It’s been a busy year for vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater. WBGO’s Ang Santos caught up with the jazz icon in New York City, as she tours in support of a new album.
Ang Santos: Joining us on the WBGO Journal is Dee Dee Bridgewater, at the Blue Note in New York City. No stranger to our airwaves, Thanks for being with us.
Dee Dee Bridgewater: You’re welcome
AS: You’re touring for your new album, 'Memphis, Yes I’m Ready'. To my understanding the album was a project that spanned over several years?
DDB: Yeah. From the time that I decided this was the direction I wanted to go in, to going and meeting with Kirk Whalum who co-produced the album with me. It’s been a beautiful journey because it was also about me going back home to Memphis. I was born there but my family left when I was three and a half. It was also kind of the culmination of doing a lot of research on my father and what our life was like when we lived there. Finding the house my parents lived in when I was born and finding out it was just a few blocks from Royal Studios. My father was friends with Willie Mitchell. They played in a few bands together. Willie Mitchell of course owned Royal Studios. Royal just celebrated its 60th anniversary. I’m very proud to be part of that history in black music.
AS: It’s interesting you say you did the research going back to Memphis, why now?
DDB: I’d always thought about coming back to Memphis but I just never had the time. I’d been thinking about it around the same time I thought about trying to find my African ancestry. I thought that in order to do things correctly I needed to chronologically find my ancestry first and then I could turn my attention to where I was born. It was actually going to be a trilogy of albums but I’m stopping with Memphis. I was going to do Detroit next but Motown is so warmed over.
AS: Regarding the album Memphis, there’s thirteen tracks. What was it like selecting these tracks.
DDB: Originally it was about thirty songs that I had listened to over my teenage years on WDIA. I was able to catch it a bit when I was in Flint, Michigan but it’s a Memphis based radio station. Then I found out just two years ago that my father was a DJ on WDIA when he and my mother first moved there in 1949. I had some numbers that I absolutely had to do…let me rephrase that. I had a number and that’s ‘Giving Up’. I took that Gladys Night and the Pips hit and built around it. I tried to pick out of these thirty songs the one’s that would go with the flow with the musical idea I had for ‘Giving Up’. Now when I listen to the album, a lot of the songs have that gospel tinge to them. A kind of bluesy tinge to them.
AS: Looking at this album cover, is that you?
DDB: That’s me. It was a picture that my mother had in a giant book that was a photo album book. It was a big box shaped like a book. That was one of the pictures I was able to salvage. My mother died from complications of vascular dementia. In the early stages of that dementia she threw all of our family pictures out. That was one that I had salvaged. It was folded up, so the creases that are on the cover are the actual creases on the original photo. I was about two and a half years old. My mother told me I was standing on the stage of the Orpheum Theater for a Dinah Washington. When my father wasn’t teaching at Manassas High School he would play in the bands of different artists when they came to Memphis.
AS: You had a special guest drop in on you while you were recording this album?
DDB: Carla Thomas, yes! It was just after I said a prayer asking god to give me a sign. I needed a clear, undeniable sign that I was on the right path with this departure from doing jazz music. I had just finished mixing one of her big hits B.A.B.Y. and went back into the booth to play it again when I was told she was at the front door. She came back and we played it for her. She loved it. Then she sat with us for about an hour and told me stories about my dad and about when I was a little girl and how she would take care of me at rehearsals when my father would play in her father’s band, Rufus Thomas. It was really awesome. She said she’d been following my career and says, ‘a lot of people may not know that you’re from Memphis, but I do.’
AS: Making this kind of album, stepping away from jazz as you said, was it difficult?
DDB: Honestly Ang, it was a dream come true. It’s been a closet dream of mine to sing this music. I always wanted to do blues. My mother made me promise that I would not do the blues. It may be selfish because I know she was transitioning and couldn’t fuss at me. I was my mother’s daughter until my mother left this Earth. I always wanted to please my mamma. I was very surprised that it wasn’t difficult at all. I was really worried that my voice from singing jazz for so long was going to have any authenticity to it singing blues and soul music. I remember going into the studio to cut the first song. My oldest daughter is also my manager, Tulani Bridegewater Kowalski, she was there. I said to Tulani, "I don’t know if I can do this music, I just don’t know if I can do it." She said, "Ma, just go in there and sing." She gave me a little push and it was just wonderful. I feel uplifted when I sing this music. I can feel the healing powers of this music on my soul. I’ve been singing the repertoire from the album since April and I just feel more positive every day. It’s a beautiful experience to share this music with other people from Memphis who know this music well and to get their o.k., that I’m doing all right.
AS: 2017 has been a pretty good year for you. You got to make the dream album you always wanted to make, and earlier this year named an NEA Jazz Master. What is that like?
DDB: It’s very strange. I’m just a working woman, a mom who works. It just so happens that what I do is make music and I’ve been very blessed to do that. I always just thought about what I’m doing and what is going to appeal to the public. It is the public that keeps me alive. If it appeals to the public, whatever new project I come out with, then I feel o.k.. I try to model myself after Miles Davis. Miles was my hero in terms of always reinventing himself. He was always daring to do something new and different. I thought as a singer that we should be able to do that too. I’m proud that I’ve established myself as the jazz singer who is forever changing and reinventing herself. Now people come to expect that. To have the National Endowment for the Arts look at my full career and deem it worth of being called a jazz master for me was tremendous, humbling, and gratifying. All kinds of emotions at the same time.
AS: And next month another prestigious honor is being bestowed upon you by the ASCAP Foundation. How did that come about? You do work with the Goodwill?
DDB: I work with a leg of the United Nation’s called the Food and Agriculture Organization. I’ve been with them since 1999. Prior to that I worked with UNESCO on their political refugee’s program. That was while I was living in France. I worked with them for eight years. I’ve worked with a lot of different organizations in France to help protect the rights of women and children against abuse and with another organization for children with disabilities. The SOS Racisme I worked with for a number of years. I’ve just been aware of the importance of people who have some kind of notoriety lending their names, faces, and work to help better people’s lives. That’s always been very important to me. We’re a giant family, a human family. There are many people who need help. If I can help in a little way then I feel like I did something good.
AS: It amazes me that you find the time being a touring recording artist.
DDB: I really enjoyed being made one of the first four Goodwill Ambassadors for the Food and Agriculture Organization. The other three inductees were Miriam Makeba, Gina Lollobrigida, and the Nobel Prize winning Dr. Ruth Levy-Montalchini who won for her research into women’s cancers. To be with those three women to embark on trying to bring more nothice to this cooperative program that had been founded by the original director of the FAO was huge. Dr. Jaques Diouf, who was the General Director then, said he’d been watching all of the different organizations I had worked with and was really impressed with that.
AS: Do you have any particular stories?
DDB: There was a big scandal in France over donations going to an organization to raise money for cancer research. They had been pilfered by the people who were getting the money. I said to Mr. Diouf, "In order for me to really be a part of this I need to go on a mission with you. I need to see these cooperatives that you have going. I need to see how this is going so I can really speak about it." So, he took me to Senegal and we visited twenty-two villages in three days. I saw the pride in the villagers becoming self-sufficient through this female cooperative program that he started and then I was hooked.
AS: Have you begun to think about what’s next for you musically?
DDB: I hate to talk about what I want to do because as soon as I put it out there something happens and I don’t get it done. It’s going to involve writing and trying to collaborate with some other writers to come up with original material, but of what genre, I’m not saying.
AS: Dee Dee, thanks for joining us on the WBGO Journal.
DDB: Thank you so much for having me on your show. I enjoyed it. Hey to all of my WBGO family, I miss you guys.
***Dee Dee Bridgewater is doing two sets at the Blue Note every night through November 21-26.