Excerpt of “Bye Bye Black Bird” composed by Mort Dixon and Ray Henderson and performed live by Dee Dee Bridgewater with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. Used by permission of Ray Henderson Music Co. Inc. and BMG Firefly [ASCAP]
Excerpt of “You’ve Changed,” composed by Carl Fischer, lyrics by Bill Carey. Performed by Dee Dee Bridgewater from the cd Eleanora Fagan (1915–1959): To Billie with Love From Dee Dee Bridgewater.
Excerpt of “Mack the Knife, composed by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Bertolt Brecht. Performed by Dee Dee Bridgewater from the cd Dear Ella.
Excerpt of “Bad Spirits (Bani)” composed and performed by Dee Dee Bridgewater from the cd, Red Earth: A Malian Journey.
Dee Dee Bridgewater: Okay, here we go. This is “Bye Bye Blackbird,” the first song I ever did with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra … okay…
Josephine Reed: That is 2017 NEA Jazz Master, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.
Dee Dee Bridgewater is a multi-talented performer who will not be put into a box. She is a three-time Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter, AND a Tony Award-winning stage actress. She’s also a renowned broadcaster. For 13 years, she was the host of National Public Radio's award-winning show, JazzSet with Dee Dee Bridgewater. Since 1999, she’s been a United Nations Ambassador for its Food and Agriculture Organization. And she’s also produced all her own recordings since 1993, and has had her own label since 2006. The word polymath comes to mind.
Dee Dee Bridgewater combines immense talent and energy with a commanding personality. She is a natural performer. She’s created a diverse collection of recordings, including tribute albums to Horace Silver, Kurt Weill, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday; an album of French love songs, and another album, Red Earth, born out of Bridgewater's search for her African ancestry recorded in Mali, and featuring Malian, U.S., and European musicians. Dee Dee Bridgewater has a rich voice—like honey— with great range, intonation and pitch, and she’s one of the few scat singers left standing.
Dee Dee Bridgewater was born in Memphis, Tennessee to a family with deep musical roots…..
Dee Dee Bridgewater: You know, the—the actual music and I think my ability to sing comes from my father’s side of the family. My father played trumpet. His—his brother, my uncle, who died when he was 34, had an amazing baritone voice. Oh, my God, my Uncle Miller, oh, uhh. But my—my dream with my father was to, you know, have the father-daughter family act. Though that was my goal when I was growing up – I wanted to be able to sing with my dad while he was playing the trumpet. And my grandmother played organ. She could play the big church organs, and I had a couple of great-aunts who were in Vaudeville as dancers and singers, so it’s all on my—my father’s side. My mom loved jazz singers, so when I was a baby, she swore—swore that I could scat before I could speak, because she was a huge fan of Ella Fitzgerald. And she said by the time I was, like, 10 months, I would stand on the side of my crib and hold the rail and try to scat with Ella Fitzgerald. I was always able to scat. When I decided I wanted to sing jazz, and I always thought that scatting was a prerequisite to being a jazz singer, and so, that came from, I think, you know, my mother listening to Ella Fitzgerald.
Josephine Reed: Did you know, right from the beginning, that’s what you wanted to do?
Dee Dee Bridgewater: I remember telling my mom and dad when I was seven years old. They were sitting in the living room of—of our little modest house in—in Flint, Michigan. And I remember—you know, waltzing down the hallway and walking into the living room––I don’t even remember what they were doing—and saying, “When I grow up,” I crossed my arms, “When I grow up, I’m going to be a well-respected, internationally known jazz singer.” And I—I said something to them about I—and I was going to be respected by the musicians. That was my whole goal. Not to be any kind of superstar or giant celebrity, but well-known, well-respected by the musicians. And that I was going to buy them a house and a car. And then, at 14, I announced to them that I was going to live in Paris, France. So all of these things have come to pass.
Josephine Reed: Yeah, you’re three for three there.
Dee Dee Bridgewater: Yeah.
Josephine Reed: How old were you when you moved to Flint?
Dee Dee Bridgewater: Three.
Josephine Reed: Three. What music did you listen to when you were young, like, you know, 12—was it jazz?
Dee Dee Bridgewater: I grew up on R&B. Motown started when I was 12, in 1962, so, all of us who loved music, we were aspiring to be Motown artists. So, I loved R&B. There was a station out of Memphis that I could catch late at night when most of the airwaves shut down. It was an AM station, of course, and it was called—it is, still—it still exists—WDIA. And so, I could hear blues and R&B songs that I didn’t hear in Michigan. To fast-forward, I am now in Memphis, recording an album of those songs that I used to listen to. I went to the high school where my father taught. My father, whose name is Matthew Garrett, taught a lot of jazz musicians that we listen to today. So, George Coleman was a student of his, Harold Mabern, Charles Lloyd. Phineas Newborn was a student of his, Booker Little, Frank Strozier. Those are the ones that I’m pulling up at the moment. So, I’ve uncovered a lot about my father that I didn’t know. My father was one of the first DJs with WDIA. Because when WDIA decided that they were going to concentrate on black music programming, the people who were running that radio station decided that they would hire for on-air DJs, young musicians, and one of them was my father. And his on-air moniker was Matt the Platter Cat. And then I found out, doing a television interview with Charles Lloyd last year in Switzerland, he and my father had a band together. My father is very close-lipped, and so, I had to uncover all of this, to which, you know, when I’d call him, he’d say, “Oh, yeah.” And I was like, “Do you have any other information to share with me?” “Oh no, that’s—that’s good.” So this has been my life with my dad. Like, “You were an on-air DJ.” “Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
Josephine Reed: To that radio station I’ve been listening to!
Dee Dee Bridgewater: I was like—huh.
Josephine Reed: You ended up going to the Soviet Union at a very young age, as part of the jazz band at the University of Illinois.
Dee Dee Bridgewater: That’s right.
Josephine Reed: What was that like? This was what year?
Dee Dee Bridgewater: That was in 1968 was the year that we went. As we were part of a university coming to really the Soviet Union, it was a very unsettling experience. We were followed by the KGB any time we would try to interact with young people. We had meetings with musicians that were clandestine, that were arranged by the embassy. I mean, it was like in the movies. We were taken down a little alley and—and they did a special knock, and you—remember the old doors, the speakeasy doors? Where the—the little sliding window would open, and they’d see, and then they’d let you in. We were two basements down, and it was just all this music that was played. The Russians didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Russian, but it was this beautiful meeting of—of spirits and minds. I—I will always remember that.
Jo Reed: I want to hear about how you started working with Thad Jones and—
Dee Dee Bridgewater: And Mel Lewis?
Josephine Reed: —Mel Lewis Band. Yeah.
Dee Dee Bridgewater: Cecil Bridgewater, my first husband, we had just married in 1970. We moved to New York City, because that’s where we had to go for him, as a musician. And I was game. I was ready. And he got hired. Well, besides getting hired into the Horace Silver Quintet, my honeymoon was spent on the road with Cecil playing with Horace Silver. Hence, my love of Horace Silver, but I loved Horace Silver from the time I was 15. He was hired into the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, and so, I would follow him down to the club on Monday nights. And I remember we didn’t have enough money for a babysitter, so I’d take Tulani in her little—I had bought this stroller, and you could lift the bed out. And so, I would put the bed in the—in the—in the coat closet, and the lady that checked the coats would watch my baby (laughing).That’s terrible. But they decided that, after about six months of Cecil’s being in the band, Thad and Mel decided that they needed a female singer. They decided to hold auditions for a female vocalist, and I took off of work to go, but I was really, really shy, if you can—if you can imagine. And so, I decided I would go with Cecil to these auditions, which were held out on Long Island. I don’t remember where. They picked a singer at the end of almost a full afternoon, and I thought I can sing better than her. So I gathered up the nerve, and I went up to Mel Lewis, and I said, “Mr. Lewis, I’d like to audition, too.” And he said, “Well, it’s a little late. You know, we’re—we’re breaking everything down, and we’ve got to get back into the city. We’re playing tonight.” He says, “If you want to audition, you have to come down to the club and audition.” And I was like, “But—but—but—no—” I was terrified. And so, I went down to the club, and Thad called me up, and I auditioned. And I think I sang “Bye Bye Blackbird” and “Fly Me to the Moon.” I remember the audience really kind of going crazy. And I was 20, and I got hired.
Dee Dee Bridgewater: And so, that’s how I started.
Josephine Reed: You had had no—no singing lessons.
Dee Dee Bridgewater: I’ve never had any formal music training. I—I think notes look cute on paper. I can kind of follow a melody now, you know. I can—I kind of have an idea what note I should do, kinda-sorta. But I can—I can at least follow an arrangement. So for my orchestral arrangements or my big band arrangements, I have to have my vocal chart in front of me when I’m rehearsing at—at first so I understand, you know, how many bars, you know, the orchestra is playing, and so I can actually follow. And when I come back in, and the same with the big band. It’s my ears.
Josephine Reed: You were so young. You were 20 years old. You’re playing with Thad Jones/Mel Lewis.
Dee Dee Bridgewater: I know. It was crazy.
Josephine Reed: It must have been, though, such a time for you.
Dee Dee Bridgewater: That was my school. That orchestra and in particular, Thad Jones. Thad Jones was my world. Everything that I know about music, I learned from Thad Jones, and I learned from being in that band. Everything I know, even the way I scat. It all came from Thad. Thad was my music teacher.
Josephine Reed: You also have been a singer who identifies herself as a musician.
Dee Dee Bridgewater: Yes.
Josephine Reed: You are a musician. And—
Dee Dee Bridgewater: I’m a frustrated musician.
Josephine Reed: Your voice is an instrument.
Dee Dee Bridgewater: Yes.
Josephine Reed: I remember you—you had said that, Thad, he had said to you, “Stop listening to singers. You have to listen to musicians.” And I just wonder if there’s a connection.
Dee Dee Bridgewater: Well, I think there is a connection, because I also can imitate voices. And I guess he heard that. There’s like three things that he told me that I never forgot, and it’s just, like, my mantra, and I try to pass that on to young singers.
First of all, he said don’t listen to singers; listen to musicians. If you want to create your own style, that’s what you have to do. Number two, always enunciate so that people understand what you are saying. Number three, always sing your melody first. People need to know what the song is before you go into improvising. So, that when you go into your improvisation, they can go, “Wow.” Well, there’s four things. And then, the fourth thing he said to me is learn your songs inside out, so you don’t have to think about what you’re singing.
Josephine Reed: Now, you’re in New York now, what is it, like ’70?
Dee Dee Bridgewater: We—we—well, let’s see. Cecil and I moved to New York in 1970. I stayed in New York until ’77, and then I moved to L.A.
Josephine Reed: What was the jazz scene like in New York then?
Dee Dee Bridgewater: (Gasps.) It was wonderful. It was that period when everyone supported everyone. It was just a beautiful family, a beautiful community. It was a period where you expected people to sit in on concerts when you go to a concert. Everyone was always ready for that element of surprise, and where singers would say, “Come on down and sit in with me.” I mean, it was literally come on down and sit in with me. So, I sat in with the likes of Carmen McRae, Blossom Dearie—Betty Carter would not let me sit in—and some lesser-known singers. So, it was a family, and it was beautiful. And there was a lot of lifting up of—of the young musicians. We were really taken in by the older musicians, so there was this mentoring that happened. And I think that is why as—in my position now, why I took to mentoring Theo Croker, this young trumpet player that I’ve been working with now for about seven years, whose career is now really taking off. I’m so happy.
Josephine Reed: And you got a lot of council from jazz musicians at that time.
Dee Dee Bridgewater: Betty Carter let me be—I called myself her puppy dog. I was her shadow. I would go to any performance that she would have in New York City. I would reserve my seat. I would always sit alone. I did not want to be distracted. I needed to understand what Betty Carter was doing. Betty led her own bands. I didn’t understand that. I had never seen someone with that much freedom. So my way of being on stage, that came from Betty Carter. That kind of physical freedom that Betty exhibited—that’s where I got it from. I took it from her. I took it from Etta James. I took it from female performers who were very physical.
Josephine Reed: And you also got a lot from musicians, too, like Dizzy Gillespie. What was it like performing with Dizzy Gillespie?
Dee Dee Bridgewater: It was fun.
Josephine Reed: I would think so.
Dee Dee Bridgewater: We had fun. I mean, it was Dizzy and Clark Terry. Now Clark Terry was the first musician that took me out of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra.
And Clark was a ham. So, I’m working with two hams. They loved to entertain. And then they would pick up those trumpets—they would be wicked. And the bands would be tight, and the music would be great, but they also entertained. And so I was like oh, oh, I’m going to do it like this. So, entertainment is very important to me. Being able to entertain my audience, have them have a good time, let the complication of the music and the arrangements be more subliminal because they’re more caught up in the performance of the music. Working with musicians to get them to understand that it’s really okay to add that element, and for them to see the difference in responses that one gets if one is entertaining and performing at the same time, as well as just standing there. So, it’s very important, I think, to create a kind of communion with your audience, so that your audience—so that the people who have taken time out of their day to come and sit and listen to your music and support your music—I think it’s our obligation to give them a good show.
Josephine Reed: How did you first begin on Broadway?
Dee Dee Bridgewater: I auditioned for this new Broadway musical that they had open casting for called, The Wiz.
Josephine Reed: What propelled you in the first place?
Dee Dee Bridgewater: I loved acting. I grew up on Ziegfeld Follies. I grew up on all of the musical films of the ‘30s and the ‘40s. And my dream was to come down some big winding staircase with all the gorgeous men on either side, and you know, go—break into some dance and song number at the bottom of the stairwell and be lifted up in the air by—by the male dancers. And that’s what happened when I got The Wiz.
Josephine Reed: You played Glinda.
Dee Dee Bridgewater: I played Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, and that is what I won my Tony Award with.
Josephine Reed: What was that moment like when you won a Tony?
Dee Dee Bridgewater: I fainted. I couldn’t believe it. But, I do remember running up on stage. I’d had this tuxedo suit made, and running up on stage, and getting the award, and coming off and promptly fainting.
Josephine Reed: The Wiz also won the 1976 Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album… Dee Dee subsequently appeared in several other stage productions. And then in 1984, Dee Dee Bridgewater moved to France…
Dee Dee Bridgewater: My problem has always been—how do I juggle the singing career and the acting career. The move came out of me wanting to act more. I was acting more at the time that I made the move to France. I had gone to Paris with Sophisticated Ladies. I was starring in Sophisticated Ladies. And I was the poster for Sophisticated Ladies in France, and it was a picture of me coming down the staircase. I was on these big billboards and stuff. Also, I had gone to France with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, so I had this kind of name in the jazz community in France that I wasn’t aware of. And I was able to work as a singer. So, I decided to stay when the show ended, because I wasn’t getting any work as an actress in the States. And my theatrical agent said, “There is no work for black actresses. If you can work in—in Paris, I suggest you stay there for a while.” So, that’s how that happened. My career has been as much about kind of being in the right place at the right time, or just, you know, these happenstance meetings leading to a situation. I think it’s been more about that than anything planned.
Josephine Reed: Dee Dee may have been on to something—because within a year of moving to France, she was cast as Billie Holiday in the one-woman show, Lady Day.
She eventually took the play to London, but she opened it in Paris—performing in French…
Dee Dee Bridgewater: It took me four months with a French teacher to learn this play. Four months of, Monday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., revision every night from 9:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m., and then the next day. It’s a horrible way to learn a language. It was like I had a ticker tape running through my brain when I would perform. So, it inhibited me as an actress in terms of my being able to improvise.
Josephine Reed: Maybe she couldn’t improvise because of the language difference, but Dee Dee Bridgewater shone as Billie Holiday, and she would revisit Lady Day throughout the years—including a tribute album, Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie with Love from Dee Dee Bridgewater. It was her second tribute album to a great jazz singer—the first was Dear Ella, honoring of course, Ella Fitzgerald, and both albums won Grammy Awards…
Dee Dee Bridgewater: I’m very grateful to Billie and to Ella, because those are the two women who have walked me to the Grammy podium. Every year, I do at least one Ella Fitzgerald concert. So I will walk with Ella, probably for the rest of my life, which isn’t a bad thing at all.
Dee Dee Bridgewater: You know, but those two ladies—I don’t think I would be the individual that I am, had it not been for all of these amazing singers who came before me. I—I could not exist, had it not been for these women opening the doors that they did.
Josephine Reed: By then, Dee Dee Bridgewater had returned to the United States, and she rededicated herself to jazz. She was welcomed back enthusiastically by audiences and critics alike. In 2001, she took over as host of NPR’s JazzSet—a position she would hold for 13 years…. Each week she would take listeners to concert halls, clubs, and festivals around the country so they could hear great jazz performances. It was a gig that she loved—and which provided some humorous moments…
Dee Dee Bridgewater: Now, I did want to do it with my own normal, regular speaking voice, and they decided I needed an NPR voice, so they hired a man to work with me on the shows – (clears throat), let me get it, “Hi, this is Dee Dee Bridgewater, and you’re listening to JazzSet.” That’s my NPR voice. You know, it was NPR, and then I became a part of the NPR family. And that lasted for 13 years, 13 wonderful years. They were 13 of the best years I ever had. I was really proud of JazzSet.
Josephine Reed: Red Earth, that’s such a significant album for you, and you recorded it in Mali. It’s infused with Malian music and jazz and it’s—it’s your baby; it’s your project. How did you conceive of it? What—what was your thoughts about this?
Dee Dee Bridgewater: It was borne out of my search for my African ancestry. And that came out in 2008. I recorded it in 2007.
Josephine Reed: How did you bring the musicians together?
Dee Dee Bridgewater: Cheick Tidiane Seck is the—is the person who was responsible for assembling all of the musicians on that album, and I think—I think it was like 47 musicians and singers, because I didn’t know anybody. I just knew what I wanted to do. So, he brought everybody together, and then we all kind of worked out, you know, the arrangements. I picked the songs that I wanted to do, and then we just all—we all worked it out. We just worked it out.
Josephine Reed: Red Earth was also infused with a jazzy soul…and communications did not always flow easily between African and Western musicians.
Dee Dee Bridgewater: It was very difficult in the studio to get the two sides to come together, musically speaking. But I was the—the—the gap-bridger. For some reason, I could understand the rhythms, the—the West African rhythms, and I could—I could hear how it flowed into the jazz thing. I could hear the blues, like the Delta blues, in the griot songs. On the album, I was able to bring it together. I was able to bring it together in person, you know, for live shows. It was a beautiful show because I really tried to stay true to, you know, my jazz thing.
Dee Dee Bridgewater: And I did translations of these griot songs. I’m the first and the only person who has translated these songs. I was able to put into words those stories, so I’m the only Western person that’s gone over there and done that. Because I went with an open spirit, and I’m trying to get to my highest spiritual level in this lifetime, because I have no intention of coming back.
Josephine Reed: You’ve had time now to process being named a 2017 NEA Jazz Master—so tell me what the award means for you?
Dee Dee Bridgewater: To win this award is huge. I am extremely proud to join the ranks of the women and the men. To know that I’m thought of with that amount of respect, that the National Endowment for the Arts would even think of me as a master is already huge. I have always felt that as a jazz vocalist, my duty was to keep that tradition alive of the vocalist who does the scat. I’ve just been trying to be true to what I felt God put me on this earth for. I intend to make the National Endowment for the Arts very proud, so I’m very very honored.
Josephine Reed: That’s 2017 NEA Jazz Master, Dee Dee Bridgewater. The NEA Jazz Masters will be honored with a concert on Monday, April 3 at the Kennedy Center. The festivities begin at 7:30 p.m. and the concert is free and open to the public. If you can’t be in DC—you can join the party anyway—we’re streaming it live. Go to arts.gov for details.
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For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.