Over the course of a multi-faceted career spanning four decades, Grammy and Tony Award-winning jazz giant Dee Dee Bridgewater has ascended to the upper echelon of vocalists, putting her unique spin on standards and taking leaps of faith in re-envisioning jazz classics.
Bridgewater’s career has always bridged musical genres. She has performed with such jazz notables as Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon and Dizzy Gillespie. She also pursued a parallel career in musical theatre, winning a Tony for her role as Glinda in The Wiz in 1975.
She’s currently on tour in support of her new album Memphis… Yes, I’m Ready, for which Bridgewater returned to her birthplace to continue the musical exploration of her roots and influences.
Bridgewater joined us in the Gumbo Kitchen to talk about her life and career, from her childhood spent listening to late-night radio to her ongoing creative output at age 69.
You were born in Memphis. You must have been surrounded by music when you were a little girl, right?
Well, I didn’t grow up in Memphis. My family left when I was three and a half, and we moved north like a lot of families from the south. We were part of the great migration, seeking a better way of life.
When you were young, you had an entire wall in your bedroom dedicated to Nancy Wilson. Who were some of the other influences you had as a kid?
I listened to the radio station WDIA, which is out of Memphis that was started in 1947 and that I could get late at night in Flint, Mich., where I grew up. I found out in 2014 that my father was one of the first on-air DJs that WDIA had.
Matt the Platter Cat, right?
Yeah, his name was Matt the Platter Cat. He was an on-air DJ beside Rufus Thomas and B.B. King.
What was it about Nancy Wilson that attracted you?
Nancy Wilson was the first jazz singer that I heard and saw who was, for me, someone who was beautiful and classy. I just loved her voice. I wanted to grow up and be like Nancy.
From what I’ve read, you seem to have had a love affair with radio since you were a little kid. Stations in Memphis and Detroit… what a mixture of sounds you grew up with.
Oh, totally. I didn’t have the jazz music on the radio when I was growing up. I had Top 50 radio, and then there were some dedicated black music radio stations. My station in Flint was WAMM, and I would listened to WDIA very late at night; no one knew I listened to it — I was supposed to be in bed. And then there was a station in Detroit that I would listen to sometimes.
You’ve been a part of so many incredible collaborations. One that blew my mind was a performance you did with Ray Charles. It’s on your album Victim of Love, a song called Precious Thing. What was working with him like?
Ray Charles was a very… It wasn’t difficult, but he had a lot of stipulations if you worked with him. He was very, very clear about who he was, and he knew the stature that he had, so if he let you into his fold, it was because he knew you were someone special. I don’t know if you saw the Ray Charles movie that Jamie Foxx did… there’s a scene where Ray Charles is meeting someone and he’s holding their hand so he can check the pulse on the wrist — that’s what he does, and that’s what he did with me. I was opening for him in Paris, France. I was living in Paris, and at that time I was doing a play about Billie Holiday, and a gentleman that was working with me had met Ray Charles and arranged for me to open for him. I had always been told that if you’re opening for someone, your job is to warm up the audience for the headliner. So, I put together a set that I thought would really get the people going, so that when Ray Charles came out, they’d be hot and ready and excited. He really appreciated the set that I put together. So, we were talking about it, and he was telling me that there are very few artists that actually do correct openings, because most of the people that had opened for him at that time had either done numbers of his, or you know, their point was to impress him with who they were. He really appreciated that I did a set to warm the audience up, and a set that he knew had nothing to do with what I usually did. So, the gentleman that was working with me took that opportunity and said, “Listen, we’re working on an album. Would you consent to doing a duet with Dee Dee?” At the time, Ray Charles was holding my wrist, and he would not let go. I was a little uncomfortable, but I was being respectful, so I was just letting him hold my wrist. And I remember when this gentleman asked Ray, I was like, “Oh, no, no, no, no, no, Mr. Charles, oh no, I would never be so presumptuous.” And he responded, “If you can find a good song with a good melody and a good lyric, I would love to do a song with Dee Dee.”
Your most recent album is called Memphis… Yes, I’m Ready. Does it feel like a full circle for you?
For a few years, I had been just trying to find out more about my life. My past, my history, my ancestry. This was a part of that whole thing. Going back to Memphis, researching my beginnings, and more specifically, my father’s beginnings, because he’s a very closed-mouth person and never talks about what happened in Memphis. So yes, this was definitely a result of that. All of the songs on that album are songs that I heard on WDIA. I call it my secret music garden, because this is music that I listened to on that radio station, and I never told anyone that I listened to that station — not my sister, not my girlfriends, and certainly not my parents, because I could only get it at 11 o’clock at night. My parents thought I had a sleeping problem, because they could never get me up to go to school.
So many stars like yourself, you listen to the stories, and it all starts with them hiding under the blankets listening to the radio.
Well, they must be of a certain age, also! That was our main source of information when I was growing up.
One of the things that first struck me about how you perform is how theatrical you are. Where does that come from?
Well, I’ve done a lot of theatre. The first theatrical piece I did was the Broadway show The Wiz. The director ended up becoming my second husband, Gilbert Moses. He died in 1995. Gilbert was an actor’s director, which means that he worked with all of the actors and helped them to develop their characters. A lot of us at The Wiz had no prior acting experience. He would go into the theatre, sit in the balconies and let us know if he could feel the emotion that we were trying to project. And if he couldn’t, he would yell at us, “I can’t feel it! I can’t feel it!” I learned so much from doing that show and from working with him. Our marriage was difficult, but he was a great director. So, I took that knowledge with me as a performer. I love storytelling, so I like to really get into a song and tell the story of the song. When I do my shows, I think of each number as a kind of vignette. Each number has its own life, tells its own story. I can sometimes take on a character. It’s about entertaining. Tony Bennett coined a phrase that I love to use, and that is “jazz entertainer.” That’s what I am. I want an audience to have a good time. I want to draw them in. I want to have them forget about anything that’s going on in their lives. I want to inspire them. I want them to leave with a smile on their face, feeling like nothing is insurmountable.