Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz is available for purchase from Amazon.
There are, unfortunately, very few books that provide a comprehensive appraisal of the contributions of women to the art of jazz, so I appreciate your help with spreading the word about this project.
|Photo of Dee Dee Bridgewater by Mark Higashino.|
“I used to say I came from the Sammy Davis, Jr. school of music,” says Bridgewater. “Because when I was growing up, a lot of entertainers had to be able to do all of that, or they weren’t considered a full entertainer.”
Like the iconic singers she grew up watching on television, singers such as Judy Garland, Diahann Carroll, Frank Sinatra, and Elvis Presley, who reached millions of viewers on shows like the Perry Como Show, the Ed Sullivan Show, the Lawrence Welk Show, and the Grand Ole Opry, Bridgewater is a truly multifaceted artist, with a résumé that includes several theatrical and film roles. Bridgewater received a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her role in The Wiz and a Laurence Olivier Award nomination for her immersive portrayal of Billie Holiday in Stephen Stahl’s musical Lady Day.
To say Bridgewater is “theatrical” in performance is an understatement. In fact, I’d go further and describe what she does as something closer to channel¬ing; Bridgewater establishes an almost psychic rapport with her audiences, all while directing her band with her voice, her eyes, and her body to create an experience more transcendent than mere “music theater.”
In an earlier conversation, when I asked her about her singing “Strange Fruit,” the 1939 song made famous by Holiday that describes, in graphic detail, the lynching of African Americans in the South, Bridgewater explained she let her audience dictate, in unspoken terms, whether or not to perform the song.
“I have to feel the audience,” she explained, “and see if they want to go there with me.”
There is great depth and variety to Bridgewater’s recorded output, including tributes to singers Ella Fitzgerald and Holiday, pianist Horace Silver, and composer Kurt Weill, as well as Red Earth: A Malian Journey, a project recorded in Mali with musicians from Senegal, Guinea, and other parts of West Africa, that had a profound impact on her singing. Bridgewater cites the great jazz singer Betty Carter for inspiring her to start her own recording label (DDB Productions) in order to maintain control over her creative output and the business of making art. Interestingly, like Bridgewater, several of the musicians interviewed in this book run their own record labels and handle much of their own PR and marketing.
“I decided my own music and my fate, my image, my everything,” says Bridgewater. “You need to own it, baby.”
When did you first begin playing a musical instrument?
I don’t play any musical instruments. I’ve always sung my entire life. At the age of 7, I announced to my parents that when I grew up I was going to be an internationally known and very-well-respected jazz singer! And there you go. I predicted my future without even knowing it.
When I was a child, I thought everybody listened to jazz because there was so much jazz music playing in my home. Both of my parents loved jazz music. My mother was more into jazz singers, while my father [Matthew Garrett] was a trumpet player who had taught music back in Memphis, Tennessee, where I was born. I’ve always sung. Always.
After you made that announcement, did some kind of formal music instruction begin for you?
I’ve never had any formal musical training at all. None. I do not read music. I can’t write music. I’ve just always relied on my ears.
You never had a voice instructor?
Well, I did work with a vocal coach. When I was with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, I took a few lessons to learn how to breathe and project my voice.
After a tonsillectomy, when I was 26, 27, I had to take speech lessons and learn how to breathe again. I had enlarged tonsils up until that age and always had problems with laryngitis caused by infections in my tonsils. I had a very small wind passage for air to come through, and when my tonsils were re¬moved, all of a sudden I had this huge passage for air. But I couldn’t say words that started with “d” or “p” or “t.” So, once again, I had to go to a vocal coach to learn how to breathe again with this open airway that had been so constricted all my life. But I’ve never had anyone work with me to teach me how to sing. Never.
Was some kind of music programming available to you in school?
No. I’ve never had any musical training.
When I was a teenager, I put together a vocal trio. We modeled ourselves after the first vocal trios that were signed to [the record label] Motown in Detroit. We called ourselves the Iridescents. I had a girlfriend who played piano, and she and I wrote songs together for the three of us to sing. But that’s the closest I’ve come to any kind of training at all. I never had any kind of musical classes in school. Nothing. Zero.
As a young woman, who were some of your role models for singing?
My role models were drawn from people I heard on recordings. I was fascinated with a lot of different types of singers when I was young. My mother loved Johnny Mathis, so I heard a lot of Johnny Mathis and Harry Belafonte. I fell in love with Jimmy Scott. I was enamored with Nina Simone, and fascinated by her political stance and her pride in her African heritage. She was the first singer who made me think “maybe I have some African heritage.”
My first big idol was Nancy Wilson. She just decorated my walls when I was a teenager. I liked Lena Horne — I just thought she was so beautiful along with Nancy Wilson. I thought Diahann Carroll was a very beautiful woman; she was doing more singing back in the 60s and 70s before her acting career really took off. My mother, sister, and I were big Aretha Franklin fans. We would go to Aretha Franklin concerts together when I was a teenager.
I listened to black radio stations, so I could know what was going on. When I was like 9, 10, there was a radio station broadcasting out of Memphis that I could pick up after midnight that played a lot of blues.
My mother swears that I could scat before I could speak. She said I could scat with Ella Fitzgerald when I was 10 months old. And there must be some truth to that because I have always been able to scat. I never had to learn to scat.