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The Duke is gone: Long live George Duke

David Goodson | 8/8/2013, 9:48 a.m. | Updated on 8/8/2013, 9:48 a.m.

Earhustlers! They’re always all in the Kool-Aid and don’t know the flava. Hate ʾ’em! Here’s a prime example of why, after getting the news of the untimely passing of George Duke, me and one of my people started to wax poetic about the Duke’s legacy and his contributions to the game. Then, he started spouting names like Mike Krzyzewski, Christian Laettner, Elton Brand, Grant Hill, Kyrie Irving and talking about four NCAA championships, blah, blah, blah. We then proceeded to tell him that it wasn’t that Duke, as in the university, that we were talking about; we were discussing the late, great George Duke.

On Aug. 5, Duke was called home after a battle with chronic lymphyocytic leukemia. He was 67 years young and is survived by two sons, John and Rashid. The latter offered these words: “The outpouring of love and support that we have received from my father’s friends, fans and the entire music community has been overwhelming. Thank you all for your concern, prayers and support.”

A look of befuddlement came across my friend’s grill as he wondered why he hadn’t heard of Duke. It’s sad that for a man whose artistry can rival that of Quincy Jones, that lack of knowledge is the norm. So here’s a quick briefing.

Duke once shared, “My mom exposed me to what was out there. She said, ‘I’m going to take you to art shows, drama class. I want you involved in the arts, so let’s see what sticks.’ The one thing that stuck as a boy of 4-and-a-half years old was seeing Duke Ellington, maybe because his name was Duke. But he was doing something that seemed like magic to me.

“He spoke the King’s English, yet at the same time, he sounded like one of the brothers on the street. I thought, ‘This an interesting dichotomy of a person, so whatever he’s doing, I want to be a part of it.’ He was doing something with his hands, and I later found out he was playing piano. When he raised his arms, people played or stopped. People were having fun, and I knew at that moment that’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t know if I could make a living at it, but I knew it was my life’s calling,” Duke said.

That 4-and-a-half-year-old went on to have a career that spanned nearly five decades, during which time he had grown into one of the most prolific keyboardists, arrangers and songwriters that jazz has ever seen. He released over 30 solo genre-bending albums, including his recently released (July 13) “DreamWeaver.”

His last project was released approximately a full year to the day of the death of his wife, Corine. Careful not to make a downtrodden, somber piece of material, Duke took great pains in creating an album that was celebratory of the life Corine lived and the life that they shared. The result was a new No. 1 debut on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz chart. Appearing on the disc is an illustrious cast of musicians that includes bassists Christian McBride and Stanley Clarke; vocalists Teena Marie, Lalah Hathaway, Rachelle Ferrell and Jeffrey Osborne; guitarist Paul Jackson Jr.; and the late guitarist Jef Lee Johnson. This collection should come as no surprise, as his resume lists colloborations with Cannonball Adderley, Michael Jackson, Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, Denise Williams, A Taste of Honey, Anita Baker, Howard Hewett and the list goes on. Of his penchant for working on classic material with a variety of artists, Duke said, “I gave artists the maximum leeway to create music. I just wish today there was more music in it. I don’t hear a lot of melody; I hear a lot of rhythm, and for me, that doesn’t bode well for the future. Thirty years from now, what are you gonna remember—a beat?”

In memory of Duke, two of his collaborators, Rachell Ferrell and Phil Ferry, will take the stage for epic shows on Aug. 21 and Aug. 28, respectively. Both performances are part of the 2013 Smooth Jazz Series. For details, call 866-483-3866 or visit www.spiritofnewyork.com.

I’m out. Holla next week. Till then, enjoy the nightlife.