Matt Dusk may have been born in the wrong era. From his showbiz name to his tailored suits to his love of a good proverb, pretty much everything about him screams “rat pack” cool.
And yes, Dusk has the substance to match his style. The Toronto native spent the past decade establishing himself as a bona fide jazz crooner and is about to release his seventh album, just in time for Valentine’s Day. My Funny Valentine features renditions of some of Chet Baker’s most-beloved jazz standards, which Dusk has long admired.
Growing up in the 1980s and ’90s, more likely to hear Duran Duran and Nirvana than Chet Baker and Ol’ Blue Eyes, Dusk’s journey to jazz was somewhat circuitous. His place at the mic, however, was set from the start. As a child he loved music and performance and attended St. Michael’s Choir School.
“You are practising for an hour a day, and on Sunday you sing at the Catholic church across the street with the choir,” Dusk says of his days there. “So, I’ve really known nothing else beyond practising and performing.”
“It’s interesting, especially when you’re growing up, how habits just become … well, old habits die hard, and here I am.”
At home, Dusk’s mother was a fan of classical music, and her favourite radio station happened to play instrumental jazz. “Jazz was a good backdrop to doing my homework,” says Dusk. “Because there were no vocals, I wouldn’t concentrate on what was being sung.”
His love of jazz was sealed later in his teens when on a choir tour with school.
“My buddy gave me a tape of these crooners, and it was the first time I’d ever heard it,” remembers Dusk. “I thought it was kind of cheesy, so I started singing along, pretending I was a crooner, and my buddy was saying, ‘You know, you should try to take it seriously.’ ”
Dusk took his friend just seriously enough to enrol in a high school talent competition where he and his karaoke tapes were extremely well-received by a welcoming audience. “It was at this all-girls high school, and they just went crazy, and I was like, ‘Perfect! This is my life.’ ”
Meanwhile, Dusk was actually headed for an entirely different kind of life. His father was self-employed and managed the family packaging company, and Dusk was being groomed as his predecessor.
“I went to work with my dad, since I was, like, six or seven, every day in the summer,” says Dusk. “And then, when I was in my teens, I was running the production side of it, and basically my destiny was for me to become the owner of this company.”
In keeping with his role as future packaging magnate, Dusk headed to York University for economics after graduating from St. Michael’s. Suffice to say, it was not for him. He found it difficult to connect his theoretical courses to the practical work of running the business and was so discouraged that he almost dropped out completely.
“I was actually going to leave and go work in the family business, but my mom said, ‘Don’t do it! You’ll never get this chance back again, and there’s lots of time to grow up.’ ” Dusk heeded her advice and joined York’s music program instead. “God, I’m so glad,” he says. “I would have been a very wealthy person — and I would have probably been a very miserable person.”
Finally Dusk was where he was meant to be: studying jazz and pop music and meeting like-minded musicians with whom he could experiment and perform. He also began independently releasing records. He never abandoned his business skills, though, and near the end of his degree, he began to market himself in earnest.
“I started working in the nightclub scene when I was 21, in my third year of university, and by that time, I was doing about 18 to 22 gigs a month,” recalls Dusk. “You know you’re a salesman, and you’ve gotta send press kits, follow up, and eventually.…”
Dusk got signed to Universal Records while he was still in university. His independent record sales were just strong enough for Universal to take notice of him, though ultimately his record deal was a testament not only to his business tactics, but also to his jazz skills.
At the time, though, Dusk says, he wasn’t fully aware of how lucky he was.
“I literally went to my graduation, then got on a plane and went to England,” he explains. “But when you’re constantly getting better, you’re constantly getting more work, so it seemed like the natural progression. Looking back, the opportunity that I was given was very rare, but youth is very arrogant. They say youth is wasted on the young.”
Of course, Dusk is still only 34, but he’s accomplished a fair bit since signing the deal. He has recorded six studio albums, including his forthcoming release; one live album; and spent four years in Vegas as an in-house performer at a casino — a stint that was filmed for the reality television show The Casino.
And through it all, Dusk has been pushing the limits of his own repertoire. Though he’s clearly grounded in classic jazz vocals, he has mixed in some pop for good measure. In particular, for his gold album, Good News, one track was even remixed as a hit dance single.
“Part of my problem is my eccentricity,” explains Dusk. “But at the end of the day, I love performing for people, and I’m a pretty good judge of what the audience is looking for. If I think they’re leaning toward something more, I can change into that sort of repertoire.”
This flexibility has also meant that he feels comfortable doing a complete 180 and heading straight back to his musical roots, as on My Funny Valentine.
Dusk explains he first heard Chet Baker back on that same radio station favoured by his mother. He remembers on one of his regular trips to Sam the Record Man finding a Baker cassette in the discount bin.
Since that fateful day he discovered the old crooners, Dusk has had a special place in his heart for Baker, whose singing style is fundamentally different from his own.
“He has a very tender way of singing, and the way that I was taught to sing was very lyrical and aggressive,” Dusk says. “When I started listening to him, he basically gave me a whole other side to learn. You know everybody learns from inspiration, and my journey has been 16 years of rediscovering his music and also learning from it.”
Wherever his journey takes him next, Dusk will surely be following his inspirations and inspiring his audience as he goes.