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Jazz great Debbie Duncan, Minnesota’s ‘First Lady of Song,’ dies at 69

by Jay Gabler

December 18, 2020

The Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder called her our state's "First Lady of Song." The Star Tribune called her a "pre-eminent" vocalist in the local jazz scene. She called herself "ridiculously picky" when it comes to material, but, she told Local Current blogger Simone Cazares in 2018, "I know a tune when I hear one."

So did the thousands of listeners who enjoyed decades of live and recorded performances by Debbie Duncan, who died early this morning at age 69. The news was confirmed by her family via the singer's Facebook profile, in a post that included a quote from composer Irving Berlin: "The song is ended, but the melody lingers on."

Duncan was born and raised in Detroit, moving to Minnesota in 1984 to take an opportunity singing with an orchestra at Rupert's Nightclub in Golden Valley (now known as the Metropolitan Ballroom). She found a new home in the Twin Cities' jazz community, and became a regular presence on stages including, recently, Crooners and the Dakota Jazz Club.

Lowell Pickett, the Dakota's founder, recently launched a fundraiser to support Duncan amidst her health challenges. The singer's "immense talent, generous spirit and personal warmth has made her one of the most admired and best loved artists in Minnesota's rich musical world," wrote Pickett on the GoFundMe site.

Duncan also taught with various organizations, particularly encouraging Black youth to take up instruments and learn about jazz history. "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," she told Cazares. "It’s great already for everybody else, but this is our music and we need to know about it."

"If you want to know what sincerity sounds like, all you have to do is listen to Debbie sing," wrote the Spokesman-Recorder's Robin James in 2011. "She keeps it 100 percent. Whether Debbie is talking about her professional life or personal life on stage, she always comes across as creative and sincere."

Even when Guns N' Roses' flamboyant lead guitarist sat in for a solo during a song Duncan was singing at Bunker's one night with Dr. Mambo's Combo, the Star Tribune's Jon Bream noted, she wasn't fazed by the presence of "Hash or Gash or whatever his name is."

"I love to perform," the singer told Cazares. "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. 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."

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This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.