From Mali to Latvia to Chicago

Dee Dee Bridgewater to perform Tribute
to Betty Carter at Chicago Jazz Fest 2008

Dee Dee Bridgewater

Interview by Brad Walseth and James Walker

Dee Dee Bridgewater is one of the most exciting and well respected jazz singers in the world today. We recently talked with her from Riga, Latvia where she was currently on tour.

JC: We are excited to see you at this year's Jazz Fest. Can you let us know how you feel about your appearance?

DDB: I am excited, and I am wary, and I am nervous and I'm a whole lot of adjectives. I'm very excited to be coming because I love the festival, and also doubly excited because the festival asked me to do a tribute to Betty Carter.

JC: That's what we wanted to ask you about, how did the tribute come about?

DDB: I don't know. My office got a call asking if I'd be interested in doing a concert for Betty Carter and that the Chicago Jazz Festival wanted me to do a tribute.

JC: Well now, what was your relationship with Betty? I know you both were from Flint, MI.

DDB: I was her shadow when I first moved to New York. From 1970 until about '72, I was the Betty Carter shadow. I went with Betty everywhere and aspired to be like Betty. I even went so far as to, a few years later when I was doing The Wiz, which was in '74, I would do shows after we would finish in the theater - God, I don't know how we did that - at any rate, with her, at that point husband, Danny Mixon - so I went so far as to have her husband/pianist as my pianist. We'd rehearse at her house and I loved Betty.

As a matter of fact when she passed, in fact the day before she passed because I didn't even know she was sick, I found out she was sick and was given her number - I'd lost it, so I called and Betty wasn't picking up but her manager answered the phone and she told Betty I was on the phone. And Betty said she'd been waiting for my call and she didn't want me to do a tribute to her ever... on record.

Dee Dee Bridgewater JC: What!?

DDB: She said - "I do not want you to do a tribute album to me ever." And this was even before I had gotten a word out. Then she said she wanted me to know that I was the only singer she authorized to do her song, "Tight." She'd given her attorneys that instruction and also that there were to be no tribute albums. And especially from Dee Dee Bridgewater. (laughter) That's because she knew how much I loved her.

JC: But what about concerts?

DDB: Well yeah, she didn't say anything about concerts. So I figured that this concert would be okay with her. I'll know if it doesn't rain. If it rains I'll know she's upset.

So I'm excited about it, but I'm a little unnerved and a little unsettled, because we still don't know what we're doing yet. The festival people have bureaucratic hoops to jump through, so we don't have rehearsal space yet, but we do have a band. The band will be all alumni of Betty Carter. I've got Mulgrew Miller. I'm quite excited about working with Mulgrew. And Ira Coleman. I figured out I'll keep my bassist. And Ira worked with Betty for 2-1/2 years. And then Winard Harper on drums. That will be the trio. And I will do "Tight." I will probably do some songs that I do that she did, because the festival said they don't want me to do things in the same manner. And I said, "Well, that's good."

I can basically do whatever I want as long as I do a few songs that she's known for. So I figure I'll do like "Surrey With the Fringe on Top," "My Favorite Things," "What a Little Moonlight."

JC: Will you do the "Heart and Soul/Body and Soul" combination?

DDB: I don't know. You know there is a song she used to do that I really love and that is "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most." So, we have to put this all together in one day. (laughter)

JC: That's life on the edge as an artist, huh? Brings out your best.

DDB: Yeah. That's what they say. When you start getting older, I don't know that that matters.

Dee Dee Bridgewater JC: You'd like a little more preparation?

DDB: I like preparation. I like feeling secure. So for sure I'll just be doing songs that I know. (laughter)

JC: So you won't be taking requests from the audience then?

DDB: Heck no. Are you kidding? No way. (laughter)

But, I am really excited about it. The opportunity to work with Mulgrew Miller and Winard Harper will be a lot of fun. I intend to make it a lot of fun. You've got to have fun.

JC: We also wanted to get your thoughts on your appearance here in February when you return to Chicago at Symphony Center and do Max Roach's "Freedom Now Suite. How did that come about, and have you done any work before with Oscar Brown's daughter Maggie - who will be doing the show before yours that night?

DDB: No, I haven't done any work with Maggie - I've only met Maggie. She had sent me some material that her father had written a couple of years before he passed, just to see if there was anything I'd like to do. I had no idea she was in the show. But...

In terms of doing the "Freedom Now Suite," I had replaced Abbey (Lincoln) live in the '70s. And my first husband Cecil Bridgewater had joined Max's band - it must have been like '71.

That was quite an exciting and different experience - working with Max. Because Max could be... unpredictable. And... I wouldn't call them run-ins, just some interesting experiences with Max. But the few times I did the "Freedom Now Suite" - I think I only did it three times and then I quit.

JC: Well, we really look forward to seeing you perform at Symphony Center - they have such a great series this coming year. It was a great series this last year and they put together another series for this year that is equally as good. Benny Golson, Wynton will be there with the Jazz Orchestra, Branford and Jon Faddis. I think we caught you at the festival several years ago with Jon?

DDB: We did a concert at the festival with the alumni of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. And then I did a concert with him three years ago when he was teaching at Columbia with their big band and he was directing the band at the Millenium Park.

JC: How much do you perform in Europe these days?

Dee Dee Bridgewater DDB: It depends on the year. I am slowing down in my touring in general. I've been on this junket since the beginning of July. I usually come to Europe for a month or five weeks a few times a year.

JC: Do you like working in Europe?

DDB: I do. The crowds are so appreciative and I don't know... I kind of have a penchant for the mentality of the people there. They're hardworking and intelligent people - they are very learned people - and I always have so much fun having conversations with the young people in any of the eastern European countries.

JC: When you were a young girl in Flint did you ever imagine you'd be touring Eastern Europe as a singer?

DDB: When I was a young girl and I started singing I remember telling my mom and father that I was going to grow up to be a very well known and well respected international singer.

JC: And it all came true. DDB: And it all came true. But you know I never said I want to be a "big star." I wanted to be well known and well respected. So whatever you dream - that's your life. So you better dream big.

JC: Once last thing - congratulations on your Grammy-nominated album, "Red Earth."

DDB: Well thank you so much!

JC: We are starting off our debut show (Jazz Chicago Style - Sunday nights on WNUA 95.5 starting August 24) with "Afro Blue" from "Red Earth."

DDB: Thanks so much! And I hope that your radio show will have a long life.

Dee Dee Bridgewater will be performing a tribute to her friend and mentor, Betty Carter at the Chicago Jazz Fest on Friday night at 7:10 p.m. on the Petrillo Bandshell stage.

Check out Dee Dee's Web page

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