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Dee Dee Bridgewater: Dee Dee on Billie

By Published: February 22, 2010

AAJ: It is true that they have a tendency to see vocal jazz as a step down from instrumental jazz.

DDB: Oh yeah. And they were after all of that, oh yeah. "You're right Dee Dee, of course I know the music," and blah, blah, blah. Not only do I learn the arrangements, but the lyrics, and I have an idea of all of your parts. I learned the songs, the melody, so I'm learning more than you are, and I don't have any paper, and you are not even learning the lyrics, so if I go up on a lyric you won't even know it! Sometimes I think that being a technically trained musician can be a handicap! Because they come from an analytical point of view, and they have all this stuff that they talk about, the chords, and I'm, like, "You know, dudes, come on. Give it to me straight. Cut the B.S.; you can do that someplace else."

AAJ: Makes you wonder how some of them would have survived with Billie Holiday herself.

DDB: They would have been kicked out of the band or they probably wouldn't have sat in the band. And there are musicians that I don't play with and I won't play with, because we are not on the same wavelength. In your line of work, you tend to want to get players that are of a like mind. If you are going to be a team, you have to be a team player. And that is how I look at it. Everybody is a team player in this project. So the project is the sum of its parts, the whole is the sum of its parts. So everyone is integral to making this one beautiful musical machine. We've all got to be on the same page. We have to be reading the same map; we have to know all the different detours we can take. If somebody decides they want to go down another road, you have to be ready to go down that road. It's kind of like the GPS system [laughs]. We don't have to say, "Oh, I am changing the route." You got to be in it, in the moment.

AAJ: So how much of the person you are today, musically or personally, do you owe to your family, growing up, your father?

DDB: My parents were very influential in who I am today. All my musicality came from my father's side of the family, and all of my senses of family came from my Mom. Once I made a decision that I wanted to be a jazz singer as a profession, a singer and an actress, my father got me started, and then my mother took over and nurtured me and supported me, and she has been my biggest supporter and my biggest fan. All of my practical stuff came from my mommy. And then my step- father worked with me on my business sense. As Hilary Clinton put it, "It takes a village to raise a family."

AAJ: What's happiness to you?

DDB: Happiness is a relative term, isn't it? It's very relative to me. Happiness to me is having a roof over my head. Knowing today that I have accomplished all the things that I have—that I've realized all of the dreams that I ever had when I was a little girl, in one matter or another, having had all the experiences that I've had—and became the person that I am today: that is happiness to me. There are days when you don't feel happy, and those days—I call them "lessen days" or "mourning days" or "shut-down days," or whatever is going on. But basically I am happy. I am happy with where I am, I am happy about my children, I have learned to love myself, and I am very proud that I decided to be a kind of renegade [laughs]—to be a rogue jazz singer, to set my own norms. Happiness is rooted to the person that you are asking and what their expectations are.

I have learned not to expect much from humans. I've learned to put my faith and my belief in God—in a higher power, in a power of prayer. I believe in prayer, I believe in God, I believe in angels, I believe in miracles, I believe I am a living miracle. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the grace of God. Many times, I could have gone down the wrong path, and He's always caught me in the nick of time. He's always saved me. So now I walk in faith; I walk in blind faith today. I've learned how to accept things as they are, not to force things. If they don't happen, they are not meant to be. I believe in that very strongly. I believe that things that are meant to happen will happen, and that when it's supposed to happen it's always very smooth, and that's proved itself over and over to be the case.

AAJ: If there was one single memory of you, or one achievement, or one song you have recorded, or something related to you that you could leave behind for people to remember you by, what would it be?

DDB: Just one? I think that would have to be my Red Earth (Emarcy, 2007) album. That is an album that was born out of my decision to embrace my African ancestry and to try to figure out where my ancestry was. I feel that it is a work of art that probably will stand the test of time. Well, I think all of my projects can stand the test of time, but I think that one is the most profound, because it shows the relationship with West African music, especially Mali. Malian music, I believe, is in the root of jazz and blues, and I wanted to show that correlation as well as the African tradition of the musical historians, the Creoles. I just think that would be a good representation of where I come from and where I'm at. That was a project that has changed me for life. I know them as my people.

I knew the music when I would listen to the music, and I could never understand why I always could sing and hum tunes that I've never heard before. And it turns out that those were all Creole songs. They really believe that your spirit doesn't forget. So when I would talk with the Mali musicians and told them what was going on, they were not surprised. "It's a proof that here's where you come from—your ancestors were from Mali." They went so far as to tell me which tribe I'm a descendant from—the Peul, which is a northern Malian tribe that lived in the Sahara, a nomadic tribe. And I'm a nomad; I always called myself a gypsy, because I've lived all over the place. I even used the term nomad before. So my whole philosophy about life and the importance of the family—that all comes from the Malian culture, because family is very important for the Malian culture. I've always believed that if I make money, I need to share that money with my family; that I should be able to share the blessings that I've received with my family, and that is a very strong Malian culture.

So I think that would be most indicative of me because I wrote the English lyrics to the Creole songs, and I was the first foreign artist that has done an African project, and that has done a kind of loose interpretation of the Creole songs so that people can have an idea of what the singers are singing and the dialect. So I also gave a glimpse of African culture, and a pretty decent idea of what African music is about. So you got these two aspects of African-American culture, and I am very proud of it—it was ground-breaking. Since I did that album, some others are using Malian musicians playing the instruments that I had on my album, and are going to Africa, and doing projects that they would have not done otherwise. Performing and having the African musicians and singers on stage with me was eye-opening for a lot of people.

Dee Dee BridgewaterA lot of African-American people came to me afterwards and said things like, "I never wanted to be related to Africa in any way, or African people," and I was, like, "Don't feel bad. I was in the same place until I went there." And I wanted to show the beauty. Maybe Africa doesn't have the same kind of intellect that we have, but they have a culture and a history that we do not have, that we could certainly learn from. I say that to any African-American person—that if you want to understand yourself better, you need to go take a trip to Africa. And if there is a country that's speaking to you, that you are having in mind, that you want to go to, it's probably because that is where your ancestry is from. So you need to go visit that country and not be afraid. You have to be, of course, prepared when you go into those countries; that's a whole other issue. But don't be afraid of having an interaction with the African people. That's where I believe that I became totally free in terms of my singing. The more bluesy aspect of my voice came out of that project. This is Dee Dee.

It was a groundbreaking album, and it opened up. It was very interesting because it caught the ear of people that I never thought it would, and as a result of doing that album I'm doing more orchestral work now, working with symphony orchestras. I'm doing more big band stuff, I'm doing a lot more stuff as a solo artist with the classic people than I've ever done before. I feel like I got a respect from the classical people that I don't think I had before, because of doing this album. The way that I sing on my new album, that is a new and improved Dee Dee, and I am best when I sing live, and it was through that wanting to do the Billie Holiday project that I was able to realize about another part of my live performances. Because all of those tracks on that CD, that's everyone playing together in the studio. It was live. When I wasn't singing, I was hollowing in my booth, moaning, groaning, more than on any other album I've ever done. What a nice and beautiful experience. So that is why I would pick Red Earth. It was just a great album, and it received Grammy nomination. All my albums, with the exception of one, have been Grammy-nominated. One won two Grammys.

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