By 1977, jazz had summered from a notable downswing in mainstream popularity. Most of the original icons from the genre’s golden age in the 1940s and ’50s were gone, and those that remained like Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis found difficulties retaining their major pull. Funk, R&B, and soul had taken original lessons from jazz and adapted them to a more modern setting, making the foundational genre appear antiquated in comparison.
But there were still devotees to the craft. Many of those funk, R&B, and soul musicians refined their chops by playing jazz as upstart musicians, and the lessons they learned never left them, even as their playing went to different realms. Stevie Wonder might have been a wunderkind performer that excelled at Motown-managed pop from his earliest days, but the blueprint for his music was in the complex chord changes of jazz.
“He has always been a jazz obsessive,” flautist Bobbi Humphrey told The Guardian in 2010. Humphrey grew up with Wonder in Detroit, and he was a guest on his 1976 album Songs in the Key of Life. “At the same time that he was doing his apprenticeship at Motown, aged 14, 15, he was also playing along to albums by John Coltrane and Bill Evans, copying their solos, working on his jazz chops.”
It was during those same album sessions that Humphrey guested on where Wonder decided to make a tribute to some of the legends who had inspired him. Just to drive the point home, Wonder would name-check the figures he admired within the song’s lyrics. When it was released as a single in early 1977, ‘Sir Duke’ proved that even though the public had cooled on the traditional sounds of jazz, they were still willing to buy into the song’s directly inspired by it.
Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald all get references in the song, but it was Duke Ellington, the titular ‘Sir Duke’, who was crowned “the kind of all” within the verses. Ellington died in 1974, and Wonder began to sense that the appreciation for some of the great jazz legends was waning. ‘Sir Duke’, with its infectious energy and joyous blasts of horns, was the perfect response. Although it sounds like pop, the complex changes and note-heavy horn runs within the song recall big band at its most swinging.
Wonder’s work as a whole is nearly impossible to whittle down just to one genre: he’s pop, funk, soul, R&B, and rock all in one. But it’s equally important to remember just how integral jazz is to Wonder’s sound. Wonder handpicked jazz musicians for his backing band, as few others were able to handle the dense arrangements and wild harmonic turns that were hidden just below the catchy exteriors of his songs. The man was a jazz cat through and through, and he continues to be one of the genre’s greatest ambassadors.