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Profile:

Fionna Duncan

 


Fionna Duncan

 

Fionna Duncan has been described as a 'national treasure'. She started singing with jazz bands in the 1950s and her obvious enthusiasm for the music and her ready humour have continued through the years making her a popular performer who knows how to interpret a jazz standard. In 2009, Fionna was named as Best Jazz Vocalist at the Scottish Jazz Awards.

Click below to listen to Fionna Duncan singing Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gave To Me with Ian Menzies and the Clyde Valley Stompers.

 

 

 

The heroescentre website tells us that Fionna Duncan was born in the Temperance Hotel, Garelochhead, Scotland during a ‘black out’ in the second month of World War 2. She was due to be born in the family home in Portincaple, but the doctor refused to come to deliver her. It was therefore left to the Naval personnel stationed in the hotel to bring Fionna into the world.

The family moved to Glasgow for her father’s business where Fionna went to Rutherglen Academy. There she joined a ballad and Fionna Duncan with the Clyde Valley Stompersblues club and sang in Gilbert and Sullivan operas as well as joining the Bankead Players amateur dramatic group. Fionna did well at the Academy where she came away with a Higher Music Pass and was singing with various jazz bands in the area until in 1955 she became the vocalist with the Lindsay MacDonald Modern Jazz Quartet which had a regular Saturday night spot at Glasgow University’s Snug Bar.

On a trip to America in 1956 Fionna sang on radio and television and was approached by Riverside Records with a recording contract. Preferring not to move to the United States, she started performing on a weekly BBC Glasgow live broadcast of ‘Skiffle Club’ with The Joe Gordon Folk Four. After a short time singing with Glasgow’s Steadfast Jazz Band she joined The Forrie Cairns All Stars and later The Clyde Valley Stompers.


Fionna Duncan with the Clyde Valley Stompers
Photograph courtesy of the National Jazz Archive

 

 

Click below to listen to Fionna singing Salty Dog Blues with the Clyde Valley Stompers - Ian Menzies (trombone); Malcolm Higgins (trumpet); Forrie Cairns (clarinet); Norrie Brow (banjo); John Cairns (piano); Bill Bain (bass).

 

 

 

 

 

In an interview in 2011 (see below), Fionna talked about the bands that were around in those early days, including Sandy Brown’s band: ‘I did some broadcasts with Sandy and Al Fairweather and Sandy’s band, which was a great band .. he was a larger than life man, quite terrifying. Before we went into the broadcast we would go and meet in this pub to talk about what numbers we should do and it was right off the cuff, you know, and he’d be standing at the bar, big black beard, leather hat, leather jacket, leather trousers, singing at the top of his voice, and we stand there all quiet, and there were all these guys in bowler hats, all the businessmen, all looking ... Sandy was great though, a lovely man.’

Between 1964 and 1970 Fionna moved to London where she hosted the ‘Georgian Nightclub’ in the West End, and during this time she sang with  many top jazz musicians and their bands including those Humphrey Lyttelton, Kenny Ball, Warren Vache, Grover Washington and Sweets Edison. During this period she was also singing regularly ‘The Georgian Dixielanders’.

Fionna DuncanIn her 2011 interview she remembers a time when the band would play in Liverpool and: ‘The Beatles were our interval group there, they were really funny .. I kept thinking why don’t you change your name? I kept thinking of ‘Beasties’ ..’ She also talks about her singing style and why her voice is recognisable, wondering whether it is the vibrato. How she always found it difficult to mime to recordings as she always sang songs differently each time – ‘I think I was the only one on Top Of The Pops to sing live!’

Photograph courtesy of Anthony Abel

In the early 1970s, Fionna returned to Glasgow and continued to work and tour Europe and America where she performed in California and Michigan. In 1985 she formed her own Trio with Ronnie Rae on bass, Brian Kellock on piano and John Rae on drums.

At the Glasgow International Jazz festival in 1996 Fionna started the first of her workshops for young jazz singers in collaboration with Professor Madeline Eastman. In her 2011 interview with Radio Magnetic Fionna talks about how she first went to Madeline Eastman’s Jazzcamp in the United States: ‘I had a great time ... the ages were from sixteen up .... I was the oldest, I think I was fifty-five at the time .. I felt like granny bringing up the rear ... but I tell you what, she actually made me think about what I was doing. She’d stop you and she said ‘Why do you do that?’ and I’d say ‘It’s just something I do’ and she’d say ‘well, don’t do that.’ Realising that there were few young jazz singers in Scotland, Fionna went straight into the Glasgow Jazz Festival office and saw Derek Norman. Telling him the situation, Fionna said: ‘I really want to run a school and bring Madeline Eastman over to help me do this, and he said ‘right’ .. and really helped tremendously ...’

The workshops gradually became more and more successful and have attracted singers from both home and abroad. In 1999 the Fionna Duncan Vocal Jazz Workshops were allocated lottery funding from the Scottish Arts Council to take the workshops all over Scotland.

At the 2011 Glasgow Jazz Festival, Radio Magnetic recorded an interview by Keith Bruce with Fionna (click below to listen) after she had sung a session with Ryan Quigley’s Big Band. She had not been singing for two and a half years following an operation. Her vocal chords were affected, but she made a great recovery.

 

 

 

She talked about working with Brian Kellock since he was about seventeen, and winning 'Stars In Their Eyes' where she met Forrie Cairns in around 1956 when Fionna was playing ukulele. Forrie asked her to join his band. Trad jazz was ‘huge’ then she says. Fionna Duncan album‘Callum Kennedy was the rival band ...There was no other music for dancing other than Scottish dancing. There wasn’t really a pop thing then ...’ Fionna understood that to be a jazz singer you had to sing like Bessie Smith, or, according to Fionna’s brother who had a modern jazz band, Sarah Vaughan or Ella Fitzgerald.  

The recording shows how at ease and how amusing Fionna is, and there are some lovely anecdotes in this interview.

Album image suggested by Thorbjørn Sjøgren
Click on the image for details of the album.

 

The Glasgow Jazz Festival website tells how 'For many years the renowned singer Fionna Duncan hosted the Late Night Club.  She made it look effortless, bringing up the newer young performers earlier in the night when the Club was quieter, encouraging Glasgow musicians she knew to step up with an eye out for visiting guests carrying instruments. Guitarist Nigel Clark recounts a story from the days that the Festival club was at the Lorne Hotel in the early 90s.

“A lot of the Glasgow gigs are quite concerty, so it was great when they have those late night jam sessions.  They gave you a chance to hear people playing in a less formal setting, and playing standards rather than their album material.  There was one fantastic jam session at the Lorne Hotel when the famous American sax player Grover Washington Jnr played all night in a completely different style to how he had played in concert.”

Fionna Duncan remembers the same night “He was sitting at a table, with his back to me, signing records and I didn’t realise who he was.  He got up and played, and I remember thinking I hope he’s OK because this is quite hard music.  He was great, afterwards I thanked him and admitted I didn’t know who he was, and the audience fell about laughing.  He stayed up playing the rest of the set”

Click here to listen to Fionna singing On The Sunny Side Of The Street with the JBBO (Jazz Band Ball Orchestra) in Zamosc, Poland in 2000.

 

 

 

In 2013 and 2014, Fionna performed at the Stair Arms in Pathhead. Writing for the Pathhead Music Collective, Emma Jackson said Fionna Duncanof the 2013 gig:

‘The phrase ‘living legend’ is overused a lot but when it comes to describing Fionna Duncan I would defy anyone to think of a more appropriate title. Other superlatives could include ‘captivating’; she certainly had over 70 people hanging on her every note at the Stair Arms on Sunday 2 February when she made her comeback appearance after 21 years.'

'Other interesting anecdotes that came up in conversation included an explanation of the nautical term behind the song ‘The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’, the Russian translation of Joppa (not for the faint-hearted) as well as some great banter between Fionna Duncan and the band consisting of Ronnie Rae on bass, Brian Kellock on piano and Pathhead’s own Tom Bancroft on drums. There was even a special guest appearance from Phil Bancroft on sax.  Described by one audience member as “the most laidback jazz’” she has ever seen the afternoon was a treat for music fans from across the generations’.'

Since 1993, Fionna has lived at her family home in Garelochhead. Fionna Duncan was nominated for a Parliamentary Jazz Award for her services to Jazz Education in 2008 and she was named Best Jazz Vocalist at the 2009 Scottish Jazz Awards.

Click below for a video of Fionna singing All Over Now at Wighams Jazz Club in March 2014 with Forrie Cairns (clarinet) ; Colin Steele (trumpet); Brian Kellock (piano) and Tom Bancroft (drums).

 

 

 

You might also be interested in these other Profiles on this website:

Archie Semple
Beryl Bryden
Dave Keir
Roy Crimmins

© Sandy Brown Jazz 2015

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