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Interviews

Dee Dee Bridgewater: Dee Dee on Billie

By Published: February 22, 2010

Dee Dee BridgewaterAAJ: And how does it feel today to sing a song like "Strange Fruit," with all the changes that have happened in the world ever since?

DDB: Well, to me, it's a difficult song to sing. It's not really concert material and it really isn't club material. I recently came back from Japan; I was doing the Blue Note in Japan. And I would do the song, and just the reaction of the people in a small setting like that—maybe it was the proximity, where people are too close, where people were, like, at my feet, I could bend down and put my glass on a table, and mess around with them, which is what I like to do in clubs, you know, pull the hair, take glasses, tease them— I found that singing "Strange Fruit" in a club was really unsettling for people, really unsettling. So I stopped doing in the clubs. I felt that there needed to be some distance, so that they could take it in and at the same time not feel like it was so in their face, as it is in a club. But to do it today [Sigh], I don't know, when I do it, I have the memories of my childhood and the racial problems that I had to deal with.

You know, I was born in the 1950s, so I came up in the end of the whole racism stuff, with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, you know, so we were taught to fight for ourselves in the black community—Africanism, and wear your hair natural and all of that. I lived through all of that. But at the same time, I have had racial experiences as recent as the year 2000, so in a way it's a never-ending journey.

AAJ: How were your musical beginnings? How do you see them today?

DDB: I was a blessed singer. I was in the right place in the right time, musically speaking and speaking in jazz terms, because I had all these incredible father figures in jazz who were jazz legends. So when I first started singing, at 21 or 22, I was singing with people like Dexter Gordon

Dexter Gordon
Dexter Gordon
1923 - 1990
sax, tenor
, Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
b.1930
saxophone
, Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
1917 - 1993
trumpet
, Clark Terry
Clark Terry
Clark Terry
b.1920
trumpet
, Pharoah Sanders
Pharoah Sanders
Pharoah Sanders
b.1940
saxophone
, Harry "Sweets" Edison
Harry
Harry "Sweets" Edison
1915 - 1999
trumpet
, Ray Brown
Ray Brown
Ray Brown
1926 - 2002
bass, acoustic
—I grew up with that! All these legends, all these men took me under their wings. I grew up in that surrounding; those were my peers, kind of. I didn't know a lot of musicians my own age. And it was wonderful.

I think I was one of the last singers out here today who grew up with a big band, and that is invaluable music training: learning how to sing with a big band with an arrangement, how to project one's voice over a big band, because it was rare that we really had good sound system. So I had to learn how to project over these instruments because it was based in almost acoustic singing. I had a wonderful woman who taught me how to use my voice, how to breathe properly. I never took singing lessons, but she worked with me on those areas. Her name was Gladys de Jesús. She was Cuban and lived in Manhattan. So that's it, that's all I had. The rest was hands-on experience. I was very fortunate; I was extremely, extremely lucky. I was blessed. And my voice is God-given; I've always had this voice. And not too long ago I heard my first recording under my first name, and I said, "My God, my voice hasn´t changed! It's a little more mature now, but I still have the same phrasing, holy cow! It's me. I am. I was me back then and it's still me now, the same me."

Of course, I've had some more experiences, so there is a more mature me, and a musically more knowledgeable me, a more experienced me, but my voice hasn't changed and my range is still the same. I haven't lost my range, thank God. So there you go, that's how I am today, compared to who I was. It did take all of those experiences that I had and now I use them to my advantage. And because I was always working with musicians, my mindset was that of a musician. I don't think like a singer; I think like a musician. And I consider myself to be a musician. I hate when somebody comes to me and says, "Oh yeah, I know, you do jazz singing." I am, like, "Excuse me? Are you talking to me? A jazz singer?" Oh, the whole "you singers," oh no, not me. So I'm a tougher broad as I get older, even though I can still be sweet and all of that. I am a disciplinarian, so they say. I've taken a lot from musicians, I've given them a lot of space, but now I don't have the time, and when I hire a musician he gets his music well in advance—at least one month and a half in advance—so he can learn it. He gets live recorded music or albums, and then he gets the arrangements. He gets his parts, so there is no excuse for him not to come on stage on the first concert knowing this music inside-out. Recently, and for this project, I had a couple of musicians that thought they could come in this project, because they were thinking I was just singing and I would have these lousy arrangements, so imagine what they did on stage, in a concert.

AAJ: Surprise, surprise.

DDB: If musicians don't do their job, you can cut their pay, so I did that, and I've never done that before. "How dare you come to this concert—and it was big concert—and not be prepared and be playing these arrangements all wrong? How dare you embarrass me like that? Would you do that if you were working with Herbie Hancock

Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
b.1940
piano
? I don't think so!" And then I started listing all these musicians: "Would you do that if you were working with...? So you don't do that with me, either. You may think you can do that with other singers, but you don't do that with me, because I am not a singer, I am a musician."

Dee Dee BridgewaterAnd they said, "I'm sorry," and I said I was not going to pay them what they requested for them to give me some half-b.s. stuff. Who do you think you are, Adonis? This is not Greek Mythology, this is a concert. And this is real music, and it's challenging music, and if you don't have it together tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, and you don't eat, sleep and drink this music, that will be your last gig, or maybe you won't even be on the gig, because I don't need you. That's the other thing, welcome to my world. It's an embarrassment, I don't need you. You are not working with me making this musical statement. I can even sing with a piano, if I have to, and still get it across.

Oh yeah, I went there. I made the musicians put their papers out. They kept giving me all of these excuses! And even Edsel (Gómez) came saying, "I come from a Spanish..."

"When did you become an actor?"

He was about to tell me how he read this book on Stanislavski, and how you need to have a focal point instead of a music focal point, even though he knows it, and blah, blah, blah. And I was, like, "You make your piano your focal point, that's the instrument you're playing! Concentrate on the piano. You know the songs, you arranged these songs!" And everybody came with their excuses.



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