CHICAGO JAZZ MAGAZINE
SEP | OCT 2015
NOV | DEC 2015
SEP | OCT 2015
DeeDee Bridgewater, In Her Own Words...
In Her Own Words...
Dee Dee Bridgewater first made her mark nationally in 1970 as the lead vocalist for the band led by Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, one of the premier jazz orchestras of the time. During her early career in New York, Bridgewater was featured in concerts and on recordings with such giants as Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Max Roach and Roland Kirk, and rich experiences with Norman Connors, Stanley Clarke and Frank Foster’s Loud Minority.
In 1974, she jumped at the chance to act and sing on Broadway where her voice, beauty and stage presence won her great success and a Tony Award for her role as Glinda the Good Witch in The Wiz. This began a long line of awards and accolades, as well as opportunities to work in Tokyo, Los Angeles, Paris and in London where she garnered the coveted “Laurence Olivier Award” nomination as Best Actress for her tour de force portrayal of jazz legend Billie Holiday in Stephen Stahl’s Lady Day. Performing the lead in equally demanding acting/singing roles, she also appeared in Sophisticated Ladies, Cosmopolitan Greetings, Black Ballad, Carmen Jazz and the musical Cabaret. (The first black actress to star as Sally Bowles), she secured her reputation as a consummate entertainer.)
In 1999, she was named Ambassador for the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), joining the battle against world hunger. Appealing for international solidarity to finance global grass-roots projects, the FAO’s Ambassadors aid in developing self-reliance in long-term conservation and management of sustainable agriculture, rural development and the conservation and management of natural resources. The triple Grammy-winning vocalist, Tony Award-winning actress, producer, radio host (Bridgewater was a host of NPR’s long-running series, JazzSet) and U.N. Goodwill Ambassador shares with Chicago Jazz Magazine readers her views on music, jazz history, “giving back” and the importance of possessing passion in music and life.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Tell us what home life was like growing up.
Bridgewater: Well, I suppose it was kind of a musical home. My father played a lot of trumpet during the years that I was growing up in Michigan. Honestly, I never heard my father actually practicing the trumpet at home. He also was an educator, so he was in a band called the Sherman Mitchell Quintet out of Flint, Michigan. But we listened to a lot of music around the house—he played a lot of LPs, and of course growing up I listened to the radio. It was quite the thing then, so I listened to a lot of the radio stations that I could get out of Detroit. And my mother listened to singers—a lot of jazz singers, but mostly lesser-known singers, like Loretta Alexandria or Gloria Lynne. I don’t ever remember seeing any LPs around the house of Ella Fitzgerald, although my mom did have one of Sarah Vaughan. My father played on the weekends, and I remember dreaming of having a band with my father, a father-daughter band, but that never came to fruition. I had a vocal trio during my high school years—we called ourselves the Iridescents. That was after Motown had started in Detroit and a group from Flint had been signed that became the Marvelettes!
Chicago Jazz Magazine: So at that time you were listening to a lot of Motown?
Bridgewater: I was listening whatever was at the house, but I would listen to Motown on the radio. I never had enough money to buy LPs, so I would do what they call “dumpster diving.” Sometimes neighbors would throw out old LPs that they didn’t want, and my sister and I would find them and play them. I grew up listening a lot to Harry Belafonte and Johnny Mathis. By the time I was eighteen, I liked Nina Simone, even though we didn’t have any of her LPs in the house. I would see her on TV—I remember her being on The Ed Sullivan Show. Motown was mixed in. All teenagers listened to Motown.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What was the sound of your band at that time?
Bridgewater: We were just a trio of singers. I wrote songs for the band, another girlfriend, Valeria Washington, played piano. We would make up these songs at her house on her piano, and we would meet together and harmonize. That was the era of talent shows, so we would participate in those, as both backup singers and solo singers. I would do solo gigs and won a couple of talent contests. I got to perform at the local jazz club, called the Flint Motor City—that kind of stuff.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You went to school at Michigan State initially…
Bridgewater: Yeah, only for one year. I never graduated. Then I transferred to the University of Illinois. That was literally for only one semester, so I could go on a State Department tour to Russia with the band. I was singing with local bands, so I could make money. I sang literally every day of the week with different groups—in restaurants and hotels, lounges and bars, wherever there was music. In college cities, there was a lot of music around.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Was that the John Garvey era at U of I?
Bridgewater: Yes it was. He was a fantastic music director. John Garvey recruited me. When I was at Michigan State, my father introduced me to Andy Goodrich from Chicago, who was working on his doctorate, and had a quintet at Michigan State. So Andy Goodrich put me in his quintet. It was the Andy Goodrich Quintet Plus One. We did a lot of collegiate competitions and festivals, and one of the competitions was at the University of Illinois. That’s how I met John Garvey, and that was how I first heard the University of Illinois Jazz Band. And that’s when I saw the man that became my first husband, Cecil Bridgewater.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Was he with Horace Silver at that time?
Bridgewater: No, he was just at the U of I Jazz Band. He didn’t join Horace Silver until 1970, and that was after we married.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Then you moved to New York from there?
Bridgewater: Yeah. We moved to New York in 1970.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Once you were in New York, was that when you started working with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra?
Bridgewater: Yeah, Cecil joined the band when we first moved, and they had a male singer at the time. Eight months into being there, they decided they wanted to change and have a female singer, and held auditions. I went with Cecil to the auditions, but I was very shy back then, so I didn’t audition and they had selected someone else. And I thought, I can sing way better than her. I went up and asked if I could audition. It was too late to do it at the facility, so they auditioned me at the club, the Village Vanguard, and they hired me on the spot.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Your career was on a fast track.
Bridgewater: Yes, it was very fortunate.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Shortly thereafter you landed a part in The Wiz, didn’t you?
Bridgewater: Yeah. The Wiz was in 1974.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: And how did that come about?
Bridgewater: I auditioned. They had what they called a “cattle call” audition. I went in through a friend who knew the casting director. I auditioned a total of four times before I was hired to portray Glinda.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did you know the part you were auditioning for?
Bridgewater: No, I was just auditioning—what they call open call auditions. I had some lines to read, and then I guess they determine after seeing different people who would be best for each role. After the fourth audition I got the role of Glinda.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: At that time, were you thinking of it as just a singing gig?
Bridgewater: No, musical theater is something that I always wanted to do. In fact, I had auditioned for replacing Melba Moore—I don’t have any theatrical training; I also don’t have any musical training, but a woman in Flint, Mich. called my mother and told her I should audition to replace Melba Moore. So she raised some money to fly me to New York to audition. I had never seen a script, I had never read lines—I had no clue about any of it. So I’m in the audition and I will never forget my response to the first-line cue, which was: “So what do you want to do?” I replied, “I want to sit down, and my knees are shaking.” And he says, “No, that’s your first line!” And I said, “I still want to sit down!” [laughs] I eventually did all right with the audition. The producer and the director of the show were there, and told me I had a great deal of talent, but they didn’t have the time to train me. They needed someone that was actually trained that could go in and take over the role. They suggested that I go into musical theater, that I had talent. So it was a great experience and I went back home and thought, I want to do this––this is fun. I grew up watching the Ziegfeld Follies on TV, so it was a dream of mine to do musical theater.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Because there was something glamorous about it?
Bridgewater: Yes. Well, the idea coming down the stairs and singing songs, and having gorgeous men surrounding me and swooping me up—that’s literally what happened when I did The Wiz.
Chicago Jazz Magazine:natural?
Bridgewater: Yes, I never had any training.
Chicago Jazz Magazine:early on. What would you consider your big break?
Bridgewater: My big break was working with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. Out of working with them I was able to branch off and work with so many jazz greats. Most musicians would come down to hear that band––it band was loved and respected, so it became a beautiful platform for me to show my wares. The first year I sang on every set; we did three sets. The second year they cut me down to two, and the third year they cut me down to maybe two, sometimes one, which would be the last set of the night. The fourth year it was down to the last set. They were not too pleased with the fact that I was starting to get a bigger reputation, and that if I didn’t perform, people would leave. Thad and Mel didn’t appreciate that, so when I got The Wiz I said goodbye.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: That band gave you exposure to some of the jazz greats: Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, and Sonny Rollins.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Given that you started so young, you have seen two or three generations of jazz. Do you notice a difference in how players approach the music?
Bridgewater: The way they approach the music now is much more technical. There were many great jazz musicians that didn’t study. They studied on their own, but they didn’t have training. A lot of the jazz greats couldn’t even sight read. What I noticed is it has taken on a much more technical form. Most young musicians have come out of schools, jazz programs, jazz colleges and university, so their approach is a more studied approach. I don’t see the same fervor for the music as when I was growing up. I see it as just isolated musicians. Back then, it wasn’t so much about how much money you could make; it was about doing something that you loved and being able to make the money. Now it’s about doing something you learned to do. Yes, it may be something you love to do, but it is also about making money and creating a name for yourself. So the focus has completely shifted.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: How has that affected the music itself?
Bridgewater: I think the music is a little better technically, but it lacks soul. It’s the same with singers who are coming up today. They are all very knowledgeable, they all can read, a lot of them can write and arrange and they are technically good. But I don’t hear a lot of soul coming from young singers. There’s this new wave with small, soft-spoken, soft voices. There are not so many singers with big, full-bodied voices. There’s a young singer named Brianna Thomas who is starting to make some waves. There’s Cécile McLorin Salvant, who kind of has become the poster child for vocal jazz that is more in line with traditional jazz. I have been listening to another singer who just released a CD, Charenée Wade, and she has a nice, full voice. She did a tribute to Gil Scott-Heron, and Heron is someone I “kind of” grew up with. I would go to Philly and see Gil Scott, hang with him and we would talk. We would talk about black issues; we had both been members of the Black Panther party––we supported the Panthers without actually “being” Panthers, and were very conscious about all the things that were going on socially. There was a social awareness when growing up that I don’t see quite so much today. I think our society has become more narcissistic––everyone is thinking about himself or herself. It’s kind of sad to see.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: If you were to advise a young person on how they might be able to generate more soul in their music, what would you tell them?
Bridgewater: Usually what I say to singers—and even musicians—at master classes or workshops that I have done, is that if you are going to work with material that has been done before, you have to find the thing in that material that speaks to you. I don’t suggest that people do material to just do material. There has to be something about that piece that really speaks to you, and that is the only way you can put your soul into it. I always ask what it is about each song that they prefer, whether it is a composition or a vocal song with lyrics. I say to singers, You have to tell the story; you have to imagine the story in your mind, and you have to find some way to juxtapose the story with something in your life to personalize it, instead of just singing a bunch of words—because that’s a big issue for me with a lot of the singing going on. It’s technically great, but I’m not feeling like, Oh my gosh, did you hear so and so sing such and such a song? Did you hear how they interpreted that song? There are a couple of singers who impress me in that way. I mentioned Cécile McLorin Salvant has a great gift for interpreting. Another singer who impresses me is a French singer, Cyrille Aimée. I am talking with Charenée Wade now, because I listened to her doing this Gil Scott-Heron, and I said, “You sing it beautifully, but I don’t get this conviction that I saw coming out of Gil Scott-Heron when he wrote it and performed it. You have to believe this material––this man suffered doing this material––you have got to believe in what you are doing, sweetie, otherwise it just sounds like a pretty voice singing Gil Scott-Heron.”
Chicago Jazz Magazine: He was a Chicago talent, and it’s sad that he died so young.
Bridgewater: You know he came out of that whole era with the black poets. This was the beginning of rap music, the kind of spoken song-style that Gil did. It came out of a whole belief, a life belief. It was his way of speaking out against what was going wrong in society. You have to find a way. I told Wade that she has to find a way to touch on that. She hasn’t lived that suffering: she hasn’t fought, hasn’t made any of those kinds of stands, and that is the difference I think with a lot of kids today. Many of the musicians who came before me struggled for their music. I struggled for my music; I fought for my music. Even as a recording artist, I had the record companies tell me to shut up, and not to say things that were political, because I believed in speaking out—I did demonstrations.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You came up through a highly charged era politically.
Bridgewater: Exactly. These children don’t have that. It is just very interesting to me that even with all these murders and atrocities going on, that we can literally see police brutality with the smartphones––it can be captured. But the reaction isn’t there. You’re watching it, but aren’t part of it. I feel like the government has been able to water down individual participation down. During the Bush administration they eliminated demonstration: it was “unpatriotic.” During the beginning of the disbanding of unions was when they moved us into more of a “follow along, nothing matters” mentality.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: So your saying that there’s no single formula, but that you need to find your individual passion––wherever it comes from––and incorporate that in your music.
Bridgewater: Yes. This young musician that I’m going to come to the Jazz Fest with—Theo Croker—has done that. This is a passionate, educated young man. This is a man I hear in his music. I hear in his composition the fire he has for the music. He wants to make a statement; he wants to change some stuff. The way he hears music, he’s not afraid to step out there. But then he is a young man who left the United States and lived seven years in China, so he was exposed to another culture. I’ve worked with Theo for four years––had him in my band, helped him with his band, and produced and put out his album, AfroPhysicist. I’ve spent almost two years with his band, talking and showing him the ropes, and trying to get them to understand the kind of conviction they need to have. A lot of young cats don’t put in that level of professionalism in the music.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Who do you think are the people that have really done it the best over the history of jazz?
Bridgewater: That’s a pretty loaded question. Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae, and Betty Carter…I would say Ella Fitzgerald just brought exuberance to everything she did, and a great love for the music to everything...Joe Williams.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You hesitated when you mentioned Ella…
Bridgewater: Because I never felt a deep emotional connection with music when Ella did it. It was just the execution of it, and a joy that she got. You could sense the joy she got from singing and everything that she did. But you didn’t get the deep pathos. It wasn’t like a Billie Holiday experience. Ella for me is the other side. Where is the joy? That is something else that I feel is lacking in a lot of today’s young singers—a sense of joy in the execution of the work.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Your Live at Yoshi’s album seems to reflect your passion and joy, perhaps because you seem to enjoy live performance so much.
Bridgewater: I totally forgot about my live CD. That was a great CD, because you are right, it showed me just how I am as a performer in a live setting.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Tell us about your new album, Dee Dee’s Feathers, which is a tribute to New Orleans.
Bridgewater: Yes, with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and Irvin Mayfield, who founded the orchestra. Yes, the whole album is about New Orleans. The concept, everything is about New Orleans. It’s kind of a celebration of the renaissance the city is finally experiencing since Katrina. It’s coming out at about the same time as the tenth anniversary of Katrina. I’ve fallen into this wonderful relationship with Irvin and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and the city. They kind of want me to be an “ambassador” for the city, for the anniversary of Katrina. I’ll be going down to New Orleans quite a bit. I’ve started going down, since I’m working with Irvin and NOJO.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Speaking of anniversaries, the 100th anniversary of Billie Holiday’s birth is this year. You did a tribute album for her, Eleanora Fagan. With everything you have going on, what will you be bringing to the Chicago Jazz Festival?
Bridgewater: Well, I’m engaged with Theo Croker and his band, Dark Funk, so I will not be doing the New Orleans material. So we’re doing material that I recorded with Theo and his band on AfroPhysicist. Theo and his band decided that they wanted to go back into my old discography, so we will be doing songs that I never perform live. We’re doing songs I performed as a guest on other people’s albums: a couple I did as guest appearances with Roy Ayer, a song from my days of working with Norman Connors... It’s just some old kind of seventies throwback stuff of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. And we are going to throw in a couple of Billie things, since it is the 100th anniversary. But we are about making people move and having fun. I’m trying to put the fun back in the music, dadgummit! [laughs] I have reached an age where I want to have fun. I believe that you can play good music—serious music—and have great arrangements, but you can still have fun and entertain an audience. Bring the audience in so that everybody is having a good time. They don’t even realize that they are getting all of this great music because they are so busy having fun. That is something that I learned from Dizzy Gillespie and Clark Terry—have fun. Dizzy was a clown on stage, but at the same time he was playing his buns off, and they were giving you great music. It’s the same with Clark.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: There are very few artists able to meld that critical success with popularity, and they did it so well.
Bridgewater: We could go back farther—Louis Armstrong did that very well. That’s a kind of legacy that I want to leave. I want people to be able to say, I went to see Dee Dee Bridgewater––what a great show; I had so much fun, and the music becomes secondary to them, because it’s an experience. I think it is one of the reasons I have had such longevity in my career, is because of my performance aspect. Music is almost secondary, because people come knowing they are going to have a good time. I think that is beautiful.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Do you think that is a contributing factor as to why jazz doesn’t have the popularity it once had?
Bridgewater: Yes, absolutely! Musicians take it too seriously. They want people to stop: Listen to me, I’m playing, I’m giving you greatness, you have to stop, you have to listen. Give me a break! When I pay money to go hear somebody, I want to have a good time. I was just told about a young singer who told the audience that they had to be quiet and listen to her. You don’t do that—you don’t lecture an audience. A lot of artists don’t take into consideration that people have paid money, taken time out of their evening and have arranged their lives to hear this music. And you are going to lecture them? No.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You are able to sing in many music styles, and it appears to be effortless. Did you consciously try to make that transition or did it happen naturally?
Bridgewater: It happens naturally. I was blessed with a very flexible voice, with the ability to sing in all these different styles. There was a period when I was living in France, where I was being pursued for opera by classical agents who wanted me to go into singing opera and classical music, because I had done a couple of opera pieces. And they were like, “we don’t have anybody like you,” and I was just like, “I’m sorry, I can’t do it––this music does not move me.” I was blessed with a wonderful instrument, and I’ve never studied anything, but I don’t do anything if I don’t believe in it. And that goes back to what I try to share with young musicians and singers. You need to do your music, to sing something that moves you. Don’t do something because somebody told you to do it, or because you think that is the trend. I say to people, you have got to believe in your thing, because if someone is going to take you down doing something, it better be you doing the thing you believe in and that you fought for.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Is there a more demanding genre to you, either intellectually or physically?
Bridgewater: Yes, when I have done classical stuff it is more demanding, because it is totally out of my realm. It can be very challenging. Once I did the opera Carmen by Bizet, and, of course, they had to drop the entire opera “a third” for me to do it. But it took me six months to really learn it. And I took myself on some retreats; I just went away and just listened.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Though you did not finish college you are very well spoken.
Bridgewater:vocabulary went down the drain. My oldest daughter, Tulani, who does my management, and my youngest son love vocabulary and I am constantly asking them, “What is that word?” I downloaded a dictionary app, so I am trying to rebuild my English vocabulary, but I don’t know where this being well spoken came from! [laughs] I am very good with thinking off-the-cuff. I’m a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, and they realized that I had this ability, so whenever I would go for the World Food Day, and they were inducting someone new into the ambassadorship program, they would have me speak. You know what is interesting? I can never remember what I have said afterward. It’s just this uncanny ability—another gift I feel—that I have been given to be able to do that. I can rise to that occasion. And I had a connection with a very successful businessman. I’m sure you have seen Schindler products. The “people movers” at the airports are mostly Schindler—a lot of escalators and elevators—but he’s much bigger than that. So here is this billionaire calling me when I’m living in France to do private galas and special events for his salespeople around the world. These were extremely wealthy people. It would be these private dinners and he would always have me sit to his right, and would always say, “And now let’s hear from Dee Dee Bridgewater.” And I would have to get up and say stuff in front of these highfalutin folks about how their business affected everyday people, how important it was to have a company where the communication is open between him and the people he would work with. He wanted to give me the money to start a full-fledged record company. Sometimes I think it was a missed opportunity, but I don’t want to be beholden to anybody, and that’s been my problem. I want to be my own person.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Are there any circumstances under which you would turn “corporate”?
Bridgewater: Now, almost twenty years later, I think I’d be ready to do it. I could be persuasive and convince somebody to go along with my ideas and maybe do my own little label. Because what I am starting to see, with Sony for example, is that they aren’t very good at getting products into the market. I did this great album with Theo Croker that got rave reviews, and now Theo is doing his own tour this summer because of the success of the CD—and him working with me for the last two years—and there’s no product? So I just said, I’m going to pick up the phone and let them know that my artist is in town, and that I need that product put out there. What do I need to do? When I was really involved with Universal—before this situation happened with Sony six years ago—I hadn’t given them an album since Eleanora Fagan. I proposed that they let me come in and be a kind of an A&R and “artist liaison.” At the time they didn’t want to commit to that. All they are concerned about is the bottom line, but they don’t work with their artists to help strengthen that bottom line, and I think that’s unfortunate.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: It’s a tough business.
Bridgewater: It is, but I believe there are ways to make it work. It takes involvement with the artist. There’s no more “building” the artist; there’s none of that anymore. They aren’t supporting the artist. If the artist can do you good and you can get some money, then so be it. But then, once the artist doesn’t give you anything, you drop them.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: When you aren’t involved with business, what do you like to do?
Bridgewater: Sleep! [laughs] I like silence. I moved to L.A. last year. I had to move my mother there. She has dementia, and I had to put her in a twenty-four-hour assisted care facility, because I travel so much. Since I’ve been there, I think the longest I’ve been home is ten days. I’m taking ten days off in September, and I was trying to figure out where the hell I can go. Then I woke up one day last week and realized that I don’t want to go anywhere. I don’t need to go on a plane somewhere to relax. Maybe I’ll just spend a day at the beach. I’m just going to try to reconnect with this city that I used to live in. I can drive to Malibu––spend a day at the beach, do some spa days. I’m gonna putz around my beautiful apartment. I’ll take my mom out, if I can––if she is having a good day––but I’ll spend time with my mom.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: If you could summarize your career in just a few words, what would they be?
Bridgewater: I don’t know how I would summarize me.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Passionate?
Bridgewater: Yes, I am extremely passionate. I can be brutally honest. I just reached the point in my life where I’m not going to take any more bull. For me, life is too short—I want to enjoy it. I don’t know how we could define my little self: I love family, family is brutally important to me. My jazz family is also important. History is very important to me—keeping traditional vocal jazz alive, honoring our ancestors—all of that is very important. At the same time, I try to explore my personal artistry. I believe I have a responsibility to jazz and music, because everything I have done that has been of any note has been around jazz or improvisation––it’s all through the prism of jazz. There you go! “All through the prism of jazz.” I like it!
Piano Bar - Open Mic, the Good The Bad The Crazy!
The desire to sing—in order to feel fully alive—is very strong in many people. Here’s an excerpt from the poem, “The Late Singer” by William Carlos Williams, about this need:
Here it is spring again, and I still a young man!
I am late at my singing.
The sparrow with the black
rain on his breast has been
at his cadenzas for two weeks past:
What is it that is dragging at my heart?
…A moon hangs in the blue...
I am late at my singing.
It’s interesting that Mr. Williams, despite being one of America’s great early 20th century poets, had a day job as a physician. He did his “singing” in his spare time, and became quite good at it. It just goes to show you don’t have to be a professional artist to be quite good, even great.
However, doing any kind of performance art at a very high level—unlike writing poetry or painting pictures—requires relentless application of practice in front of an audience. And non-professionals have few, if any opportunities to do this. That’s why we have a class taught in quasi-saloon ambience (replete with stage lighting, cabaret seating and wine) for singers at The Old Town School Of Folk Music called “Piano Bar 101.” This was created a dozen or so years ago by the late, great singing pianist, Gwen Pippin, and has turned into something of a phenomenon.
There are so many people interested that there are three teachers (Bob Solone, Sammi Scott and myself) teaching six sections of this every week. Potential students are turned away because it’s always packed. Apparently there is a great interest in getting up to sing in bars.
This is a good thing...sort of. I realize singing is a basic human activity, like sports, and no one thinks that only professional athletes should be allowed to play. However, an amateur sports enthusiast has no expectation of being allowed to take the field during a professional game. Yet it’s a routine occurrence for piano bar artists to be asked to accompany self-proclaimed “singers” while paying customers are in attendance, expecting good or at least competent music. That’s why a class like Piano Bar 101 is serving a real need. Our students, most of who are already pretty good singers, learn the do’s and don’ts of singing along with a pianist or band.
I’ve collected some anecdotes on this topic from several of the piano bar artists I’ve featured in this column over the past three years. I’ll start with my own...
Several years ago, I was briefly a part of big 16-piece band struggling to fill up a rather large club on an off night. The leader decided to see what would happen if he turned it into an “open mic” night, and encouraged us to locate some singers who wanted to get up in front of an orchestra. Eager to please, I invited two working singers who I had performed with, in tightly controlled situations, that had done rather good jobs. One was a recent transplant from Las Vegas: a vocal impressionist who has made a nice living there as an impersonator of a famous country and western star. The other was a very strange man from Europe who did a not too terrible Elvis-oriented act, in front of a back-up band that learned his arrangements from his karaoke tracks. Having only seen these singers operate in their comfort zones, I didn’t realize what a disaster I had conjured.
Have any of you seen the hilarious play, Bad Jews, at Northlight Theater? If so, you were treated to an absolutely horrendous version of “Summertime,” the song everyone thinks they can sing. Believe me, it’s well worth the ticket price to hear a funny actress deliver this standard as a full-throttle, screeching aural nightmare. But it was not fun to hear my friend forget everything she knew about singing, while giving us a tremulous, pseudo-opera, non-swing and uncool version of this Gershwin classic that made a dozen people walk out.
The appalled band, staff and audience were then treated to the Elvis guy messing up a simple blues/rock tune in spectacular fashion. Everybody knows how to sing a 12-bar blues, right? Uh, no, not if you let the karaoke tracks do the counting for you. After several false starts, blown lines, and uncomfortable silences caused by a remarkable lack of memory bordering on senility, this glamorously clad and coiffed “singer” shuffled off the stage to the utter bewilderment of the few people remaining. I really should have known better—karaoke has done more to ruin live music and distort the musical growth of an entire generation than anything else, except maybe drug abuse. There now exists a type of singer that was hitherto unknown: someone who can create, with the aid of a lyrics screen and recorded tracks, a credible illusion of professional singing so strong that they actually believe they are good. But take away the on-screen lyrics and the sound cues that are built into the tracks, and they are completely lost.
After this fiasco it became apparent that an open mic with an orchestra runs the risk of making what was a smaller moment of dysphoria and embarrassment in a piano bar into a much larger scale. So, starting with an orchestra leader, here’s what some other pianists have to say about guest singers:
“I am very careful not to use an unheard of vocalist to sing with my Green Mill band. There are lots and lots of folks that say they are vocalists just to get onstage. During the breaks, I usually ask these people to sing 4 bars of ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb.’ If they can’t sing that, then there is no way I will put them onstage!”
— Alan Gresik, leader of Swing Shift Orchestra
“You have to be wary of guest singers. Be prepared for anything. I’ve had many pleasant surprises over the years, but probably as many bad experiences. Do not let them have the mic if they are visibly drunk—although some lubrication is likely necessary. This is not the time to be overly hip. This is an amateur singer, so help them as much as you can to come in at the right place and in the right key. But be prepared to pull the plug if they’re awful.” —Paul Cosino
“Some singing pianists sit in and don’t know when they’ve worn out their welcome. They play and play and play as if it were their own gig. When you are invited to sit in (whether to sing, play or both), just do two songs tops, maybe one more if you have a gracious host. Do not take advantage of the one performing. That goes for singers too! There is a doctor who comes in and stays at the hotel where I work. He is a good customer, so management doesn’t mind when he sits in. But he sits in not for just one song, but like an hour. He is not a professional, so he doesn’t interact with the audience. He just sits up there reading songs off his iPad practicing on my gig. Hey, I don’t go to his office and sit at his desk!” —Sammi Scott
“If it’s a busy night, it’s usually no, but that’s a serious judgment call, and I weigh several things: Are they drunk? How do they approach me? Are they polite and relaxed about it? I ask if they sing professionally, and I weigh the reply. Next, I ask what song they want to sing, and what key it’s in. If they don’t know the key, they’re not a pro. If they fail any of these tests, I usually blame it on management, saying it’s against club policy to sit in. If they’re willing to tip very heavily though, I’ll sometimes let them. Also, if they’re with a large group of people, I may sometimes let them sit in. I always tell them that if they’re singing off key or badly I’m going to cut it short, and I do cut it short if need be. I try to be gracious about it. Sometimes I’m surprised. Once, on a slow night, a guy sitting at the piano bar asked if he could sing ‘Summertime’ [in the key of] A. I said, ‘What the heck,’ and agreed. He opened his mouth, and out came one of the most powerful, beautiful operatic voices I had ever heard. Turns out he was in Sweeney Todd at the Lyric Opera. He blew the roof off the place.” —Phil Baron
“I’ve played some of the Bears Reunion weekends. At the time, Ed McCaskey was alive and always sang the Chicago Bears fight song—with the verse in rubato! I knew that this was coming, so I researched and learned the verse. We ran with this gig for a good five years!” —Marshall Vente
“As you know, some venues allow and encourage guest singers, and some do not. When they do, I’m generally very generous with the mic, even when I don’t know the person who wants to sit in. And it’s always a case-by-case decision: no to drunks and obnoxious patrons.
And if someone comes up to sing who is not a very good singer, I try to minimize the experience by ending the song after once through. But when a real talented singer comes up—professional or amateur—it is a rewarding experience. For me, for the singer, and for the audience, I truly get a charge out of giving a guest singer the best backup possible. An added advantage is that the singer will want to come back and bring friends, thus helping the business for the club owner—thus helping my job security. But the only catch is you have to have an owner who is flexible and tolerant with all types of singers or it won’t work.” —Bob Solone
“I have never been enthusiastic about allowing strangers onstage to sing. This probably all stems from the fact that I come from an era where piano bar experiences were focused on the originality of the artist behind the keys, not some singer ‘wannabe.’ Managers were actually quite adamant about making sure that no amateurish, out of tune individuals take over a show. Now the rules and protocol are quite different. I always clear a stranger’s appearance with management. But I will never allow anyone onstage who is pushy or proclaims they’re ‘very good’ and ‘a pro.’ I promise you when somebody does that they are not a pro and will probably sound like a sick cat. However, once in a blue moon, if someone is very polite and pleasant about asking to sing, there is a chance the performance will be a positive one.” —Wayne Richards
“Funny you should request stories about guest singers. Just last week a really old man walked up to my piano and tells me, ‘I used to sing back in the day.’ No tip, no regard for what I was doing; he just assumed that I was going to accompany him. As it is, guest singers are not allowed at this restaurant. But he kept insisting and asking me what keys I did certain songs in. I just wondered, back in the ‘30s and ‘40s, did people just walk into a joint and break out in song like in the movies? As a professional entertainer should always do, I humored the gentleman and told him ‘we did not allow singers in the restaurant. However, I would just play the song, just for him.’ I stopped what I was doing and played ‘Embraceable You’ as he hummed it softly to his wife, who was standing next to him. She smiled, and her eyes became wistful. I swear I saw a tear drip down her face.”— Cindy Chen, New Orleans
…And now, from a professional singer who was nice enough to join us at our huge open mic event on the main stage at The Old Town School as a part of The Square Roots Festival, and, to be featured as one of the guest pros in my class:
“The original training ground for singers when I first started was to sit in with piano players at a piano bar. It was the best way to see, be seen and be heard. In fact, that’s how I got most of my jobs! So much fun, and ran into so many wonderfully talented people. That is how you learn to know your keys, the form, and what are good choices to sing in front of a crowd of people who are out for a fun evening. This Piano Bar 101 class is doing a great job at helping a new generation of singers learn all this. Thanks, guys!” —Charlene Brooks
Chicago Guitar Master Jack Cecchini
Chicago guitarist Jack Cecchini is one of a kind. By the age of 17, he was performing in Chicago’s famous Chez Paree. He is a jazz guitar master, a classical guitarist of the highest level and a truly gifted educator.
Here then in his own words is Jack Cecchini, talking about his beginnings, his career, friends in the business, and thoughts on teaching, on the craft, and on the art.
I came to the guitar as a result of my landlord, Mr. Zappia. He was a Sicilian immigrant who played guitar and mandolin and was self-taught. His guitar was lying on a sofa, and as I passed the sofa, I ran my fingers over the strings. He looked at me and said, “Bring that guitar here.”
He showed me how to play a G chord, with the thumb on the low G and the second finger on the high G and he said, “Okay, now you hit this one time, and you hit this two times.” So he had me going Boom-chick-chick- boom-chick-chick…
And then he showed me how to play a D7 chord. He got his mandolin and started playing “Over the Waves.” When it was time to change chords he’d shake his head, of course I couldn’t get there in time, and he’d start swearing.
That was my introduction to the guitar. Little did I know that innocent incident of running my hand over the strings was to become my life’s calling.
They used to have jam sessions at Lyon & Healy on Saturdays; a lot of guitar players went there. Somebody mentioned George Allen was teaching. I went to George and he ended up playing a big part in my life. Pat Ferreri, Ronny Steele and Bobby Roberts were his students and we were doing all the shows and recording in town because we were the only ones who could read. George was not a sophisticated player, but he showed me a couple scale patterns and basic chords. He insisted we learn tunes, which was valuable advice. He would give us a tune, and we’d copy out the tune by hand, and then give back his original—there were no fake books available.
George Allen opened a lot of doors for me. He didn’t have to do that; it was very kind of him. When he had a recording session, he’d make a copy of what they were playing and he’d say, “Now look, here’s what I had to do today, you take a look at this.”
And he’d force you to psych it out. There were no guitar books available. I studied out of clarinet books because the range of the clarinet and guitar are the same. I also read from violin books. In looking at the clarinet book I’d ask myself, “Where are these notes on the fingerboard?” So I had to figure out, ‘Where’s this on the guitar?’ I had to struggle, and I learned and unlearned. I mean it was terrible. But that’s how I learned to read.
George got me into the Chez Paree, which was a world famous club here in Chicago. I think I was 17 years old (1960). That’s where I really started to learn my craft, because I had to play shows. As a result of that, I started getting some recording sessions, but I was doing a lot of shows. You know, we had the Camellia House, where big name acts would come in. Peggy Lee at the Empire Room; Sinatra came out to Villa Venice.
I played with Judy Garland, and Johnny Mathis and many others. I learned a lot from playing those charts, because you could hear the wonderful voice leading, re-harmonization and how the arrangers used different techniques in their writing. Those people had the greatest arrangers in the world: Billy May, Axel Stordahl, and Don Costa. You’re not going to get better writers than those guys.
Here’s a funny story. I was playing with Johnny Mathis, and Don Costa came in to conduct for him. We had a rehearsal, and the chart said F major. So I was gonna play F6. I didn’t play the chord, I just put my hand on the guitar and Don Costa looked at me and said, ‘Leave the 6th out!’ I didn’t know he was a guitarist. From then on I played the ink, I didn’t fool around with the chords.
Miriam Makeba was part of the Belafonte Enterprises. Miriam and I did many concerts with Harry Belafonte. Harry had two wonderful guitarists, one was Millard Thomas, and the other was Ernie Calabria. Harry used classic guitar; he never used electric. I was playing electric guitar. We used to play in ballparks for 50,000 to 60,0000 people.
We played the Greek Theatre and we played Carnegie Hall. One evening the dancers accidentally pulled the electric wire, and I didn’t have any sound.
At the end of the show Harry said, “Get rid of that guitar, get a classic guitar.” Millard and Ernie were playing Manuel Velasquez guitars, so I went to Velasquez and I got a guitar. Now, I’m up the creek because I had never played fingerstyle guitar and I’m sitting between two fine guitarists who play fingerstyle. I practiced like crazy and mastered my right hand. I did it, but it was a real challenge. I have Harry Bellafonte to thank for falling in love with the classic guitar.
I met Oscar Peterson at the London House and he nicknamed me “Chicanery.” He had played a gig in Spain, and returned with a classic guitar.
He walked into my studio one day and said, “Hey Chicanery, teach me how to play this thing.”
“No way,” I said. “You’re going to do to guitar players what you did to the piano players. Forget it.”
So he gives me the guitar, saying, “Show me how you tune this.” The guitar was perfectly in tune.
“How did you tune it?” I asked.
This way: ding, ding, ding…,” Peterson said.
“That’s how you tune it,” I said.
We made a deal: I teach him classic guitar and he would give me some lessons in harmony and voicings. Well, we get through with the guitar, we go to his hotel and he’s got a piano up there. Man—I had to go home and lie down. I thought my brain was going to explode. He could take any note and harmonize it 50 different ways. I just couldn’t retain all that information; it was just too much.
I finally said, “Oscar, I gotta go home.” I went home and lay down; I was completely exhausted.
I met Joe Pass when he came to play with Oscar Peterson at the London House. We became very close friends. Joe had never played with Oscar, so the first set he just laid low.
“I’m gonna get him this set,” Pass said.
By the end of the first set he had psyched out Oscar’s harmonic thinking. Every time Oscar came around the corner, Joe was waiting for him—it was great. To watch these two phenomenal musicians was incredible. Joe had ears like an elephant.
People don’t know Joe was a very humble guy. I would leave my guitars at his hotel and he’d always say, “Come on, let’s play together.” I’d bring and leave my electric and classic guitar, and he’d say to me, “You know, Jack, what you play is art and what I play is B.S.”
“Man, you’re crazy,” I said. “The whole world has acknowledged your great talent, Joe, that’s B.S.”
It was only three or four weeks before he died, he said to me, “You know, Jack, now I understand what you’ve been telling me for years.”
“What’s that, Joe?” I asked.
“You’ve been telling me that I’ve been given a great gift.”
“The whole world knows that,” I said. “Of course you have a great gift.”
He replied, “Yeah, but I took it for granted. I don’t now.”
Another awesome guitarist was John “Johnny” Smith. I remember we were up in my studio.
“Hey, John, you know if you do ‘The Girl With the Flaxen Hair,’ by Debussy, that would work well with a pick.”
I played it for him in G.
“Yeah, Jack, but look, if you put it in this key…” He played it in three different keys all with correct voicing, explaining the pluses and minus of each version.
Forget it. What’s there to talk about? [laughs] He was one of those guys. John played beautiful classical guitar. He knew the repertoire and played it for me.
Barney (Kessell)…he’s amazing. He is the only guitarist who can pull off the bass, drums and guitar combination and not bore one to death. You can hear the harmony when he’s playing. He always plays a chord and then the lick. I compare it to a pianist comping with his left hand and improvising with his right. There’s one recording in particular that is just phenomenal. It’s called, “Live in Los Angeles at PJ’s Club.” He’s the only one who can pull that off. That’s an art.
When I played for Segovia he only said one thing to me: “You must listen to the orchestra.”
For two, three years I kept asking myself: What the hell is he talking about? I know the man’s telling me something important. Then it hit me. When you play a line, think of oboe, clarinet, brass, and strings and change the colors for each voice. I wish he had explained it to me that way; I would have got it right away. He was telling me to think orchestrally, to delineate form through the use of color. We all owe Segovia a great debt. Because of his great virtuosity and his hounding composers like Tansman, Rodrigo, Tedesco, Turina, and Ponce, we have a great literature. Without him we would not have a great repertoire.
I think a very important part is getting to the student’s head. If you don’t get to that student’s head you’re not going to get to his hands. The idea is to encourage that student to believe in him or herself. They have to get something back for what is put in. So, number one, you have to know your student; no two are alike. Some have very good tactile skills; some have good memory or have good ears. You have to be able to analyze that student correctly in order to give the proper medication. Also, what are the goals of that student? If you have one who is studying for his own pleasure, that’s a different bag than if you get somebody who says, “Look, this is what I want to do for a living.” Then you gotta come on pretty strong, in terms of teaching marketable skills, etc.
Advice to young musicians
You, as a musician, must constantly assess what your weaknesses are and then decide how to solve them. It’s important to differentiate between what you know and don’t know. Be tenacious in overcoming musical or technical problems. You must take inventory of your progress. You cannot measure progress in one or two weeks; you must measure in three-month and six-month chunks of time. The intimate solitude of daily study is a great joy, rewarding and feeds the soul. Talent with discipline is unbeatable; talent without discipline is useless. Those of us who have average talent but are willing to work hard can become very good musicians.
I’m paraphrasing a brutally frank statement made in Segovia’s class at Berkeley University. It’s one that has stood with me throughout my life. Segovia said you can study all your life and be a good musician, but not an artist.
He made that distinction, and is that ever true. The distinction between being a good player and being an artist is like light years in difference. I never ever forgot that statement.
Cecchini is held in high esteem by music colleagues, as witnessed by the tributes below.
“Jack Cecchini is a magnificent musician, gifted with an original, courageous mind. On classic or jazz guitar, you hear solid links to the great traditions of western music and art, unadulterated by the ambiguities of the present day. He is a totally brilliant educator who understands the responsibility of the teacher to ask the questions and the responsibility of the student to find the answers, rather than the reverse. As a human being, no one who knows him has failed to be touched by his sincerity, his inability to compromise the truth and his unceasing curiosity. I’ve never met anyone else remotely like him. I am so proud and so fortunate to have been his student.”
“I have known Jack Cecchini for 45 years. He is a dedicated teacher and gifted performer. He is one of the very few who can play both classic and jazz guitar with artistic conviction. He brings to performance and teaching an insight and expertise that comes only with many years of experience. His legacy is the innumerable guitarists who have benefited from his talent, vast knowledge and wise guidance.”
“Jack is one of the finest musicians I have ever met. He has it all: experience, taste and the ability to transcend the instrument.”
“I have known Jack for over 30 years. Our association has been an enrichment to my life that goes much further then just the music. His knowledge of the guitar and classical music has stretched my boundaries far past anything I would have ever imagined. I could write a book about Jack.”
“Jack Cecchini is a teacher with a vast knowledge of the guitar and repertoire necessary to students of any level. He is a true lover of the guitar and music. Studying with Mr. Cecchini would be a once in a lifetime experience.”
Although Jack has retired from performing, he accepts students of classical and jazz guitar at his home studio in Chicago. His website is jackcecchini.com.
Zwee Dot! Afro Blue by Dee Dee Bridgewater
How Chicago musician and educator Kelly Sill hears jazz music
“Afro Blue” performed by
Dee Dee Bridgewater
Red Earth – A Malian Journey (2007)
“Afro Blue” – Mongo Santamaria
This version is not the same version as found on Dee Dee’s 1974 record of the same name. That version mistakenly has the composer down as Oscar Brown Jr., who I’m sure wrote the lyrics, but clearly did not write the song. This version also uses an extensive array of percussionists.
There are 38 instrumentalists and vocalists included in the credits, and as they are not attributed individually to specific cuts of the 13 that are on the CD, there is no way to tell who played on which cut.
0:03 The cut begins with a talking drum solo. Nice.
0:18 The piano comes in playing a 12/8 feel with the congas.
0:31 Bass is in and then right away Dee Dee is in.
0:38 That was an intro that included a marimba or other wood-pitched blocks.
0:42 Right now they’re doing a percussion vamp.
0:45 There starts the melody, but she’s added bars.
1:02 They are adding two bars between the first two phrases, and elongating the second one.
1:07 It gives it a nice open feeling, and a chance for the percussionists and pianist to add things.
1:22 Nicely done! She phrases right on the beat, and for a rhythmic tune like this, that’s wonderful.
1:42 They’re also using the original changes, thus doing no harm to the tune at all.
1:50 They altered the changes just a little bit right there, and it added interest with no harm.
1:53 The bassist is getting a beautiful sound. (It could be Ira Coleman.)
2:07 Really nice change up there in the rhythm, and the changes and the repeating phrase.
2:18 Now it sounds almost like a different song. Even so, the essence of “Afro Blue” is still there.
2:26 Wow, the percussion just got very heavy.
2:30 Clearly a vamp to give the guys a chance to stretch a little.
2:34 I was wrong: In the beginning, it wasn’t a talking drum, but a stick played on a drum with the skin being tightened and loosened—he’s doing it again right now.
2:45 A classic Cuban rhythm.
2:54 The bell player isn’t actually playing a consistent bell pattern, but considering the style of the cut, I don’t think that it causes any trouble.
3:03 They just added a very low percussion sound, most likely one of the Cojans.
3:13 That was a really nice interlude.
3:18 Dee Dee is back in again, taking her time.
3:27 Beautiful on whatever that drum is!
3:30 The cut has a nice thickness to it, but it doesn’t feel heavy—it flows nicely.
3:32 And the percussionists’ sound, beautiful all around!
3:38 The fact that there are specific parts really helps to ground the cut.
3:43 They reharmonized it again, causing no harm because the vamp came right back in the same way that it always has.
4:00 That part was clearly composed for that particular break (they did that once earlier).
4:14 Lots of room for expression!
4:24 Dee Dee is very unaffected, really making this sound wonderful!
0:41 There’s that little composed piece again—nice.
4:53 An extension, and leading in again finally to the vamp, the glue.
5:11 And no vamp out—they play a figure and nailed the last note. Another great cut!
Dee Dee and I both spent our formative years in Champaign, Ill., and share a lot of the same influences (although we didn’t really overlap much there, and didn’t really know each other). It isn’t surprising that I enjoy her sensibilities! This is a good example of one of the many things that she’s capable of doing.