The singer Fionna Duncan, who has died aged eighty-three, was a much-loved figure on the Scottish jazz scene whose circle of admirers and musical associates extended into Europe and the U.S.
With her distinctive, gravelly vocal tone, an unfailing sense of swing and a delivery that suggested she’d lived the lyrics she was singing, Fionna maintained her presence and her influence on younger musicians for over sixty years.
She was born, in a temperance hotel in Garelochhead because the doctor refused to come to the family home in Portincaple, during a Second World War blackout, the youngest of three children. Her brother, Ian, and sister, Peggy, both played instruments – Ian, a pianist, led his own band – but Fionna initially preferred just to sing, although she later began to accompany herself on guitar and ukulele.
When Fionna was six, the family moved to Rutherglen and here, thanks to Rutherglen Academy’s ballads and blues club, she added folk and skiffle songs to the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas she sang at the local music society.
By sixteen, while still at school, Fionna was singing in talent competitions and with local jazz bands. One competition win resulted in her taking home an iron and an electric kettle. An audition for television and chance to make a recording were also part of the prize.
This was overshadowed shortly afterwards when, during a family trip to the U.S., where she sang on radio and TV, the prestigious Riverside Records offered Fionna a recording contract. Not wishing to take up residence in the States, a stipulation of the deal, she turned it down and with it the chance to become labelmates with the pianists Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans and saxophonists Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane.
Fionna didn’t have too long to wait before she made her recording debut. Back in Glasgow, having appeared on the weekly TV show Skiffle Club with the Joe Gordon Folk Four and having sung with the Steadfast Jazz Band, Fionna entered another talent competition, Stars In Your Eyes, this time on TV. Not only did Fionna win the competition but at the auditions she met clarinettist Forrie Cairns, with whom she would go on to work into the 2000s. Cairns asked Fionna to join his band and he was taken aback when she said she’d have to ask her mum!
With her mother’s blessing Fionna joined Cairns’ All-Stars and then, in 1959, Fionna and Forrie were invited to join the Clyde Valley Stompers. They recorded the album Have Tartan Will Trad the same year and began a hectic schedule of live performances and television and radio appearances.
In between travelling as far afield as Germany and Switzerland, Fionna won the JazzBeat Award for Top Singer in 1960. In 1962, she landed a bigger prize – meeting, at the jazz legend’s own insistence, Louis Armstrong when they shared a bill in Bridlington. In these heady times Fionna also met Lena Horne and the Beatles, who used to play interval spots in clubs where she was headlining and sang live on an early edition of Top of the Pops.
Fionna continued touring until 1964. She took up residence in London, where she hosted the Georgian Nightclub in the West End, singing with Kenny Ball and Humphrey Lyttelton, among other prominent musicians of the time. Then, in 1971, she was back on the road, although not for long as an accident abroad resulted in her suffering five slipped discs and being hospitalised for a year.
At this point Fionna decided to change careers. She trained as hairdresser and although this freed her from the uncertainty of the music business, the lure of the microphone and telling stories in song pulled her back to performing. Back in Scotland again, she sang with George Penman’s Jazzmen and 1981, she and Cairns took part in the Clyde Valley Stompers reunion, which included tours of the UK and Canada.
In 1985, having appeared at events such as Sacramento Jazz Festival with Edinburgh Jazz Festival founder Mike Hart’s band, Fionna put together her own group with her partner, bassist Ronnie Rae, Ronnie’s son John on drums and Brian Kellock on piano. Until John Rae moved to New Zealand in 2008, this would remain her first call band. The Raes and Kellock also became the house trio for Fionna’s Vocal Jazz Workshops, an idea she picked up in California when her friend and fellow singer Madeline Eastman gave Fionna a frank assessment of her singing.
Taking Eastman’s comments onboard, Fionna became a supportive mentor, if also quite a tough critic to a veritable legion of budding jazz singers as her workshops developed into a regular feature at Glasgow Jazz Festival. The festival’s late-night club also benefited from Fionna’s ‘strict but fair’ hosting skills for several years.
Fionna continued to sing and teach into her seventies and was rewarded with a nomination at the Parliamentary Jazz Awards for her services to education in 2008. The following year she was voted Best Jazz Vocalist at the Scottish Jazz Awards and in 2019 her contribution to the music was recognised with the Lifetime Achievement accolade, again at the Scottish Jazz Awards.
She is survived by her long-time partner, Ronnie Rae and her extended musical family.
Fionna Duncan, jazz singer and educator, born November 5, 1939; died December 6, 2022.
From The Herald, December 8, 2022