George Duke and Tomoko were students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music at the same time. “We performed Prokoviev and Brahms together,” Tomoko remembers. “He was the sweetest man. He lived in Marin City, and he would generously give fellow students, including me, rides home.” From the Conservatory, George earned his bachelor’s degree in trombone and composition, with a minor in contrabass.
If you have heard of The Mothers of Invention, then you know of George Duke – and that he became a famous jazz musician. George joined the rebirth of this rock band in 1970 as their keyboardist and vocalist.
Thinking back to this musician, Tomoko remarks, “Maybe because his jazz influence or upbringing, he was very down to earth, not like many classical musician divas.” She concludes, “There is a big difference between the classical world and non-classical musicians. The latter are more easy going. I also found that out when I was recording at Skywalker.” Her comments reflect George’s own feelings in that he switched from classical music to jazz because it was more freeing for him, and it allowed him to improvise.
After his stint with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, George became a record producer for several hit musicians, including Anita Baker, Gladys Knight, Melissa Manchester, Barry Manilow, and Smokey Robinson. Nevertheless, he still performed live with other musicians, and made thirty solo albums.
George Duke was also a composer, including scoring work for television and film. His major orchestral piece was Muir Woods Suite, which premiered at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1993.
For his work, Duke was nominated for nine Grammy Awards, and won two. He was twice named R&B keyboardist of the year by Keyboard magazine, and received the Edison Life Time Achievement Award. He was also inducted into the SoulMusic Hall of Fame.
Unfortunately, George Duke died in 2013 at age 67 from leukemia, but he is well remembered by Tomoko.