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Dee Dee Bridgewater Brings Memphis to Chicago, Her Way

Before this reporter talked to the great singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, he decided to listen to her first album from way back in 1974, Afro Blue, before listening to tracks from her latest album, Memphis…Yes, I’m Ready. It was hard to hear a difference—the clarity and the timbre were seemingly unchanged.

“No secret…I sing from the diaphragm, I get the proper rest…it was a God-given gift.”

It was 10 a.m. in New Orleans when Bridgewater, fighting jet lag after a flight from South Korea, of all places, genially greeted this reporter at other end of the phone. A bit weary, the longtime jazz-pop artist, now 68, was back home to recoup and ready herself for another domestic excursion, which includes a visit to the CSO on June 1 to perform music from Memphis.

Asked how her show was received in that far-away locale, Bridgewater brightly effused, “It was beautiful, fantastic.”

The album, released on her DDB Records label and distributed by Sony’s Okeh, is a collection of Bridgewater’s favorite songs from her teen years that emanated from that bastion of American soul, funk, and blues, co-produced with her friend Kirk

Photo by Mark Higashino

Whalum, who is heard on sax during the one clearly jazz performance, a rearrangement of Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel.”

“I produce all of my albums—with the exception of Dee Dee’s Feathers,” she explained. “I co-produced this one because I was doing Memphis music. I wanted to have Memphis musicians. Kirk is from Memphis, we are good friends, and I felt he could help me in terms of musician selection and he could help me fine tune the selections of songs…I was paying homage to the soul and the sound of Memphis, during a certain time period, heard on WDIA in Flint, Michigan, where I grew up.”

The inclusion of Presley’s hit came after the pre-album tour had begun. “I was not interested in doing the songs ‘differently’; I really wanted to remind people of the original versions. It’s basically a covers album, with the exception of “Don’t Be Cruel”…I changed up because Elvis had heard that Wilson Pickett was performing [it] in his show, and Elvis, it is written, flew his band to Las Vegas to hear Wilson’s performance. So I felt that gave me some leeway. There’s no recording of Wilson singing [that song], but I felt that because [that incident] happened I could reimagine the song. That’s the only song I allowed Kirk to do an arrangement on. I was not going to include it on the album because of the jazzy sound, but I started performing the material last April and the album wasn’t due until September, so I had not mastered the album at the time.”

Meanwhile, “Don’t Be Cruel” became a favorite of her audiences. “[Originally] I called Kirk and said, ‘Listen, it doesn’t go with the flow and it’s the only song you do a solo on, and I just wanted you to know that I made an executive decision [to not include it]. He was cool with it. And after doing it for six shows, I called and I said, ‘Kirk, it’s a huge crowd pleaser…we’re going to keep it on the album.”

The Chicago audience will get treated to an hour of concert-matured Memphis music (including “Don’t Be Cruel”) before Bridgewater appears with the Count Basie Orchestra in the show’s second half.

“When I recorded this album, I was really just familiarizing myself with the songs. Now that I have been doing the material for a year, it’s grown, and we added horn lines, songs that we didn’t have on the album, I’ve got the background singers on more songs...”

Every Dee Dee Bridgewater album since the mid-90’s has the sonic stamp and fingerprints of the singer clearly evidenced. While much of her material features standards, none of it sounds dry and prosaic.

“If you look at all my albums, I produce them and that is something I don’t get a lot of credit for…I’m trying to put my personal touch on the material that I do.”

Having recorded a series of respectable albums through the 80’s, Bridgewater arrived in France, only to be stymied by what she perceived as top-bottom production values, which led to a decision to fight back.

“When I started out, I had just an artist contract. I was at the mercy of whoever the label decided was going to produce my album. By the time I got to France, I had really had it. I had done a couple of albums with a gentleman who had the money and started making decisions. We did two albums, and then he came to me and said, ‘Oh for your next album we are going to do it with this musician,’ and I said, ‘Oh, absolutely not!’

She went to court to get over her contract; she won. But it cost her three years without being able to record. Her attorney, figuring she was going to win the case, told her to get back into the studio and record.

“I’ve been [self] producing my albums since 1993. The first one I produced was Keeping Traditions. What people don’t understand, I do everything, from packaging, I work with the graphic artists, the cover work/art work, the photographer, what I’m going to wear…the image I am trying to create with the entire package…everything. And then I have ownership. What I have is leasing agreements; I do a licensing deal with the label. Where I have a problem is with having my own label, DDB Records, when I’m getting a distribution deal…they want their imprint to be on [the album cover], and it kind of overrides my imprint, so you have to really look and make sure it’s ‘DDB Records AND Sony Okeh. I’m working on my logo so that it will be a bigger imprint for my next recordings.”

“It’s very satisfying in the end because I have a catalogue of works that can live beyond my years, that can go on to my children and generate monies and just live on.”

And she became a business evangelist of sorts. “I was one of the only singers doing this for many years. I used to talk to [artists like] Cassandra Wilson and Diane Reeves, telling them you gotta produce…even Al Jarreau. You gotta own. So now a lot of the younger artists are doing that. It gives you economy.”

Bridgewater is a strict constructionist when it comes to recording, even in the midst of typical synergy that comes from prolonged performance.

“[Doing this show] increases my musical vocabulary,” she said. “[But] the style is not related to my jazz singing. This is a kind of music that requires another kind of phrasing. I had to use Memphis players; I could not use jazz players as musicians on this album. I tried to do this on two occasions with jazz musicians, and it’s a fiasco.

“I still do occasional jazz shows. I have a young jazz trio that I work with; I work from time to time with a young trumpet player that I have mentored for years, Theo Croker, and his quintet. It was with Theo that I was asked to perform a few tunes from Memphis…Yes, I’m Ready, and I had to explain to them that they could not play their horn lines like jazz musicians. The phrases are quick, not like those long phrases. I had to have them listen to the album so that they could hear…still, [their playing] didn’t have the same ‘kick’ to it.”

But it’s difficult to take the jazz out of the jazz singer. “Of course, I still have my jazz sensibilities, so I am able to improvise, since I am doing the same material every night. I am not that person who can sing [songs] exactly the same even though my band plays exactly the same. I don’t want to go too outside in terms of my phrasing because it could throw them off. I have to stay within the framework. If it doesn’t affect what they are playing, then I can [improvise] and have fun. Sometimes we go into long vamps at the end of songs; then I can do my thing. Now that we’ve been playing a year, they can [adjust] and go with the flow of what I create when I start to improvise. Even between songs, I start to freestyle something and we can create something.”

Given the growth of the live material, this writer wondered if a live album would be in the works. “I would not go back into the studio and do another album of this,” she responded, “but I have entertained doing a live recording because of the way we embellished everything. I am much, much more comfortable [with the material] than when I recorded the album.”

The slow growth of audience and promoter recognition has energized this impressive music maven. “It’s exciting. The album has gotten legs of its own. I get requests—I put a stop date on doing this repertoire for May of 2019, but I just got an email. Some people are asking, ‘Please, please, please would I do it in June, and I go ‘Oh my god’…I didn’t think that the album was going to receive the kind of response that it has. It was slow building, and a lot of promoters and festivals were reticent. They didn’t know if they wanted to program me, but now I’m starting to get offers to do blues festivals, some smooth jazz festivals…it’s opened a whole new window for me…They’re trying to keep their festivals alive and are branching out. Most festivals are called jazz festivals but that’s in name only.”

Count Basie Orchestra

Early on during our conversation, I mentioned that it seemed to me Bridgewater was involved in a lot of “roots” music. She was curious about that, but I referred to not only this Memphis homecoming but also the unfortunately maligned (for her) New Orleans album with scandal-plagued Irvin Mayfield and the several tribute records she recorded over the years, not to mention her personal groundbreaking album of West African jazz.

The most satisfying recordings? “The Red Earth album. It was a huge understanding, trying to figure out my African ancestry. And then to tour that project and bring West African musicians to the United States, and to fuse West African music my jazz sensitivities and roots. That was a kind of milestone. The other was the Dear Ella album because I was really trying to honor all the different musical settings that Ella had performed and recorded in.”

But the most important, to her, was one song never released in the U.S.

“A third thing was the duet I did with Ray Charles, ‘Precious Thing.’ [It] was a huge hit all over Europe and outside the United States.” (One can find it on YouTube.) Will it be released here? “Ray Charles’ family and estate didn’t want that song on the album,” she said, “because they had no financial claim to it.” Since then, Bridgewater says she has met people from the estate who indicated it would be okay for her to release it. “Maybe there will be a project where it will be appropriate.”

“It was a game changer for me. That song and its success catapulted me into becoming a big headliner in France and all over Europe. It opened the door for me. I was that rare jazz artist that did all the major pop, television, musical variety shows in many countries in Europe—France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland.”

And now, this seemingly ageless lady is recreating her own legacy in her home country, revisiting the music that energized her and millions of others.

“These were songs that had sentimental value to me when I was a teenager…there were about 30 songs, but in the final selection it was choosing songs that I felt went well together in terms of the styles of the songs and the flow of what I was trying to achieve.”

As always, Dee Dee Bridgewater had a vision and was going to see it to fruition, her way. Those who attend the CSO show will be witnesses to that.

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