driven ballad "Missing You."

Duke's son, Rashid, thanked his father's fans in a statement Tuesday.

"The outpouring of love and support that we have received from my father's friends, fans and the entire music community has been overwhelming," he said. "Thank you all for your concern, prayers and support."

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