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Home Arts and Culture  'It's time to follow through on the dreams I've had'
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Wednesday, February 16,2011

'It's time to follow through on the dreams I've had'

Fresh from her triumph at the Grammys, Dee Dee Bridgewater brings Lady Day to Lansing

by Lawrence Cosentino
Grammy winner Dee Dee Bridgewater. Courtesy Photo


Dee Dee Bridgewater sat in a Los Angeles coffee shop at 10:15 Monday morning, wearing pajamas, flip-flops, a denim jacket and a felt hat.


“Do I care?” she asked about her attire in a phone interview. “No, I don’t. This is L.A.”


The night before, Bridgewater’s joyful tribute to Billie Holiday won a Grammy Award for best jazz vocal album of the year.


Suddenly, it seemed absurd to do anything normal, but she had to. Her Friday gig at East Lansing’s Wharton Center, and the usual promotional interviews were scheduled before the Grammy dropped.


She was trying to touch a toe to the earth, but wasn’t quite there.


“I’m shell-shocked. I’m OK. Good afternoon. Good morning,” she said in a singsong voice.


There was no partying for Bridgewater after the awards ceremony — only morning-after double-espresso cappuccino.


“I had just enough in me to win the Grammy, watch the show — which I thought was fabulous — and go home,” she said. “I didn’t go to the party. I didn’t have any energy left. I was toast.”


Now she was strolling with her son, Gabriel, and daughter, Tulani, in Larchmont Village, the bustling retail strip south of Hollywood where Tulani lives.


Back in the day, the Keystone Kops and the Three Stooges careened down Larchmont Avenue, and it’s still home to a parade of characters.


“You’ve got every kind of look you can imagine,” she said. “Old hippies, people walking their dogs.”


Later that day, Bridgewater would confer with a lawyer over upcoming deals, including her first foray into producing.


For now, the jammied Grammied diva and her happy family were taking in a transcendent morning.


“It feels like an out-of-body experience,” she said. “I’m not able to speak yet. I’m a little delirious. I reverted back to 12 years old when I won.”


A hot tower of caffeine and a home-baked brownie from her granddaughter’s school poured kerosene on her delirium.


“It’s so chocolatey, with chocolate chips in it, and rich chocolate on top,” she said, sinking into a reverie.


When your life is a triple rich brownie, analysis seems futile, but there are reasons this particular Grammy was extra sweet.


To
critics and listeners, “Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie With Love
from Dee Dee Bridgewater” embodied the two best things about jazz, its
history and its immediacy. The bouquet of songs bloomed from a rock of
lifelong study in only a few days.


“To
win for this particular album was just the cat’s meow,” she said. “It
was the summum, the affirmation of doing something off the top of my
head and having it work so well.”


Early
last year, Bridgewater was thinking about returning to “Lady Day,” the
stage play about Billie Holiday that won Bridgewater a Laurence Olivier
nomination for acting in 1986.


She
asked her longtime collaborator, Edsel Gomez, to work on some
contemporary arrangements of tunes associated with Holiday. At first,
the plan was to record a double-CD to sell in the theater lobby, but the
music took over.


A cancellation freed up the studio just when all her band members would be available, in the first two weeks of May.


“We went in, rehearsed it for two days and recorded it in three,” she said. After two days of mixing, it was done.


Bridgewater
wanted to peel the layers of tragedy from Holiday’s public image and
celebrate her ebullience, wit and verve. The result is pure Bridgewater,
neither imitation nor revision.


The
distributor told her the album title was too long. “I told them I don’t
care. I want her name, I want her lifespan, and then the rest.”


She knew the title would generate questions and welcomed the chance to be a teacher as well as musician.


“People
were asking, ‘Who is Eleanora Fagan?’” she said. “I told them it’s
Billie Holiday’s real name. ‘You mean she lived only 44 years?’ Yes. I
was trying to give information. I’ve turned more young people on to
Billie Holiday with this album.”


The Grammy will join two others on Bridgewater’s shelf, both for a 1998 tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, “Dear Ella.”


“It
seems like this is what I’m supposed to be doing — honoring my
forebears,” Bridgewater said. “When you think about it, those are two
ladies that have walked me down the aisle to the Grammy.”


This
year, Bridgewater is sharing her joy with another Grammy winner from
the jazz world. Bassist/singer Esperanza Spalding made some slack-jawed
pop idols even slacker-jawed when she won for Best New Artist over a
phalanx of favorites, including Justin Bieber.


“Wasn’t it amazing that Espy won?” Bridgewater said. “She won over all of those bubblegum men.”


Discreet chewing of a brownie could be heard.


“They’re
trying to get the jazz back,” she mused. “A lot of older jazz musicians
are enjoying these renaissance careers now. It seems like people are
beginning to want the real deal.”


Far
from dismissing the award a la Eddie Vedder, Bridgewater exulted in the
chance to cop some pop-culture glitz for her beloved jazz.


“I
wanted to walk the red carpet. ‘Turn this way, turn around, give us
your profile.’ I love that! For a jazz singer to be up in there with all
the big celebrities, are you kidding?”


She bought three pairs of shoes.


“The
ones that I wore, I will never wear again. They’re the highest things
I’ve ever worn in my life, but they’re gorgeous. They’re like my little
crystal Cinderella slippers.”


Bridgewater paid decades of dues to climb into those shoes.


She
has burnished her reputation as a consummate jazz singer from the early
1970s, when she sang with one of the greatest big bands in history, the
Thad Jones/Mel Lewis juggernaut.


Not
content to sing with greats such as Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, Dexter
Gordon and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, she branched into theater, winning a
Tony Award for creating the character of Glinda the Good Witch in
Broadway’s “The Wiz” in 1975.


Bridgewater
has a juicy, tart stage presence, but she makes a point of surrounding
herself with top jazz talent, and takes obvious joy in sparring with
them. Her current quintet, coming to Wharton Friday, is a crack team
with arranger Gomez on piano, Kenny Davis on bass, and Craig Handy on
saxophones. (Alvester Garnet will replace regular drummer Gregory
Hutchinson.)


“I
tell them to listen to me like I’ve got a trumpet in my mouth,” she
said. “Forget I’m a singer. Forget I’m dressed up. I’m a musician.”


The music has always been its own reward, but Bridgewater said she has felt a “renaissance” in recent years.


“It’s time to follow through on the dreams I’ve had,” she said. “I’m going for it this year.”


She
is working with fellow jazz divas Cassandra Wilson and Dianne Reeves on
a tribute to another jazz legend, Abbey Lincoln, planned for the
Kennedy Center. A recording may follow.


She’s
going further back than her jazz roots. In a 2007 album, “Red Earth,”
she wove African threads into her music, joined by traditional musicians
from Mali.


Recently, her first husband, trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater, traced her family tree to the South.


She plans a trip to Memphis and a possible collaboration with blues musicians.


“Now
that I’ve found my African ancestry, I want to go back and visit the
place where I was born,” she said. “I’m trying to go full circle in my
life, understand my whole life journey. Where does all of this stuff
come from?”


Soon she will move to another place she considers home,
Harlem, to live with her daughter, China Moses.


“I’ve
been on the West Coast, I lived in Paris for a long time,” she said. “I
lived in Nevada, where it’s beautiful and quiet. I’ve done that enough.
Now I need some energy.”


You have to take that last declaration on faith. On this fine morning, it seemed she could power L.A. by herself.


Dee Dee Bridgewater: ’To Billie with Love – A Celebration of Lady Day’

8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 18


Cobb Great Hall, Wharton Center


$35


(800) WHARTON


www.whartoncenter.com


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