Catching up with local jazz great Debbie Duncan

Editor’s Note: Local jazz great Debbie Duncan passed away Friday, December 18, 2020, according to family and friends. Duncan took the time to chat with the MSR several times over the years. This story by Robin James was originally published in June of 2016 for Black Music Month. We are republishing it in honor of Duncan’s memory and legacy. RIP, Debbie Duncan.

Photo courtesy of Debbie Duncan Debbie Duncan

The MSR caught up with our beloved locally-based vocalist Debbie Duncan. Duncan (DD) shared her thoughts on Black Music Month, the importance of jazz festivals, and gave the lowdown on her upcoming shows, having recently performed at the Jazz at Lincoln Center Doha.

MSR: June is Black Music Month. What is your definition of Black music?

DD: That’s a hard question because I think Black music has a little bit of its flavor in every type of music that’s come out of the United States of America  — truth be told  — be it rock-n-roll, jazz, country, a little bit of folk, pop, definitely R&B. So, it’s kind of like the underlining flavor that comes out of the United States. It’s pretty much a fact what Black music has to offer.

MSR: What do you think is the most important reason to celebrate Black Music Month?

DD: It’s really kind of sad that we have to separate anything from any other type of music. I believe… we should have been given [our] props all along for our contributions to the music…coming out of these here United States, because that’s what we’re talking about. I mean I know that we have African, Cuban, and all of that other stuff, but we’re talking about the Black experience here.

I think it’s important because for one month people have to recognize everything that African American people have added to the music that’s come out of the United States of America. If it has to be one month, at least it’s strictly for that month that it’s recognized — [it] should be all the time, but you know…

MSR: Who are some of your favorite living female vocalists?

DD: Nancy Wilson, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Kahn, Dianne Reeves, Rene Marie, Cecile McLorin Salvant, Cassandra Wilson, Patti Austin, Beyoncé, Janet Jackson, and Lauryn Hill.

MSR: Vocalist Patti Austin is scheduled to perform with the Duke Ellington Big Band at Orchestra Hall on June 24. What are your thoughts on Austin as a vocalist?

DD: I love Patti Austin. I’ve heard her with strings and in most situations because Patti’s been around for a minute. I don’t know if people know how long Patti Austin has been around, but she’s been around for a good while.

She grew up with Quincy Jones and all those folks. Quincy was kind of like her Godfather. And then you know she did the James Ingram stuff. But she also did the group albums, within those groups he [Quincy] actually helped to introduce the world to a whole lot of people.

For instance, Minnie Riperton. Minnie did a thing with him years and years ago. And when Minnie did it, Patti Austin was on that album. I can’t think of the name of it, but it was around when the Brothers Johnson were out. We’re really close to the same age, so I know she’s been around for a minute. And whether people know it, a lot of the commercials you listened to for years has been Patti singing on them. She’s got a really rich background in this thing we call music.

MSR: Where are a few of your upcoming gigs, and are you returning to the Twin Cities Jazz Festival to perform?

DD: Yes, I am. I’m not at any of the main stages in St. Paul, but I am doing a gig at Macalester College on June 21. As part of the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, on June 24, I’m performing with the Jazz Women All Stars on the AARP Mears Park Stage. In July, I’m going to be at Crooners Lounge and Supper Club on July 2.

MSR: There are several extraordinary free jazz festivals coming up including the DC Jazz Fest and Detroit Jazz Fest. What is the importance of attending a free summer jazz festivals, not only for festival-goers, but for artists like yourself?

DD: Well, I just love to go. I love to be a part of it. Actually, once you get on the jazz festival circuit, you’d be doing pretty darn good. There [are] quite a few festivals across the country. Not an easy circuit to get on. I’m also performing at the Sioux Falls Festival in July.

One main reason jazz festivals are important is that younger people attend who don’t get the opportunity to go in the clubs and places where they’d be able to hear jazz — the festivals are great for that. The jazz festival in Detroit is free, and it’s huge. It’s their 32nd year of doing jazz festivals. Corpse Christie has a jazz festival that’s free. Our festival that’s here is free. And when we start talking about Monterey and others, they cost money.

The festivals are good because it gives people the opportunity to see the music and see the people who are out there doing it. See the masters that are out there doing it. I think it’s really good for artists to see the masters that keep our music alive. Jazz is our music. Everybody else has learned it, and has done what they want to do with it, and it’s accepted all over the world.

The other thing is, the festivals give young African American folks a chance to really experience the music. And they’re fun to play at. People just give you a whole lot of energy and a lot of love. Their excited and it’s just the energy and the vibe is fantastic. All-around it’s good.

Good for the people, kids, performers, historically, it’s good to hear the up-and-comin’s, the young lions that are out there. It’s good to let people know, whether you know it or not, jazz is alive and well.

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