Columbus Calvin "Duke" Pearson, Jr was born Columbus Calvin Pearson, Jr. in Atlanta, Georgia to Columbus Calvin and Emily Pearson. The moniker "Duke" was given to him by his uncle, who was a great admirer of Duke Ellington. Before he was six, his mother started giving him piano lessons, an instrument he studied until he was twelve. Then, he took an interest in brass instruments: mellophone, baritone horn and ultimately trumpet. He was so fond of the trumpet that through high school and college, he neglected the piano. He attended Clark College while also playing trumpet in groups in the Atlanta area. While in the Army, during his 1953-1954 draft, he continued to play trumpet and met, among the others, pianist Wynton Kelly. Pearson himself confessed in a 1959 interview that he was "so spoiled by Kelly's good piano", that he decided to switch to piano again. Also, it seems that dentalissues forced him to give up brass instruments. He continued to perform with different ensembles in Georgia and Florida, including with Tab Smith and Little Willie John, before he moved to New York City in January 1959.
In New York, Pearson gained the attention of trumpeter Donald Byrd, who saw Pearson performing with the Art Farmer/Benny Golson Sextet (known as the Jazztet). Shortly afterwards, Byrd asked him to join his newly formed band, the Donald Byrd-Pepper Adams Quintet. Pearson was also the accompanist for Nancy Wilson on tour in 1961. During that same year, Pearson became ill before a Byrd-Adams show, and a newcomer named Herbie Hancock took over for him. This eventually led to Hancock taking over the position permanently.
On the 1963 Byrd album A New Perspective, Pearson arranged four tracks, including "Cristo Redentor", which became a big hit. The song, Pearson later commented, was inspired by a trip he took to Brazil while touring with Wilson. Also that year, after the death of Ike Quebec, Pearson took over his position as A&R man of Blue Note. From that year until 1970, Pearson was a frequent session musician and producer for numerous Blue Note albums while also recording his own albums as band leader. This was odd, since Pearson also recorded with his co-led big bandwith Byrd for Atlantic Records, a stipulation he made sure was in his Atlantic contract. The Byrd-Pearson band consisted of musicians such as Chick Corea, Pepper Adams, Randy Brecker, and Garnett Brown; the latter three were members also of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band that played the same night club, The Village Vanguard, but on different nights. Between the two ensembles, the musicians performed at their own discretion.
Pearson's compositions include the now standard, frequently covered "Jeannine", composed c. 1960, an early cover of which appears on the Cannonball Adderley album Them Dirty Blues (1960).
Pearson eventually retired from his position with Blue Note in 1971 after personnel changes were made; co-founder Alfred Lion retired in 1967 after the label was sold to Liberty Records the previous year and co-founder Frank Wolff died in 1971. Pearson opted to teach at Clark College in 1971, toured with Carmen McRae and Joe Williams through 1973, and eventually reformed his big band during that time.
He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the 1970s, from which he died in 1980 at Atlanta Veterans Hospital.