I’m in Denver, Colorado right now and I was sitting in with a band. My drummer, Alvin Ford, came to me and showed me a Facebook update that says, “We lost another one. Rest In Peace George Duke.” I just immediately ran away somewhere where I could be alone and cry. Then I left and went back to my hotel and I’ve been crying for the last four hours. I can’t sleep. I can’t stop weeping. I’m devastated. I know God has a plan for everybody and no matter who you are, you’re not excluded from those plans. That’s the way of life.
Tell me about when you first encountered George Duke and the impact that he had on you.
My father was a musician and I grew up with a wealth of records. When I was about nine, I got a record player at a yard sale because I wanted to have access to those records—we moved and he had put them in the attic. So I asked my father if I could go and get the records and he allowed me to do that.
The first George Duke record that I ever heard was a record called Feel. I remember listening to it and just being mesmerized by it. I have listened to that record every day since I was nine—I’ll be 32 next month. When I first heard that record, especially the title track of the record, I made up my mind that this was what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a musician. This was the path that I wanted to take. I had never heard anyone make music like that. I started listening to everything else he did and that was my confirmation that George Duke would be my favorite keyboard player. And he always has been. He’s been a part of my life and he’s helped me through some really rough times. He’s helped me from killing myself. He’s helped me through so many rough situations in my life. Jesus said in the Bible, “All I need is for one person to get what I’m saying and to understand my teachings,” and if he didn’t do that for anybody else, he definitely did it for me. I am forever grateful for his work and his purpose here on this earth.
He changed a lot of things and changed the ways that people think about certain shit. And he was also the funniest dude ever—that showed through his playing too. Fusion was a really serious music. When George decided to get into it, he wanted to bring back the humor and he did.
How did George Duke’s style and approach to music change your own style?
I don’t think it really changed how I played because when I really started playing, all I was playing was George Duke. I wanted to be George Duke. I wanted everything that he had. I wanted to gain weight so that I could kind of look like him. I wanted to be him.
I got to interview him for a radio show I had in Maine. I got to talk to him for like an hour and he just knew by the way I was talking and everything that I knew, that I was a superfan. One of the things that he said to me that changed my life was he said, “Despite the fact that you love me and what I play and what I do, somewhere in there, you can find your own voice and something of your own that you can apply to what you already know. You can find your own voicings and do things that I can’t do. Take me to the next level and take me to the next star.” He personalized it to me and said, “You can do that.” It changed my life. It changed the way I played. It opened my ears up to learn how to play and listen.
Nigel recorded a version of Duke’s “Capricorn” over the recording of the interview they did together that day in homage to Duke.
I asked him what the role of the keyboard player is. He was kind of stumped at first, but he had the answer and he said, “We have responsibility to play a mean harmony and melody—sometimes all at the same time. And you have to be able to know when to drop the bomb and when to hold onto it. “ He was the king of that.
Aside from the radio interview, did you get to meet him any other time?
I have. I got the opportunity to meet him twice. I first met him when Soulive played at the Monterey Jazz Festival. He played the day after us, so everybody from Soulive went home except Kraz who stayed with me for my birthday to take me to see George Duke. I got to meet him and he told me that John Scofield had told him about me. He saw that I could sing and play and he really dug what I was doing. He dug the fact that somebody — especially a young black keyboard player — was keeping his image. That what really mattered to him at one point in time, really mattered to someone else.
The second time I met him was in Atlanta. My friend Louis Cato used to play with the George Duke, Marcus Miller, David Sanborn band. I went to go visit my aunt in Atlanta and she got us tickets to the show. I could have easily called Louis and gotten backstage, but I did not do that because I’m such a fan and I wanted to wait in line. The line was like four blocks back. I waited in the line, sat in my seat, and waited for the show. Louis called me and says, “George wants to see you.” I got up and I ran. I had a Wax Poetics magazine with George on the cover and I asked him to sign it for me. He was so funny and he had such a good heart. I’m a firm believer in living your music and being who you are so that your music is properly conveyed. That’s exactly what he was. He was the epitome of that. There will never be another George Duke.
If you could say something to George Duke directly one last time, what would it be?
I would thank him for changing my life. I would thank him for helping me see something that I would have never seen otherwise. I see life so differently because of him. I would thank him for doing what it was that he did for me because he changed my life. He changed my life forever. I would thank him for being himself, because that’s all you can ever do. Be what you were put on this Earth to be. And he was. He was.