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Dee Dee Bridgewater is best known as an innovative jazz vocalist, but she is much more: a Tony Award winner for her performance as Glinda the Good Witch in The Wiz, a three-time Grammy winner, host of a syndicated National Public Radio program, a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization Goodwill Ambassador, and a spokesperson for women’s reproductive rights.
Bridgewater will perform a free concert tonight at the Tsai Performance Center with the BU Faculty/Alumni Jazz Combo, a highlight of the international conference African-American Music in World Culture: Art as Refuge and Strength in the Struggle for Freedom, which is celebrating African American music. The concert is hosted by BU’s African American Studies Program and the BU Arts Initiative. The four-day conference runs through March 22. Bridgewater will also conduct a master class for vocalists.
A consummate artist and daughter of a jazz trumpeter, Bridgewater has performed with a string of jazz greats, including Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie, and Max Roach, and has recorded tributes to Horace Silver and Billie Holiday. She won the 2011 Grammy Award—her third—for Best Jazz Vocal Album for Eleanora Fagan (1915–1959): To Billie with Love from Dee Dee Bridgewater. The recording follows her recent off-Broadway stint as Holiday in Lady Day, the Billie Holiday Musical, which prompted a New York Times critic to admit to being “seduced into a state of bliss.” In 2007 she recorded the Grammy-nominated studio album Rare Earth, a collaboration with musicians in Mali that celebrates her African ancestry.
Bostonia spoke with Bridgewater about the adventurous turns in her career, upcoming projects, and the evolution of popular music.
Bridgewater: I would say I don’t have a particular technique, because I was not musically trained. I just speak from experience. I have a great ear. I would love to have a teaching job one day.
I don’t know how jazz is evolving. But looking at the state of music in general, I know that right now, the singer is back to being in demand and instrumentalists are not able to get as much work as they used to be able to. I’m beginning to see more and more crossover styles. It’s kind of like genetic mutation. And because everyone has access to everything now, there’s accessibility to different styles of music; you can go on the internet and hear things you weren’t able to hear before. I think we’re going to have just a lot of hybrid forms of music, more difficult to classify by genre. Everybody’s kind of dipping into everything else. The new popular jazz singers, Gretchen Parlato, Esperanza Spalding—just to name two that I love—are a combination of things. They’re musicians as well as singers, they hear their music in a more technical way than just a straight-up singer, they’re able to arrange. It’s a whole new game. I’m the old guard.
There are a lot of very talented young musicians. I have produced Theo Croker, a trumpet player, and in his music you can hear the tradition, but he’s trying to play it forward.
I am the keeper of the tradition. I’m in my early 60s. We came from a whole other world and a whole other background, and those of us who want to stay in the game, so to speak, are going to have to play it forward, throw someone else in the mix if we want to appeal to a younger audience.
I went back to find my African heritage. I didn’t want to go the way of DNA testing; I just listened to music from different countries. And every time I heard music from Mali, the griot music, even songs that weren’t considered griot songs by Malian artists, I just could understand the music in the way I couldn’t understand the music coming from any of the other African countries. I decided to go to Mali, and made three visits between 2004 and 2006. That album and my love of Mali just came out of me trying to find my African ancestry. And in Mali I felt like I’d come home.
It was Baba Sissoko, the gentleman I met in Mali—he introduced me to everyone who worked with me on the album Rare Earth. When I went to Mali the second time they gave me a big party, at a small hotel with a cultural center in the back. It was incredible. I speak French from having lived in France for so long, but they were singing in two dialects I didn’t know. It’s a very strange thing; I was able to improvise freestyle on the spot when I would do these jams, and when I asked what the songs were about, it was exactly what I was singing. It’s a very spiritual connection with that country and with the music, and the Malian people have told me it is proof that I have Malian ancestry that I’m able to translate the griot songs, and put words to them.
I am going to eventually learn Spanish, so I have my Rosetta Stone DVD. I did pick the cellophane off of it. I’m also interested in trying to follow my personal genealogy, so my next focal point is going to be Memphis, where I was born. The Delta blues have a connection with Mali, and lot of the slave ships that came from that region of Africa deposited slaves in Mississippi, where both my parents’ families were as far back as we can trace them. So in the spring I’ll be going to the Mississippi Delta, where I’m going to stop at the famous Dockery Farms, the cotton plantation where a lot of famous blues musicians started.
I have to go and experience a place. It’s like when I went to Mali: I had no intentions of how I wanted to do that album, but after experiencing the place, everything evolved from that. The trip south will be an exploratory kind of trip. I’ll go up the Mississippi River and the Delta to Memphis, and sit down and do some writing, maybe work with songwriters in Nashville to help me formulate my words better. And then we’ll see.
I just do what I do and let the audience respond. Of course if you go to countries where they have not had the same access that we in the United States take for granted, they kind of ignore jazz as a musical form. In Europe it is very well respected; people come because they like what I do. I get a very interesting cross section of people in Europe—traditionalists who come because I’ve honored Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday and young people because they’ve heard I’m a good performer and they’re going to have fun.
I’m flattered; it’s a wonderful thing to be. I try to be a good representative of a lot of things—a good woman, a good female artist, a good businesswoman, and a good performer. And often I do meet dignitaries, so I have to be diplomatic, and I am also a Goodwill Ambassador.
I have a wonderful band. They make me very happy. But I am the boss. My musicians call me boss lady. I give tough love, but I’m very respectful and I in turn demand respect, and get it, which is a huge compliment. And there are always collaborations, always new musicians that I want to work with.
I wanted to celebrate her. I’ve had a long relationship with Billie Holiday, and did Lady Day in New York and London. This wasn’t intended to be a commercial album. It was three five-hour sessions. I said, it’s going to be live, no overdubs, what we play is what it is. When my producers heard it, they flipped, and said, you’ve got to put it out as a commercial CD. I felt that people needed to get away from the stereotype of a drug-addled singer and this whole down life. She was a full woman. She had a lot of other life experiences. But she was never able to get rid of her demons. Look at Philip Seymour Hoffman. Drug addiction is very difficult for people to shake. But I wanted them to know she did have bright moments and she should be celebrated.
Dee Dee Bridgewater will perform tonight, Thursday, March 20, at the Tsai Performance Center, 685 Commonwealth Ave., at 7:30 p.m. The concert is free and open to the public; seats can be reserved here. The Arts Initiative suggests that if the concert is sold out, people should to come to the door, as there are likely to be some seats available because of no-shows. Bridgewater’s performance is part of a larger celebration of African American music and the scholarly conference African-American Music in World Culture: Art as Refuge and Strength in the Struggle for Freedom.