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Dee Dee Bridgewater: Dee Dee on Billie

By Published: February 22, 2010

AAJ: And don't you think Christian should be like 70 years old?

Dee Dee Bridgewater with James Carter

DDB: Oh yeah, absolutely. He's definitely an old spirit in a young man's body. He's definitely been here before. And on a musical level, he and I are really, really connected. And James as well. Well, I just have some really strong spiritual connections with all these gentlemen. I think it comes through on the CD.

AAJ: This is not the first time you have been connected with Billie Holiday in a project, whether it's a play or music. So is she an influence to you?

DDB: No, I don't have any main influences. If I had to talk about influences, Billie would not be a heavy impact. [Silence] Well, I can't even say that—that's wrong, Dee Dee, don't even try that! Billie was an influence, because when I was with my first husband, Cecil Bridgewater

Cecil Bridgewater
Cecil Bridgewater
, when we were just dating before we even married, he suggested that I listen to Billie, and I was, like, "Ugh! I don't want to be sad!" I wanted to have a good time; I was 19, so I was, like, "Please!" I was into Soul, R&B, Blues. I wanted to have a good time, so I didn't want to listen to any Billie Holiday. But he insisted that I listen to Billie, even after we were married. So, to keep the peace, I finally listened to her, and I was, like, "I'm sorry, I don't get it." And then I happened to find her autobiography when I was at a book store one day, and I bought it and read it.

It was her story that got me, because I thought that I saw a lot of similarities in our lives, even though we're from different periods. Thank God I'm from a period that knows the devastation of hard core drugs, and so I didn't have to go do that. But I certainly had been sexually abused, and I had made some very odd choices in men, in the men in my life, and I've always been attracted to guys that eventually turn out to not be good choices for me. So I have dealt with abuse and, you know, all that sort of stuff. And also, I was raised in a Catholic school. My mother had me baptized when I was seven, and I didn't want to be a Catholic, and I had problems with the nuns. So, you know, just so many similarities—that is a little uncanny, but that is what got me interested in Billie. And then when I listened to her music after that, it was a whole different story. And I could then understand her singing. The way that she sang, it just made sense to me, after reading her autobiography. She doesn't have an incredible range, and I thought that to be a great singer you had to have an incredible range. For me, the ultimate quality of a jazz singer is: you have to scat. And Billie didn't scat. But she sure improvised the heck out of the melodies, and her phrasing was like a musician's phrasing. And that is something that I've come to appreciate more and more over the years.

I still didn't have a complete appreciation of it by the time that I started first listening to her. And then after I started listening to her I got my first professional job in New York, when I first moved to New York in 1971, with Thad Jones

Thad Jones
Thad Jones
1923 - 1986
. And the first time I sang with them, Thad Jones said to me, "So, you've been listening to Billie Holiday?"

I said, "Yes."

"You've been listening to this one?"


"And that one?"


"Stop! I don't want you listening to any more singers. Your ears are like sponges, so we can hear all those singers. If you want to have your own sound, you have to stop listening to the singers and only listen to the music."

That's the best advice I've ever received, and I stopped. So I didn't listen to her again until I did the play.

AAJ: It was a good advice.

DDB: It was the best advice, seriously. And I tell all singers to listen to this advice. Because now that I am even older, young singers—when I am doing the master classes, like private vocal lessons with these kids—a lot of them listen to me, so I go, "Oh God, no, no, no!" You have to listen to some musicians, even if you don't scat, so that you can sing in your own voice and find your way with songs. So there you go.

AAJ: It's interesting that you said that you wanted to make a joyful celebration of Billie Holiday.

Dee Dee BridgewaterDDB: I was trying to project that positive side. There has been so much of the negative. Her whole history—she is a tragic figure. This woman would not have been able to survive in the time that she lived with the raging racism and the horrible abuse that African Americans—we were called "colored" then—received from the white people. And you know, I don't think anybody can imagine the humiliation of having to go through a kitchen, not being able to stay in the hotel where you performed because of the color of your skin, having to look for places to stay in the black community. The long bus rides—when in the South, she actually saw lynched bodies, going on some the roads that she drove, you know. That's the stuff that she actually experienced. So you couple that with her personal life story and all the abuse that she experienced as a child, and the prostitution. All of that, and then she was a woman. I think I would have used drugs back then, too. How else are you going to escape? How are you going to be able to go on stage on any given day and be something that people are expecting you to be? How do you deal with all that misery and the suffering and the horrors? So she put it into her music, and her music became her outlet, and the music kept her alive as long as she was. That's my take on it.

She was brave, she was courageous, she was a militant. When Bruce Allen brought "Strange Fruit" to her, she sang it. She was kicked out of clubs for singing that song. And she insisted on it until she was able to record it! That takes a courageous and brave woman; that takes a strong-willed woman that would buck society. And she bucked society. And she stood up for herself and said, "I am who I am. This is what I am; take me as I am."

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