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Remembering Debbie Duncan, our First Lady of Song

As grief, disbelief and gratitude flow on social media, five colleagues share their memories.

Debbie Duncan came to Minneapolis in 1984 for what was supposed to be a six-week gig at Rupert’s nightclub in Golden Valley. It lasted seven years.
Debbie Duncan came to Minneapolis in 1984 for what was supposed to be a six-week gig at Rupert’s nightclub in Golden Valley. It lasted seven years.
Photo by John Whiting

A powerful and beloved voice on the Minnesota music scene has fallen silent. Debbie Duncan, Miss Debbie, our First Lady of Song, died early Friday morning after a series of strokes. Grief, disbelief and gratitude followed on social media.

Bassist Gary Raynor, with whom she performed for years, wrote on Facebook: “Debbie was the beating heart of our diverse band of sisters and brothers. We all miss friends who have gone, but I have not seen an outpouring of love and pain like this.”

Born in Memphis, Duncan grew up in Detroit in a music-loving family. She majored in flute and studied voice at Wayne State University, spent several years singing in Los Angeles clubs and came to Minneapolis in 1984 for what was supposed to be a six-week gig at Rupert’s nightclub in Golden Valley. It lasted seven years. By then, she was in a quartet with pianist Don Stille, Gary Raynor on bass and Phil Hey on drums. She made Minneapolis her home, won several Minnesota Music Awards and recorded five albums.

We lost track long ago of how many times we’ve seen her on stage – at the “old Dakota” in Bandana Square and the “new Dakota” on Nicollet Mall (language regulars still use, though the move took place in 2003), at the Artists’ Quarter, Vieux Carré, the Times Bar & Café and the Sofitel (all closed now) and at the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, where she sometimes sang multiple gigs. She was a regular at Crooners. She sang at the Capri, the Chanhassen and the Minnesota State Fair. She developed a reputation as the “working-est singer” in the Twin Cities.

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Duncan opened for many big names who came through – Herbie Hancock, DeeDee Bridgewater, Miles Davis, Lou Rawls – and did some touring to Paris, New York and Qatar (she always wanted to travel more). When she wasn’t singing, she was out on the town, listening to other singers and bands, a consistently positive show of support.

When we were thinking of people to talk with about Duncan and what a thundering loss her passing represents, we realized we could talk to any jazz musician, any club owner, any jazz fan, because everyone knew and admired her. We settled on five: three who gave her stages to sing on, a singer she profoundly influenced and another she sang with for many years. The rest of the column is their words.

If you have memories or stories of your own about Debbie Duncan, we invite you to add them to the comments, and we’ll make sure the family sees them.

Listen: Leigh Kamman interviewed Debbie Duncan in Jan. 1994, soon after she returned from her first trip to Paris, where she spent the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

Lowell Pickett, Dakota founder and co-owner: “She had such a generous spirit, and it just kind of flowed out of her”

The second Guthrie concert the Dakota produced was Herbie Hancock [in 1989]. We had Debbie open for Herbie, and she was magical.

I thought she should be a national star. There were times when she could take my breath away.

Debbie Duncan, with Chris Bates, performing at the Dakota in 2008.
Photo by John Whiting
Debbie Duncan, with bassist Chris Bates, performing at the Dakota in 2008.
She sang one time on a session. Jimmy McGriff made an album and part of it was recorded in the Twin Cities. She sang “Dr. Feelgood.” It was Aretha’s arrangement and she nailed it. McGriff was doing a jazz festival in Kansas City, and I tried to get them to have Debbie be a guest. I told [Jack] McDuff, “They’re saying they can’t do it.” McDuff said, “No shit, man. McGriff don’t want her up on stage with him.” What he meant was that she would get all the attention. “Dr. Feelgood” was the song on the album that was getting the most radio airplay.

She was part of a community of people that support one another so strongly. There was no ego with Debbie. It was just generosity. She had such a generous spirit, and it just kind of flowed out of her. If another singer were singing, Debbie was there to support them. If someone needed help, Debbie was there to support them. If somebody were singing on stage and Debbie was in the audience, and it was appropriate, Debbie was there to sing back, to be the response to that call.

I never saw anything in Debbie that was anything but positive and generous. Not once.

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Listen: “Dr. Feelgood” Jimmy McGriff with vocals by Debbie Duncan, from “In a Blue Mood” (1991).

Steve Heckler, executive director, Twin Cities Jazz Festival: “You can’t replace what she brought to jazz”

Debbie played Jazz Fest every year. If she played more than one set, she put as much into the second set as she did the first. Her energy was boundless. She would never take her audience for granted. She would always punch it out with a great attitude, energy and style.

She just enjoyed music. She enjoyed the art and she enjoyed performing. She owned every song. Every song she did was her take; she never sang the standard version. She was, “I have the mic, and here’s what I’m doing with this song.” And she always dressed impeccably.

Debbie Duncan
Photo by John Whiting
Debbie Duncan opened for many big names who came through – Herbie Hancock, DeeDee Bridgewater, Miles Davis, Lou Rawls – and did some touring to Paris, New York and Qatar.
I don’t know how Jazz Fest is going to be without Debbie. It’s hard to think about that right now. I don’t know how the Dakota or Crooners or anyone else is going to be. You can’t replace what she brought to jazz.

Having her on Jazz Fest Live in June was a tough time. Dealing with COVID, dealing with lockdowns, and not every artist can play in front of nobody. And she’s such an interactive artist. It wasn’t easy, but she adjusted. It was just Debbie and [her brother] William, and they came up and played a set from the heart. She was able to pull emotion out of that circumstance.

Watch: On June 25, 2020, Debbie Duncan gave one of her final performances as part of the Jazz Fest Live series. She sang at Walker West with her brother, William E. Duncan III, on keys.

Singer, flutist and bandleader Jana Nyberg: “The essence of Debbie was all love”

One thing I learned from Debbie was to be yourself, be absolutely who you are, true to yourself performing and in life. She was always authentic and genuine. She embraced her whole self and could dish the sass and was absolutely hilarious on the mic. Her little banter in the middle of songs, right?

What an incredible influence to grow up around! She had the “it” factor, you know? There was so much nuance to her artistry. I’ve heard her sing with the JazzMN Big Band, a serious, heavy jazz situation, and I’ve seen her in a trio setting at Washington Square Bar & Grill, throwing down some blues and jazz. And then the Dakota shows, more recently the Roy Hargrove tribute, modern jazz hip hop. She could do it all.

Debbie Duncan performing with the JazzMN Big Band in 2014.
Photo by John Whiting
Debbie Duncan performing with the JazzMN Big Band in 2014.
She always made time for you. Especially in this day, with all the technology surrounding us, people aren’t as good at that. The last chat I remember enjoying with her was at the [Twin Cities] Jazz Fest, before we moved [to Michigan], so that was probably 2019. She caught part of our set [the Jana Nyberg 5], and we were just hanging and chatting after. It was a super deep conversation. In the midst of that chaos, she could go right there.

The essence of Debbie was all love, wanting people to succeed. She was a giving human, giving of her soul when she sang, giving a listening ear, really being an integral part of our music community. Attending other people’s shows, being present. That’s a big part of it. You look over at the bar at the Dakota while you’re performing and she’s perched in the corner. Not trying to be seen, just there to hear some music.

Listen: In 2010 and 2011, singer and radio host Arne Fogel produced a series for Jazz88 KBEM-FM radio called “Minnesota Voices: Certain Standards.” Debbie Duncan was one of five singers who each recorded 13 songs at Wild Sound Studios.

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Singer, pianist, bandleader and Crooners music director Andrew Walesch: “She was in her element”

After Crooners opened [on Nov. 20, 2014], [owners Mary Tjosvold and Larry Dunsmore] were trying all kinds of different acts, all different genres of music. It was free, no cover, and they were having problems. Nobody wanted to go to the old Shorewood. Then Larry booked Debbie and there was a line out the door. Larry made some Facebook posts and said, “We weren’t crazy. This jazz club is maybe going to work after all.”

From then on, Debbie was a major part of the club. She was in her element there. She valued how Mary put the music first, and she loved it because local artists hung out there. On nights when she wasn’t playing, she would go back to the bar, get her glass of Chardonnay with a couple ice cubes, and go in to the show. Sometimes she watched multiple shows per night. She believed in supporting other artists.

Deb was reluctant to do tribute shows. I told her, “Anytime you want to work at Crooners, it’s an open door.” The truth was, I always wanted to see her, selfishly, as Deb under her own name. She picked her own material. Oftentimes, she would do the verse for the tune. She selected songs carefully and sang the shit out of them. So I always believed that Debbie doing Debbie was as good as Debbie got. And she could pack a room under her own name. She was one of the few names that everybody knew.

But she decided at some point that she wanted to do a couple … I wouldn’t call them tribute shows, but “the music of” shows. She did one with her brother, “The Music of Billy Preston” [on Sunday, Oct. 4]. Then she wanted to do a Bill Withers show. She was supposed to do that on [Sunday], November 1. On the Tuesday before, she had her first stroke. “Billy Preston” was probably her last live show.

Livestream tonight (Dec. 22), 7 p.m.: Christmas at Crooners: A Virtual Holiday Special. A free concert with Moore by Four, Michael Monroe, Joyann Parker, Erin Schwab, and Andrew Walesch. Debbie Duncan’s brother, William, will make a special appearance, performing in Debbie’s honor. Stream from Crooner’s website or the Crooners Facebook page.

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Watch: Debbie Duncan sings “Merry Christmas, Darling” from her album “Debbie Duncan: It Must Be Christmas.” With Dean Magraw on guitar, arrangements by Adi Yeshaya.

Vocalist, composer and educator Bruce A. Henry: “There are so many ways to love her and miss her”

The last time I was singing with Deb was Valentine’s weekend. Deb and Gwen Matthews and I did a show in Chanhassen [as the trio Henry Duncan Matthews], and there’s no way, no way when you step on that stage does it occur to you that this will be the last time. You live in the moment, probably as you should.

I’ve known Debbie for 36 years. She came to Rupert’s just before me, and I met her when I was auditioning. For us, it started right there. She came up to the front of the stage with Mary Jane Alm when I was auditioning. They pretended they were swooning. We have been friends ever since.

We were there [at Rupert’s] five nights a week. It was like a day job, so you really got to know each other. The one thing I knew about performing with her – and I have to give kudos to everybody that was there – was that Deb was the Queen. We mostly were not on stage with each other. It was almost like you were a relief pitcher. Deb would be out there drawing down the fire for about 15 minutes, and then you had to follow her.

Gwen Matthews, Debbie Duncan and Bruce Henry performing together in 2008.
Photo by John Whiting
Gwen Matthews, Debbie Duncan and Bruce Henry performing together in 2008.
We bonded as singers, heart to heart, as deeply as brothers and sisters. On stage, we bonded in chemistry. Off stage, there’s something a lot of people might not know that I shared with her. We are both basketball junkies. The 1980s Chicago Bulls, my hometown, and Detroit, her hometown, were fierce rivals. And I happen to be a Lakers fan, too. And so, late at night, after Rupert’s, we would go to my house at one in the morning and watch the tapes. Every game until about four or five in the morning. We bonded very deeply there.

Another thing I really loved about her is she was so supportive of others, and so encouraging. Since I left [for Chicago] 10 years ago, I get back [to Minneapolis] and do public performances three to four times a year on average. For 99 percent of those, Deb was there. She never, ever wanted to put the spotlight on her. She never wanted to sit in with me. She just wanted to be there to support you and show you love. I can’t tell you how real that is.

There are so many ways to love her and miss her. I have a feeling that every time I go on stage, she will be there with me. I don’t believe that I will be able to dismiss her energy from my head. But what I will miss the most is our trio, Henry Duncan Matthews.

I have special relationships with both of those beautiful women. And the three of us together, I hope audiences feel what we feel for each other. And it just occurred to me yesterday that we’ve done Henry Duncan Matthews for almost 36 years. And it just occurred to me yesterday that it will no longer be Henry Duncan Matthews. And that’s very sobering to me.

 Watch: On May 17, 2014, Henry Duncan Matthews performed at Hopkins Center for the Arts.