George Duke, Crossover Musician With Frank Zappa, Dies at 67

By August 7, 2013
George Duke, Crossover Musician With Frank Zappa, Dies at 67

George Duke, who began his career as a jazz pianist in the 1960s but made his name by crossing musical boundaries, died on Monday in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 67.

He had suffered heart complications after being treated for chronic lymphocytic leukemia, said his manager, Darryl Porter, who confirmed the death.

The name of the instrument with which Mr. Duke is perhaps most closely associated also describes his approach to music: synthesizer. While he remained a respected figure in the jazz world, over the years he also played keyboards with Frank Zappa and Michael Jackson, sang lead on a Top 20 single and produced pop and rhythm-and-blues hits for others. His work has been sampled by hip-hop and electronic artists, including Daft Punk.

“I was in a rock band, I played with a bunch of Brazilians, I played R&B with Parliament-Funkadelic and all of that,” he said in an interview before his most recent album, “DreamWeaver,” was released last month. “I mean, I’ve done jazz with Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley. It’s a goulash. It’s a gumbo.”

Mr. Duke, who as a small boy begged his mother to buy him a piano after she took him to see Duke Ellington, began playing professionally at a time when many musicians were interested in blending genres. He played in a trio that backed the singer Al Jarreau while he was still a teenager, then accompanied Dizzy Gillespie and other jazz musicians at clubs in San Francisco. By the early 1970s he had performed and recorded with Adderley, the jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. (His six-year stint with Zappa included an appearance, with the rest of the band, in the feature film “200 Motels.”)

Zappa “told me one day that I should play synthesizers,” Mr. Duke wrote on his Web site. “It was as simple as that!” Urged by Zappa, he said, he experimented with a few types of synthesizers before settling on the ARP Odyssey, “purely to be different from Jan Hammer, who was playing the Minimoog.” Mr. Hammer was a member of the guitarist John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, one of the first jazz-rock fusion bands to achieve widespread success.

As a leader, Mr. Duke focused in the middle and late 1970s on groove-oriented funk. His versatility also made him a sought-after collaborator. Working in Rio de Janeiro in 1979, he recorded one of his best-known albums, “A Brazilian Love Affair,” with the singers Milton Nascimento and Flora Purim. He also worked with other major names in fusion, including the drummer Billy Cobham, with whom he was co-leader of a band in the 1970s, and the bassist Stanley Clarke, with whom he formed the Clarke/Duke Project in 1981.

By that time he had become more of a pop act, singing and often playing a hand-held synthesizer while standing center stage in concert. Collaborating with Mr. Clarke, he wrote and sang “Sweet Baby,” a ballad that became his first pop hit, reaching No. 19 on the Billboard singles chart in 1981. Soon after that the duo had another hit with “Shine On,” which reached No. 41.

While he pursued a career as a leader, he continued to participate in recording sessions for notable albums like Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall” and to produce other artists. In 1984 he produced Deniece Williams’s No. 1 hit “Let’s Hear It for the Boy.” Among the other singers whose records he produced were Jeffrey Osborne, Angela Bofill, the duo A Taste of Honey and the jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves, who was his cousin.

His song “I Love You More” was sampled by Daft Punk for the 2001 hit “Digital Love.”

Mr. Duke was born on Jan. 12, 1946, in San Rafael, Calif, near San Francisco. He grew up listening to gospel music in the Baptist church his family attended. He graduated from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in 1967.

His survivors include two sons, John and Rashid. His wife, Corine, died last year.

Critics sometimes said that Mr. Duke’s music was too smooth, not challenging enough, and that he was too eager to court a broad audience. He disagreed.

“I really think it’s possible (and still do) to make good music and be commercial at the same time,” Mr. Duke wrote. “I believe it is the artist’s responsibility to take the music to the people. Art for art’s sake is nice; but if art doesn’t communicate, then its worth is negated. It has not fulfilled its destiny.”

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