When Debbie Duncan gets on stage to sing, she enters a different world and brings her audience with her. As a veteran jazz vocalist in the Twin Cities, she is known for her vibrant personality, energy, and range, and she keeps her audience engaged the whole time. Duncan will be releasing her new album Full Circle with shows today and tomorrow at the Dakota Jazz Club. Since she released her last live album at the Dakota 25 years ago, Duncan has become a confident and unstoppable performer — but it hasn’t always been that way.
Originally from Detroit, Duncan grew up in a home where jazz was often played. She started out by playing the flute in junior high school, but being classically trained, it was difficult for her to transition to jazz. When she began attending Wayne State University, a group of young musicians needed a vocalist for one of their gigs. Duncan agreed to sing with the band, but there was just one problem: she loved jazz but she didn’t know how to scat.
“I wasn’t good at it then. I think it was probably one of the reasons that I loved jazz, but I didn’t know if I was there because it was very nerve-wracking to me to how to learn how to scat,” she laughed. “But when put on the spot one gets over things, and I got put on the spot. If I didn’t learn how to do at least one tune, we wouldn’t have had the gig, so I learned.”
Duncan continued to play more gigs and, after a while, there was no turning back. She left Wayne State University and started working at a restaurant, when she began to perform regularly as a vocalist.
“I worked in a place called Strada that brought in all the national jazz acts, so we’d get major, major, major jazz acts in there,” she said. “I met tons of people there because I was the hospitality person, but it also allowed me to see free concerts so it was really kind of cool. They were all jazz, so my background is more jazzy than anything else, but I have to say that before I officially broke down and said jazz is what it’s gonna be, I did a little bit of everything.”
While volunteering at Strada, Duncan also worked with different bands in Detroit. In 1971, after one of them landed a gig in Wakasa, Japan, Duncan and her sister Doris went to L.A. with the band to tighten their sound. Although the band dismantled once they returned to the United States, Duncan stayed in California. Their old manager worked with her to put a new band together and they returned to Japan to play more gigs, but once they returned, the band was once again no more. Duncan had to step out of her comfort zone to continue working as a musician, so she started going to more jam sessions and trying to get more gigs around town.
“That took care of a lot of my shyness,” Duncan said. “If I had any shyness, it was gone. I didn’t have time for that because I was asking to sit in,” she said. “I went from working every once in a while to working all the time, but it was good for me to develop my jazz chops.”
While working at a restaurant chain five nights a week, Duncan also worked in a trio on the side. The drummer, Peter Johnson, was from Minnesota and moved back to the Twin Cities where he started Rupert’s night club. At the time the venue had hired a few singers to perform at the club with an orchestra, but after two of them left to go on tour, they needed another singer to perform at the club.
“My buddy Peter told the people at Rupert’s about me and happend to have tapes of some stuff we did to play for them,” Duncan remembered. “The guy went, ‘Where is this woman?’ And so they got in touch with me and I came here to do that until basically [the two singers] came back. So that’s how I got here and then I just ended up staying.”
At Rupert’s Duncan was one of six rotating singers, something she said had never been done in Minnesota at the time. Rupert’s was the biggest club that had ever been opened in the Twin Cities. For Duncan, working at the club helped her to start developing a following in Minnesota, and she met a lot of talented musicians along the way.
Fast-forward more than 25 years later: Duncan has established herself as on of the Twin Cities’ best jazz vocalists, but she knows it isn’t as easy for younger musicians to make it like she has. While the Twin Cities jazz scene is doing well, she says there aren’t as many places for younger musicians to play, and she wishes there were more young people of color getting involved in the Twin Cities jazz scene.
“I would like to see some more folks of color doing more stuff, particularly more instrumental stuff. I don’t see that enough here and I think that some of the younger cats could deal with their history a little bit more,” Duncan said. “Excuse my French, but it’s a black thing. We created it, we need to be expressing it, we need to be a part of it, we need to be out there doing it and it would just be really good for us. It’s great already for everybody else, but this is our music and we need to know about it.”
Although it isn’t the only reason why, when Duncan performs onstage she often keeps that tradition going with the standards she plays. For her, writing new songs isn’t her biggest priority. She enjoys arranging classic standards and works hard to make them her own.
“I mean, I’m good at arranging and doing what I want to do with the tunes, and there’s so much music out there to be done I figured that’s what I’m supposed to do,” Duncan said. “When a song hits me, I will probably sit down and mess with it, but right now there is so much material out there that I don’t feel like it’s necessary for me to add my name to it. I know a tune when I hear one.”
As she prepares for this weekend’s shows, Duncan has spent a lot of time reflecting on how far she’s come since she released her last live album at the Dakota 25 years ago. But although she is excited about the new album, for Duncan, nothing gives her more joy than to perform for her audience.
“I’m looking forward to introducing some of the stuff that’s on the CD and hopefully getting people interested in it, but then I just get to perform, because I love to perform. It just kind of takes me away from everything that’s going on and it’s a different world on the stage, so that’s a joyous moment for me,” Duncan said. “I honestly can sit back and think that’s where I get my energy. That’s where I feel my connection with people, that’s where I feel my connection with God and it’s just all sorts of things that comes from performing that I’m looking forward to.”
Simone Cazares is a student at Saint Paul College. Originally from Miami, Fla., she survives Minnesota’s cruel winters by immersing herself in the Twin Cities music scene.