Dee Dee Bridgewater: Yes, She’s Ready

For legendary jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, the upcoming weekend allows her to continue exploring her roots, following the release of new album ‘Memphis, Yes, I’m Ready’. She tells Mike McGrath-Bryan about her journey to date.

The body of work that Dee Dee Bridgewater has created in four decades of music and stagecraft is a daunting task to summarise in a quick explainer: Grammy-winning vocalist, Tony-winning theatre performer, United Nations dignitary, and most recently, a recognised master of her craft. Coming up in the nineteen-seventies, Bridgewater cut her jazz teeth working alongside the likes of Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie as part of the Thad Jones Big Band. Bridgewater discusses working alongside names and faces that have become part of jazz history. “It was wonderful. I was at the start of my career, and it was wonderful to have been embraced by all of these legends. It was really like my school, like music school, as I had no formal musical training, and it was exceptional to be called to do gigs with people like Dizzy and Sonny.”

As mentioned at the outset, Bridgewater pursued a parallel life in musical theatre, winning a Tony and obtaining a Laurence Olivier Nomination. Balancing the disparate artforms became part of her life, and she observes the differences there were in their respective creative processes. “There would be a common thread. In musical theatre you are working in an ensemble, and in jazz, depending on the size of your band, it would also be an ensemble situation, having to pull your weight, to make the whole as good as possible. But when you’re doing theatre, you’re dealing with specific songs, staying married to melodies, you’re not supposed to improvise, as the way you come in or out of a song can be a cue for someone else. With jazz you have much more freedom of expression as it’s based on improvisation.”

This year Bridgewater was awarded with one of America’s highest honours in the jazz genre: the National Endowment for the Arts’ Jazz Master recognition. At a time when the Endowment and public arts funding is under grave threat from the Trump administration, Bridgewater is vocal about the importance of the arts to public life. “It was wonderful to be recognised. I did speak out (in my speech) on the fact that this current administration is trying to cut back on all things cultural. So far, the NEA has been left intact, and that’s a good thing. As an individual, I feel somewhat obligated to speak out, to voice my opinion when the platform allows itself. I’m not one to use the stage to speak out politically, I don’t think that’s correct, but whenever I can, depending on the platform, I speak my mind. For example, the new show I’ll be performing in Cork, I use the song ‘Why Am I Treated So Bad?’ as an opportunity to speak about race relations, and what’s going on in the United States right now.”

New album ‘Memphis, Yes I’m Ready’ sees Bridgewater brings together songs from the Black radio of your childhood, continuing the exploration of your life in music. What was the process like this time for returning to Memphis and choosing songs? “Returning was a great experience for me. I first went back in 2014 and to see the places you lived in, the neighbourhoods are still there, is a wonderful thing. To visit the school where my father taught, that’s great. Those are just like putting puzzle pieces together in one’s life. I picked songs predominantly from when I was able to catch WDIA radio in Flint, MA when I was growing up. It became about songs that would go together, the centrepiece for me was a song called ‘Givin’ Up’ by Gladys Knight and the Pips, the very first song I heard on this station. At the time I was listening to it secretly, I didn’t know my father was one of the original DJs on WDIA when they had created the all-Black music format in 1949. He was known as “Matt the Platter Cat” and worked alongside B.B. King and Rufus Thomas.”

Bridgewater is playing the Jazz Festival as a headliner at the Everyman Palace on Sunday night. Ahead of the visit, she’s excited about reconnecting with a little piece of her ancestry, and getting into the spirit of the weekend. “I’m very excited! It’s a festival I’ve wanted to do ever since I was performing, especially when I moved to Europe, to live in France. I didn’t seem to be on the radar, I don’t know (laughs). I’ve got some Irish descent. My middle name is Eileen, and I have 17% Irish ancestry, so I’ll be coming home! It’s a great show, the melodies are very simple, I think people will really enjoy it. It’s music that makes you feel good and gets you to dancing.”

Valerie June: Everything In Time

Ahead of a pair of Cork dates, songwriter Valerie June speaks with Mike McGrath-Bryan about Ireland, writing, and being Bob Dylan’s favourite.

Memphis-born singer/guitarist Valerie June’s star has been in the ascendant for the last few years now, as tireless, globe-crossing touring has worked alongside a consistently growing media profile at home. It’s paying off for the Americana-loving multi-instrumentalist: second album The Order of Time has just released, and has been greeted very warmly by critics and audiences. In a honeyed Southern accent that rings over a long-distance phone line, Valerie is quick to convey humility in response to how things have escalated. “Oh, I’m getting a chance now, ‘cause I’m off the road for about a week. It’s really great to catch up with everything, y’know, after the shows, and being able to speak with the fans. So far it’s been really awesome, the album’s been out for about four months, we have a lot more touring and a lot more things coming up in the coming months, and I’m looking forward to it.”

The Order of Time’s critical reception has seen a massive spike in media and gig-goer interest in Valerie and band’s melting pot of country, folk and bluegrass influences. But its creation and production were far from the wiles of industry machinations, or the music-press hype machine. “Well, it was recorded in about four studios, the bulk of it was done in Guildford Sound, in Vermont. We did that because most of the musicians on it live in New York. And everybody’s got children and wives and husbands and families, so it’s better rather than pull people away, that we bring all the families and we all go to the middle of nowhere and we make a record. Kinda like the dream way to make a record. And for all the rest of the things, like horns and background vocals, we came into the cities and used different studios in New York, some in Oregon, some in Tennessee. That was kind of a fun process, locking ourselves in the studio for weeks and weeks, and having fun in the snow!”

No less an authority than Bob Dylan has named Valerie as his favourite current artist, a ringing endorsement from one of the founding fathers of the modern folk oeuvre. It’s a reality that is still to sink in on one of his lifelong admirers. “I’m still in shock (chuckles). I love it, I’m like ‘oh, my god, he’s the god of songwriting’. For me, the songwriting is the most fun part of what I do, I love it the most, more than performing. That’s the way I started, was writing songs, so maybe that’s the one that I’m closest to. So to hear him say that’s he’s been listening to my songs, and to be such a fan of his and his songwriting, it was like ‘wow’.”

Valerie’s trips back to Europe in the past few months have met with a massive response, and this upcoming jaunt is in fact her third European trip of 2017. When asked about the differences between continental and UK/Irish audiences, she wastes no time in discussing her Irish experiences. “Well, I really feel like Irish audiences are interested in a song’s story. They’re not just waiting on the hook, they’re interested in the whole story. Like, I really love Luke Kelly, and the way Luke Kelly could tell a story in a song, and some of his songs were really long. Most people in the modern day, information moves faster, it’s just a fast world we live in. Listening to a full song, rather than something that’s gonna be two minutes, and give you a great hook; it’s a big deal to me as a songwriter that (Irish crowds) do that, and they sing along. So I enjoy that, and I look forward to coming back.”

Aside from finding like creative minds around the gig venues of Ireland, Valerie’s enthusiasm for the country is evident as she explores her relationship with the country after several prior touring engagements. “I feel like Ireland is kindred to the South, in the way that we speak and the way that we write, y’know. So, I always felt at home there. I loved Britain, I loved Europe, spent a lot of time in those areas, but when I go to Ireland, something about it feels like ‘oh, I’m going home’.”

While on the go around the US, Valerie has racked up a number of high-profile television appearances, the likes of Austin City Limits, The Tonight Show, etc. With pressures like playing to camera and time when broadcasting live, one imagines the pressure is on. “TV studios are always super-cold, because they’re always piping air-conditioning in. So, I’m always freezing, but it’s not bad. Kinda the same as performing just one song for a crowd, or opening for someone. When you’re opening a show, you don’t get to play a full show, or get that high of showing the crowd exactly everything about yourself, but you can create that introduction to what you do, so I look at it like that. But when I do get to perform a show, then I tell stories, and tell ‘em things about my life, things about my plants, or having woke up on the wrong side of the bed. I like you to get to know me when I do a show.”

Valerie visited the White House at the invitation of former First Lady Michelle Obama, as part of the latter’s ongoing work to forward the causes of arts and cultural development. in particular. As a beneficiary of that graft and as someone that works with the Kennedy Centre to continue that growth, she recounts quite the experience. “Well, there was a long line of people waiting to get in that day, and a lot of security, very heavy, so I did all that, and finally I got in. I didn’t think I would get to meet her. I got the invitation to go, but I didn’t think she’d come and meet each of us, and talk to us and give us hugs, and spend time with us, but she actually did. She was the sweetest ever.”

Part of Valerie’s next European swing includes two Cork dates – one in the intimate rural surrounds of Connolly’s of Leap, and the other in the hidden Northside gem that is Live at St. Luke’s. “I haven’t heard much of either of them. I’m interested to get there, because it’s gonna be perfect for my solo show. I do spend time in Clonakilty pretty regularly, though, I’ve been to DeBarra’s tonnes of times, so I do love that part of Ireland, and I like just being on the coast, going there, so I’m gonna get there a few days early, go to the coast, and enjoy life when I’m out there.”

Valerie June plays a pair of Cork shows next month: on Friday July 14th, she heads out under the hammers to Connolly’s of Leap, and on Saturday 15th, she plays Live at St. Luke’s. Check venues’ websites and social media for tickets and show info.