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.”