Dee Dee Bridgewater
Dee Dee Bridgewater triumphs on stage and on record while her passionate, honey-tongued voice amasses a long list of accomplishments, accolades, and artistic milestones that few living legends can match.
After marrying trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater in the early ‘70s, she soon began singing with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis orchestra, followed by stints with Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, and Sonny Rollins, a 1975 Tony Award for her portrayal of the good witch Glinda during a two-year stint in The Wiz on Broadway, and a Laurence Olivier Best Actress Award nomination for her portrayal of Billie Holiday in Lady Day.
Speaking from her home in Henderson, Nevada, Bridgewater breezily discusses music and acting, occasionally pausing to take bites of her dinner. “As a singer and a bandleader,” she says, “I’ve been able to take things that I’ve learned in theater and apply them to my performances: communicating with the public, clowning in between songs, trying to create a repertoire that has a nice flow to it.”
That repertoire expands again with Bridgewater’s stunning new album, Red Earth, A Malian Journey. Folding West-African flavors into a matrix of jazz and blues, the album employs 10 Malian musicians – including Grammy-winning kora player Toumani
Diabaté (kora) – in a sensuous melding of that country’s traditions of musical storytelling and Bridgewater’s own life-long love of blues and jazz.
“I had wanted to do an African project, but I never could define it,” she remembers, “but once I felt very strongly that [my ancestry] was from Mali, then I decided I would focus this whole project on Malian music.”
Born to the descendants of Native Americans, Chinese, and Germans – “I just knew he was white and spoke this funny language,” she laughs, mimicking her grandmother’s memories of the latter’s own grandfather – Bridgewater was subsequently
raised on a diet of regular anecdotes about her ethnically various ancestors. Nevertheless, she eventually found that her most spiritually resonant bloodline ran through Mali.
The physical journey back began with her appointment, in 1999, as an Honorary Ambassador for the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The position called for her help in setting up self-sustaining, women’s business collectives in the villages of several African countries. “In the beginning,” she laughs, “the FAO tried do it with men, but men would squander the funds.”
In Mali, she worked with the Peul tribe, among whom she began to feel an extra-dimensional affinity. “When I was there, there were people who resembled people I know in the States,” she recalls. “It was freaky. And certain customs that we have in black communities, I understand now where they came from, because they’re right there being practiced.”
A return trip yielded the majority of recording for Red Earth. Stylistically, the record ambles through jump blues (“Children Go ‘Round”), jazz balladry (Nina Simone’s “Four Women”), scat-laden pop (“Compared to What”), and incantatory Malian traditionals, each with a story of its own. “No More,” for example, revisits the Malian protest song “Bambo,” the popularity of which, in the 1960s, forced the Malian government to abolish the previously institutionalized practice of forced marriage.
Song by song, the album works tirelessly to maintain the storytelling spirit of the griots. “In the Malian and other African cultures, they’re the oral historians,” Bridgewater explains. “At least that’s what they used to be.
“Today the griots tell stories, basically, to flatter the people they want to get some money out of,” she says with a laugh. “But they are also able to tell you a lot of the history of their country.”
Fortunately, Bridgewater – gifted with talent, accustomed to success, and trained in drama – has a subject of constant fascination for her main character. “Of course, with Red Earth,” she admits coyly, “I’m telling my own real story.”
In elegant service to its protagonist, Red Earth – signaling the reddish soil of both Mali and her native Memphis – spins an undulating yarn. Throughout,
Bridgewater’s original lyrics render Malian tales into first-person English, and remarkably, much of her singing so carefully settles into the Malian rhythms and diphthongs that her English actually sounds like a generally recognizable and yet distinctly African language.
Red Earth’s opener re-imagines the title track of Bridgewater’s debut album, 1974’s Afro Blue. Shortened considerably – but certainly not, er, mollified – the “Afro Blue” of Red Earth testifies to a skyscraping career by recalling its distant beginning. From the ground up, the song’s new moody polyrhythms promise that even 33 years on, there’s undiscovered
country left, not only in Africa, but within Dee Dee Bridgewater herself.
Photograph by photojournalist Daniel Sheehan specializing in portrait photography for publications and corporations and a photographer in Seattle with an unobtrusive, story-telling approach creating award winning wedding photography.