Considering that Dee Dee Bridgewater has collected a couple of Grammys and holds down a high-profile gig hosting the popular NPR show JazzSet, she is about as visible as possible for a jazz singer in the United States. But in France, where Bridgewater lived from the mid-1980s to 1999, she was a bona fide celebrity–she even had her own prime-time television show.
Her new CD, J’ai Deux Amours (Sovereign Artists), with its gorgeously textured arrangements of French-chanson classics such as “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” “La Belle Vie” and “Mon Homme,” makes perfect sense for Bridgewater. It’s another step on her journey away from well-worn jazz and American Songbook standards, and it’s a loving tribute to France.
While she tips her hat to previous generations of African-American artists who sought refuge in France–the album’s title track is indelibly linked to Josephine Baker, the sensation of 1920s Paris–Bridgewater never saw herself as an expatriate, unlike Baker and later Kenny Clarke. She doesn’t romanticize France or hold it up as a racially egalitarian idyll. But Bridgewater has long wanted to express her gratitude to the country that embraced her: “This album was really my way to say thank you to France for having opened its arms and adopted me, calling me one of their own.”
In a series of conversations with the singer when she was performing in the San Francisco Bay Area, and on the phone from her house in Henderson, Nev., Bridgewater described how she turned her longtime dream into a reality. She’s been working on the concept of a chanson album since 1995, but it wasn’t until last year that the project reached fruition, when she was commissioned by the Kennedy Center to do two concerts as part of a three-month celebration of French culture. She decided to focus on songs that are popular in both French and English, so that her non-Francophone fans will still be familiar with the tunes. “And since I was going to have to learn all these pieces in French,” she says, “I also selected songs that I knew, because I thought that would free me up if I was at least familiar with the melody.”
Rather than hire an arranger, she worked collectively with her band, featuring the ubiquitous bassist Ira Coleman, percussionist Minino Garay, acoustic guitarist Louis Winsberg and accordionist Marc Berthoumieux. A crossover success in Europe, where the album has gained widespread attention outside of jazz circles, J’ai Deux Amours is steeped in her improvisational sensibility, combining the emotional immediacy of the cabaret with the volatility of the jazz bandstand.
“This is the first time I made an album where I didn’t hire an arranger,” Bridgewater says. “The musicians and I worked out the arrangements ourselves, and I feel that J’ai Deux Amours has a much more personal flavor. I deliberately wanted to mix my voice so that it sounds like the music is floating around the voice. Instead of my voice being out front, I wanted the feeling of a more ensemble production.”
In many ways the material perfectly suits Bridgewater’s many strengths as a performer. She brings her keen ear for jazz harmonies and an improvisational aesthetic to chanson, but she also revels in the music’s inherent drama and theatricality. A true heir to the tradition of Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson and Betty Carter, Bridgewater is jazz’s most charismatic vocalist, an artist whose musical virtuosity is inseparable from her instincts as an entertainer.
She has often said that her years of experience in musical theater have little bearing on her jazz performances, but watching her on stage, that’s hard to believe. No other performer in jazz is so at home on the bandstand. Where Dianne Reeves and Cassandra Wilson carry themselves with an aloof, regal bearing, Bridgewater comes across as chatty, confessional and uninhibited. Her spectacular flights of scatting, solos as intricately constructed as just about any horn player’s, segue into playfully bawdy passages in which she acts out a song’s lyric (her version of “Love for Sale” is practically a felony).
Off stage, Bridgewater is calm, thoughtful and fully in control. A strikingly beautiful woman with the kind of cheekbones that sustain the careers of supermodels, she looks more than a decade younger than her 55 years. Like one of her mentors, Betty Carter, Bridgewater is both a highly effective bandleader and a savvy businesswoman. She was the only female jazz artist at Verve with a producer’s contract, and she used the prerogative to produce her six recordings for the label. She’s surrounded herself with trusted confidants, employing her French-born husband, Jean-Marie Durand, and her daughter Tulani Bridgewater-Kowalski (from her first marriage to trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater), as her managers.
All this helps explain why everything seems to have fallen into place for Bridgewater over the past decade, following years of swimming against the music business’ mercurial tides. After her exhilarating four-year stint in the creative hothouse of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra in the early ’70s, a lack of gigs pushed her to Broadway, where she won a Tony in 1975 for her role as Glinda the Good Witch in The Wiz. She made a couple of albums in the mid-’70s but didn’t find her identity as a solo artist until she moved to France.
She started gaining attention in Europe in the fall of 1983 with a long Paris run in the Duke Ellington-inspired show Sophisticated Ladies. Before returning to France in early 1986 as the star of the musical Lady Day, a production that garnered her an Olivier Award nomination in London, Bridgewater was featured in John Sayles’ early indie film The Brother From Another Planet. By the time Lady Day closed, her two daughters were urging her to settle in France. “There wasn’t a whole lot going on in the States for black actresses at the time,” Bridgewater says. “I didn’t have a recording contract, and my daughters and I really liked the lifestyle we had.”
It wasn’t long before Bridgewater parlayed headlining at festivals into gigs as a radio DJ and television host, cementing her celebrity status as France’s preeminent jazz singer. Meanwhile, she started raising her profile stateside by releasing a series of excellent albums for Verve. Doggedly following her muse, she hit creative pay dirt with Love and Peace, her 1995 album of songs by Horace Silver. She followed it up with 1997’s Dear Ella, which won the Grammy for best jazz-vocal album, and her 2000 tour de force, Live at Yoshi’s.
While she had surrounded herself with brilliant European musicians during her years in France, Bridgewater knew that she missed out on several generations of American players who came of age while she was out of the country. Since moving back to the States in 1999, she has forged close ties with some of those musicians, developing a loyal cadre of accompanists.
“I love playing with Dee Dee because she’s really stretching out and taking a lot of chances in different styles,” says Ira Coleman, whose resume includes stints with Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and Mulgrew Miller. “She just energizes us. When we play with her, everyone finds their voice. She’s somebody who thrives on a challenge. If you tell her, you can’t do that, she’ll go and prove you wrong.”
A perfect example of Bridgewater breaking a jazz taboo was her decision to explore the music of Kurt Weill on her 2002 album This Is New. While in retrospect it’s an ideal meeting of artist and repertoire, Bridgewater was the first jazz vocalist to wade into territory dominated by Teutonic icons Lotte Lenya and Ute Lemper. Strangely enough, Bridgewater was first inspired to explore Weill’s music while performing in Poland as part of a Weill revue in early 2000, an elaborate production featuring ornate costumes, stylish sets and four other performers who interpreted Weill in a myriad of musical styles.
Though the other vocalists sang in German, Bridgewater was so taken with Weill’s material that she decided to put together a program of his music for an appearance that summer at the Montreal International Jazz Festival. Studying recordings of Weill’s music by artists such as Lemper, rocker Marianne Faithfull, cabaret star Julie Wilson and opera singer Teresa Stratas, she gradually compiled a list of songs for a show, then asked Cecil Bridgewater to write the charts. Rather than focus on scathingly satirical pieces Weill created with Bertolt Brecht during the Weimar years, Bridgewater decided to concentrate on Weill’s emotionally expansive American tunes, such as “Speak Low,” “Lost in the Stars” and “The Saga of Jenny,” with its uncharacteristically dark and outrageous lyric by Ira Gershwin.
“This Is New was a beginning for me, a gentle announcement that this was where I was moving,” Bridgewater says. “For me as a musician, I’ve got to continue challenging myself. I’m sure at some point I’ll come back to straightahead jazz, but I’m feeling the need to go outside of that realm right now to enlarge my musical vocabulary.”
There was something wonderfully apt about Bridgewater, the artist who moved to Europe in order to find work as a jazz singer, reintroducing herself to the U.S. with the music of a European composer enamored with jazz who reinvented himself after fleeing to America. Bridgewater isn’t so much remaking herself with her quest for new material as she is globalizing her musical vision. Even as she’s been performing songs from J’ai Deux Amours, she’s been working with exceptional jazz artists such as pianist Edsel Gomez and drummer Adam Cruz on a program of Latin American standards, including tunes by the esteemed Puerto Rican composer Pedro Flores, the legendary Cuban conguero Mongo Santamaria and the Brazilian greats Milton Nascimento and Baden Powell.
“I didn’t know Edsel was such a fine arranger, but when he told me he had just done an entire album for Janis Siegel, well of course that ruffled my feathers,” Bridgewater says with a laugh. “So I asked him to do a couple of arrangements for me. One of my next albums is going to focus on Latin music, which makes me feel like I’m in a very creative space, like I’m growing and advancing.”
The feeling is definitely mutual. “Her energy is just ridiculous, and it’s contagious,” says Gomez, who’s collaborated widely with musicians such as Don Byron and David Sanchez. “She’s got a spirit that just grabs the audience and the musicians and makes it a fantastic experience. She’s very open and intuitive in the way she handles music. When she scats and improvises, it’s not a studied thing; it’s natural. But if you analyze it, it’s all correct and very advanced.”
Another project in her sights will bring her back into Francophone territory even as she blazes a new trail. Recently named the first American member of the High Council for the Protection of French Culture, an international organization run by the ex-president of Senegal, Bridgewater is planning a collaboration with musicians from Mali. She wants to help raise awareness about the desperately poor but culturally rich West African nation.
“It’s also about a personal search for me, for my African roots,” she says, describing a powerful connection she feels to the country. “Every time I listen to African music, it’s Malian music that really speaks to my soul. And when I went to Mali they told me I’m from a nomadic tribe called the Peul. I’ve always loved any place with red earth, and when I woke up in the morning and looked out my hotel window, the whole earth was red. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is it.'”
Which isn’t to say that Bridgewater has given up her interest in movies and musical theater. She’s landed roles in films and musicals, but her hectic schedule as a jazz artist has prevented her from returning to the stage.
“I got the role of Muzzy in Thoroughly Modern Millie and couldn’t do it, and Sheryl Lee Ralph ended up with part,” Bridgewater says. “I was offered the role in Into the Woods that Vanessa Williams ended up doing because I wasn’t free. Now they’re going to do a musical version of The Color Purple and I got the role of Shug, and they still call my daughter to see if I’m free for the workshops, and would I be free for Broadway? I would love to get back into the theater, but I just can’t seem to find the time. It’s very, very frustrating. Obviously what’s in the cards for me is music.”
While Broadway mavens may gnash their teeth, jazz fans can offer thanks that Bridgewater has been able to make so much great music with the hand that she was dealt.
Kandia Kouyate, Biriko (Stern’s Africa)
VA, The Divas From Mali: Kandia Kouyate, Mah Damba, Sali Sidibe, Oumou Sangare (World Network)
Oumou Sangare, Worotan (World Circuit)
Babani Kone, Yelema (Seydoni)
Salif Keita, Moffou (Universal)
Neumann KMS 105 microphone