An Interview with Dee Dee Bridgewater
An Interview with
Dee Dee Bridgewater
By Mark Ruffin
The first time I had ever heard of D.D. Bridgewater was as a young musician back in the very early 70’s while I was still in high school in suburban Chicago. The word among high school jazz bands was that the University of Illinois had the best jazz band in the state. Even after I chose Southern Illinois University, the legend of that band grew even as the star students D.D. Bridgewater, Cecil Bridgewater and Donald Smith moved onto become red hot professionals with Roy Ayers’ Ubiquity, Horace Silver and Lonnie Liston Smith (Don’s brother) respectively.
It was on the Ayers soundtrack album “Coffy” where I actually first heard Bridgewater sing. The next time was on Stanley Clarke’s classic debut album “Children Of Forever” and I was hooked. I followed her career from her great 1978 Clarke produced debut album on Elektra “Just Family,” to her cameos with jazz acts ranging from Norman Connors to the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band. Her next album “Bad For Me” came out the next year and was produced by George Duke. But by that time she had established herself as an actress with a Toni award for her role as Glenda The Good Witch in the Broadway production of “The Wiz.” She reprised that role in the movie version with Michael Jackson and Diana Ross and other movie roles followed including the basketball film “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh” and John Sayles’ cult classic “The Brother From Another Planet.”
The first time I met D.D.Bridgewater was Thursday afternoon, April 7th 1994. The date is so etched in my mind because the night before I witnessed an unbelievable Carnegie Hall concert and party where actress/singer Vanessa Williams and over 50 of the top jazz musicians alive jived and jammed until the wee hours and no one could ever forget that. The public part of that event, “Carnegie Hall Salutes The Jazz Masters” became a Verve album, Polygram Video and PBS television special. On it, Bridgewater paid tribute to Ella Fitzgerald with a brilliant version of “Shiny Stockings.” Little did she know that three years later, she would record “Dear Ella,” a whole album full of Ella Fitzgerald tunes.
By this time, Bridgewater had completely re-invented herself. Gone was any of the pop trappings of her first two albums. She had also been gone to France. The French adopted her just as they had Josephine Baker over half a century earlier. She was a huge star and at the time rarely came home. Why should she, when she and Ray Charles had one of the biggest hits of the 80’s in Europe and couldn’t even get the song released in the States. Overseas, she was playing nothing but concerts at big halls and being treated like royalty, where in the States, her former record company MCA had treated her like an afterthought. But the opportunity to build her career at home came when she signed with Polygram/France, because in America her records would be on the prestigious jazz label Verve
Today, even the casual jazz listener knows about her serious jazz singing and her ebullient joyous nature, but on this day “Love And Peace” hadn’t been nominated for a Grammy and topped every jazz sales and critic chart. She was just beginning to charm America and was very anxious to sit with a journalist she had heard was a big fan. We met at Verve’s Manhattan office, but could only find solitude in a storeroom. Needless to say, the music on the walls led to a wide varied discussion about jazz, her life and career and surprisingly my life. We became friends quickly. Not the kind of personal friends where I fly to Paris to see her (I wish) or where she even thinks about calling me. But whenever she’s comes to my hometown somehow we manage to always see each other and hug and laugh, if only for a few minutes.
The following interview was at least our fifth meeting. The number of times I have seen her since that day three years ago is surprising considering where she lives. But then again the frequency is a direct result of America finally recognizing her unique talent.JazzUSA ‘Zine: All of the songs on your new album are songs that Ella Fitzgerald sung in her lifetime, except the title track. Tell us a little about that.
D.D. Bridgewater: Kenny Burrell composed and wrote the lyrics to this song and he had written it in 1995 for Ella and he never did have the opportunity to get it to her, to play it for her, just to have her hear it before she died in ’96. I had contacted him about doing a number or two on the album to represent the years she had worked with Joe Pass. He said, well you know I’ve written this song. And he told me about “Dear Ella. He sent me the cd and the lyrics and I really liked it. So I said well, why don’t we do that as the duet piece, so that’s how it happened.
But he didn’t want it to be a duet piece, but that’s one of the wonderful things that I get to enjoy as a producer, exercising producer decisions. I told him I’d have Ray Brown and Lou Levy and Andre Ceccarelli, who’s my drummer in France for 12 years in the studio, so that if it didn’t go well as a duo, we could work it into a quartet piece. Of course, I scheduled their arrival for two hours later than our studio time. So he was waiting and I was like well Kenny let’s just do it you and I and let’s see how it goes, so I’m very pleased about that. It worked out very well. I love it. There’s a version that he plays a solo on that’s not on the album because it’s nine minutes long if I left everything in. So, this is an edited version.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: When I first heard that you were doing a tribute album, I had mixed emotions because there’s a current glut. You know how record companies are, if there’s one success, they all hop on the train, and right now the hot thing in jazz right now is tribute albums.
D.D. Bridgewater: I didn’t know that.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: Well your record “Love And Peace” really kind of set the current standard. After that more just followed. I thought well, I know D.D. is going to do a great job, and I didn’t know who the tribute was going to be to. When I found out it was Ella, I was surprised because I wanted to know the motivation. I thought, wouldn’t D.D. do a Sarah Vaughan tribute? Isn’t she your main influence?
D.D. Bridgewater: No, I wouldn’t say Sarah was my main influence. I would say my main influences are Sarah, Ella and Billie Holiday. I would say the most influential singer for me in terms of how I approach my music is Betty Carter. And then in terms of image, it’s Nancy Wilson. But in the beginning of my career I was always associated with Sarah mostly, Ella for scat and Billie for ballads. But my sound is closest to Sarah Vaughan. I would say the timbre of my voice is closer to Sassy. I was going to do a tribute to Sarah Vaughan with Frank Foster with the Count Basie Orchestra, because I thought, ooh, that would be fun and that kind of fell apart.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: Well tell me about the motivation for “Dear Ella.”
D.D. Bridgewater: To be very honest, when Ella passed, I was surprisingly shocked. Even for me, I was devastated. There’s no other word, I was devastated, and it was very difficult for me to even speak about her for four months without crying. I think it was just that she was someone who I just took for granted. I mean, she was like always there. She’s always been there and I thought that she would always be there. I knew that she had been very very ill, but I didn’t know that it was that serious. After she had her first amputation, that’s when I realized it was serious, but they kept it so hushed, that it was a shock.
So I thought that this woman, to me, was the jazz singer who is responsible for making jazz singing so popular all over the world, Ella Fitzgerald is, among all the jazz singers, the most singularly popular jazz singer who is known all over the world, and who is a household name. And in this country, she is a legend. She is part of American music period without us saying a jazz singer. I mean, she was a jazz singer but she’s also part of the American music legacy. So for me I just felt she warranted a tribute and no one did anything so I realized that in October. She died in June and in October I was like there’s nobody doing anything. This is crazy. So by the end of October, I said to the record company, well maybe I’ll do,,,, Maybe I’ll try…And they all jumped on it.
In France, Jean Phillipe-Allard, who runs Polygram Classics & Jazz, he thought this was the best idea since I don’t know what. So the next thing I knew, I’m calling him back two days later saying I’ve changed my mind. I don’t think I should do this. This is too risky. I don’t want to be labeled as the tribute singer. He said, it’s too late because I’ve done like a survey all over and everybody wants you to do this, and I’m like oh wow. Then it became a task of really getting down to the nitty-gritty and doing it, so the first person I called was Ray Brown.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: So it wasn’t a record company decision at all. It was just by chance that you happened to be in flow with the times and they jumped at it.
D.D. Bridgewater: Yeah, usually what I do for my albums, I will decide what I want to do and I’d call them up and I’d say okay gentlemen, this is my next project. It’s going to be this, and they don’t hear anything until I come back with the finished product.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: I notice the album is broken up into four different parts; orchestra, big band, combo, trio and duet. And I noticed that you did all the work hiring the contractors, booking the studio and everything yourself. Did you have fun doing that?
D.D. Bridgewater: (laughing) I can’t say it was fun doing it. But, when the end result is what you had in your mind, then that’s when the fun begins. When you have the finished product in your hand and it’s come out the way you had hoped it would come out, then that’s when I’m happy and I see that what I wanted to do as a producer actually worked. I think the role of a producer is to delegate the responsibilities and to put together the right creative team to make the product that it is that you’re trying to achieve for the artist. So, since I am the artist and I am the producer, as the artist, what I was trying to achieve with this was a kind of retrospective of all of the various aspects of Ella’s career.
In my opinion, one couldn’t do a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald and not try and touch on all the different bases. You know, the songbook period, which was mostly with orchestras, all of the big band things she did with Count Basie and Duke Ellington and the different big bands that she worked with. She did do some stuff in combo, but the combo stuff was really for me because I wanted a piece with Milt Jackson to tell you the honest to god truth.(laughing) I had to have Bags.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: Along with Milt, you have a host of folks on the album including Antonio Hart on alto, Lou Levy on piano, Grady Tate on drums, Slide Hampton on trombone, your first husband, Cecil Bridgewater on trumpet, and Ella Fitzgerald’s first husband, Ray Brown, the first person you called, on bass. Why was he the first person you called?
D.D. Bridgewater: First I called Ray just to find out if he thought it was a good idea that I do the tribute. He felt that it was and he really felt that if anyone was going to do it that it should be me. Then I thought it would add credibility to it if he was actually on the album. So he’s like the conduit. I also wanted to have a pianist that had worked with Ella and Oscar(Peterson) was not well at the time. It was too risky. Hank (Jones) wasn’t free. I couldn’t get a hold of Tommy Flanagan and again Jean Phillipe-Allard suggested Lou Levy. Grady Tate worked with her on a lot of the big band sessions she did. A lot of the musicians that I have on the album, without me knowing worked with Ella.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: As you were putting this together how did you deal with those great Nelson Riddle arrangements? Did you just have to throw those out the window?
D.D. Bridgewater: I didn’t think about that at all. What I was trying to do with the album was to give more play to underrated arrangers and to give more play to musicians who I think are being passed over by the record companies.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: Did you know Ella yourself?
D.D. Bridgewater: I met Ella, yes. I met her in 1983, the first time and I met her again in ’84 briefly, then I spent some time with her in ’89 in Paris after she had been awarded the French Medal of Arts & Letters.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: You were born and raised in America, but are you now a citizen of France?
D.D. Bridgewater: I am not a citizen of France. No, no, no, no. I’ve been living in France for 12 years. My husband is French. I don’t see where it matters anymore where one lives. I think that as an artist, I’ve found a place that works for me, where I feel comfortable artistically and also as a human being. Which is not to say that I don’t feel comfortable when I come home. I feel very good when I’m at home. But artistically and in order for my jazz to live, I found that France was a better country, and the European continent is much more receptive to jazz music and treats jazz more as a classical music. I do only theatre and concert work, and I’m considered in France, just to be a star.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: And one indication of that is that you sung for the Pope.
D.D. Bridgewater: I’m surprised you knew that. Yes I did.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: And you’re well known as an actress in Europe, although you did win a Tony on Broadway here for “The Wiz” and a lot of people know you as the Good Witch Glenda. And I hear you’re going back to theatre in North America. Is that true?
D.D. Bridgewater: Maybe. I would like to maybe do a limited run of “Lady Day,” the musical that I did. Well it wasn’t really a musical, it’s a play with music about Billie Holiday that I did in Paris and in London. So I’m doing in Montreal, a limited run of the musical “Ain’t Misbehavin,” and I’m gonna do the Nell Carter role. But that’s just for two weeks, and I’m using that as an opportunity to get producers out to see me on stage again so I can speak about doing “Lady Day.”
JazzUSA ‘Zine: In England, you were nominated for the Laurence Oliver Award for Best Actress for “Lady Day.” That had to be quite an honor.
D.D. Bridgewater: Yes it was. First of all, in England, they don’t like to nominate foriegners. And the British theatre, for me, really is the seat of theatre. Theatre originated there and Shakespeare and all of that, so that was a very big honor to be nominated.
JazzUSA ‘Zine: And you’ve been nominated for a Grammy award three times, with “Love And Peace” being the last time.
D.D. Bridgewater: That year I was told by a lot of the NARAS people is that they decided in the end to give the Grammy that year to Lena Horne because she’s been ill. I don’t get it, instead of giving her a Lifetime Achievement award. It’s all politics. For me, my goal isn’t to try and win a Grammy award when I do an album. My goal isn’t even to get a nomination. My goal is to honor whoever it is I selected or to do whatever it is I’ve decided to do on that project to the best of my abilities. So for me Ella Fitzgerald is the first lady of jazz. We wouldn’t be here, we jazz singers today, if it hadn’t been, a lot, for Ella Fitzgerald. And this is my way of paying my last respects to somebody I think is great.
Other Dee Dee Bridgewater Resources