LONG BEACH-The great musician known as George Duke is no longer present with us on earth. But his presence and music will live on. That was evident during the 26th Annual Long Beach Jazz Festival. Performer after performer, whether it was through a move in song or sharing their memories of the iconic keyboardist who recently passed away from leukemia, paid homage to the jazz great in one form or another.
Saxophonist Kim Waters and vocalist Phil Perry teamed up give the festival crowd a memorable taste of Duke by performing a moving rendition of “No Rhyme, No Reason,” one of the most commercially successful songs produced by the late jazz master.
Howard Hewett and Stanley Clarke’s take on “Sweet Baby,” resonated deeply with the appreciative crowd.
Clarke and Duke had banded together on “Sweet Baby,” which was a Top 20 hit from the pair’s Clarke/Duke Project collaboration. The impact Duke has had on the jazz, funk and R&B genre is immeasurable with his contributions as a songwriter and musician to the likes of Michael Jackson, Jeffrey Osborne, Melissa Manchester and many, many others.
Duke’s presence was definitely felt during the three days of the Long Beach Jazz Festival, which played out at the scenic and beautiful Rainbow Lagoon Park. Thousands of jazz fans made their way early and often to hear the harmonic and rhythmic sounds of the O’Jays, Eric Benet, Kim Waters, Phil Perry, Poncho Sanchez, Gladys Knight, The Whispers and Howard Hewett.
The three-day attending audience also got to hear smooth jazz laid out before them by dynamic saxophonists Everette Harp, Euge Groove and Jeanette Harris. All of these prominent and longtime performers shined and basked in the glow of the ocean breeze and the glittery haze of the sun.
But a hot newcomer made her presence felt as well. Elle Varner took the stage by storm, blowing away and electrifying the audience with her pop/R&B sound. As much as the weekend was a celebration of good music, enjoying good food and have a fun time, artists on the lineup card had their minds on Duke.
The last time he spoke with Duke, Hewett said he noticed his longtime friend had lost a considerable amount of weight.
That was a couple of months before his passing. Hewett said the two had talked about his medical condition several years back. They prayed on the matter and let it go. Still, the shock of losing someone of the magnitude of Duke is very much heartfelt and hard to take, Hewett said.
“First of all, it’s a great loss to music, to creativity,” Hewett said. “We still have his music, we just won’t have any more new music. The body of work that he left us is incredible. It is something we should agree to celebrate. George was my friend.
“George was a dear close friend. And I don’t have very many close friends in my life because of the way I define close friends. That was George. He was like a mentor. He was a friend. He was a like a cornerstone and the foundation of life’s situations as a musician and as a man.”
Hewett said it was Clarke who introduced him to Duke some 30 odd years ago. From the there, Hewett said he and Duke formed a tight relationship, whether it was bonding from all the studio sessions they worked together or just hanging out. Watching Duke at work was like watching a genius.
“To watch George work was like watching genius,” Hewett said.
Perry, who poured in a scorching take on “No Rhyme, No Reason,” said he and Waters did the song as a tribute to Duke.
“It’s just our musical way of saying how much we’re going to miss him and us sending him on his way,” Perry said. “He’s the producer of my only No. 1 record in the country. But than any musical contribution or education that he gave us, I’m more blessed from knowing him than by working with him. We miss him. We loved him. Death is death, no matters whose family it is.”
Waters said he learned a lot from Duke over the years.
“George Duke has had a tremendous impact on me, especially with production skills and his versatility over a number of years has helped me through a lot of things, just watching his style of music. It’s a tremendous loss. The impact he’s had on me and so many others will live a long time.”