Where: Yunfeng Theater, 1700 West Beijing Road. 北京西路1700号
When: Friday, October 16, 2009, 7:30PM
Dee Dee Bridgewater, the illustrious Jazz singer, has been one of the premier artists in Jazz for the past forty years. From her early days performing with major Jazz legends and winning Tony Awards on Broadway to her more recent work on Billy Holiday, NPR and beyond, Dee Dee has been shaping and defining the way people all over the world understand and appreciate Jazz. To kick off this weekend’s JZ Jazz festival, Dee Dee will be gracing Shanghai with a performance this Friday at the Yunfeng theater, sharing the stage with a big band of both local and international musicians. We had the chance to chat about her accomplishments both on and off the stage, her views on Jazz from the past to the present, and her unbeknown love of Chinese art.
You’ve had a long and distinguished career. At what point did you realize you had made it as a musician?
That’s a pretty dubious question-what does “made it” mean? How do you know you’ve made it? I felt I had made it as soon as i started a professional career, when i was playing with the Thad Jones Jazz Orchestra from ’70 to ’74, then left to do the Wiz on Broadway and won a Tony Award playing Glinda the Good Witch, that was pretty major. I had done both of those things by the time is was 25, and at the same time, during my stint with the Thad Jones Orchestra, I worked with many of the major musicians in Jazz history: Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie, Carl Saunders. I was the darling of the Jazz world, compared in my early years to Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. Later on, people started comparing me to Ella Fitzgerald, because of my Scatting. Now, people are seeing Betty Carter, because i am a physical performer. They love to attach you to someone.
Who was the biggest influence on your career?
Betty Carter was my biggest influence when i came to New York. I used to call myself her puppy dog: every night she would perform, I would be front and center, watching her and learning from the way she performed. I became a band leader because of her, started producing music because of here, even began my own record label because of her. Now that I’m starting to work with young musicians, teaching them the importance of accompaniment and arrangement instead of just chord changes, I feel like I’ve come full circle, and try to broadcast those qualities the way she did.
How have you seen the Jazz landscape change over the course of your career?
In the beginning, there was such camaraderie. Musicians would help each other, concerts would always have a surprise someone backstage who would come on and perform, older musicians would be happy to help younger ones. Now, it’s a closed environment. Since the 90’s, with the Young Lions, people realized that marketing Jazz would make money, making their music into jazz pop, which was more disposable. When the 20th century rolled in, record companies became more corporate, and weren’t interested in developing new artists, just making as much money off famous ones as possible. As a result, all the 90’s artists fell by the wayside. So now, in 21st century, we have Jazz pop, so we have female singers topping the billboard charts like Diana Krall, or Norah Jones getting famous because she’s on Blue Note. Then you have all the B-labels trying to find their version of, well, the next Diana Krall and Norah Jones. Now, younger Jazz singers have to play instruments and write their own music instead of doing their own renditions of standards.
How do you see your radio program, Jazz Set with Dee Dee Bridgewater on NPR, influencing the contemporary Jazz scene?
It’s a wonderful program: we record live Jazz shows and broadcast them across America to let people at home learn what a Jazz concert is really like. As host, i give a narrative about the singer and the songs tat are being performed, all of which is selected by singer. It’s an opportunity for people who don’t have jazz clubs in their area to get a front row view, to get history and a live view.
Tell us more about your record label, DDB Records.
DDB records is distributed by universal throughout the world, and by MRC in the States. We’re always trying to make it more prominent. I first signed with Verve in ’93 before the takeover, and signed a producers agreement, so I own the rights to everything and produce my own music. Al Schmitt has been my musical & sound engineering guru, and has taken me under wing. I’ve also got a team of great artists, graphic designers and photographers who have been with me for many years now. But really, I’m just a working mother who happens to sign jazz. I have a wonderful staff, and my elder daughter manages my shows. I’ve had to learn to not be as hands on, and let my daughter sign a lot of my contracts. But I make sure she reads all the fine print. (laughs)
Are you looking to develop new artists?
It can be very difficult developing new artists. I found an artist in France from the Congo who I thought had international potential because he sang in English. But soon after i put him in the studio, he got a big head. I used my reputation to set up meetings with great musicians, but he started missing rehearsals and generally doing things he shouldn’t be doing. Artists these days don’t understand that cultivating your skill is a long, difficult process: everyone just wants to sign a contract and be famous right away. I don’t have time to baby sit, i only want to work with artists who want to actually make music. I think it’ll be ultimately better to give out distribution contracts, so that artists realize they have to develop their art, not just ride on the fame of a label.
Let’s change the subject- how does it feel to come to Shanghai for Jazz? What’s the significance of playing with a mixture of international and local Jazz artists at this weekend’s JZ music festival?
I’m very excited to be here. This is my second trip to China: last year, I went to Beijing at the end of the Olympics to film a television show for NBC for the Paralympics. This is the first time I’ve been here for Jazz. I’m excited to working with a big band of Chinese and international musicians. I’m glad to see interest in Jazz spreading through this vast country, and I’m glad to be one of the first artists to be part of this groundbreaking era of the introduction of Jazz. I hope that my performance entices artists to listen to more Jazz, and hopefully inspire people to start playing. Also, I have some Chinese blood on my father’s side, so I’m always excited to come, and fascinated to see the influence my ancestry has had on me in terms of my eclectic tastes. I found out 8 years ago that all the Asian art in my house was Chinese. I just liked it, but never knew (laughs). I would go to a store, see a vase, and just say “I like that!”, or a wall scroll, and say “I like that too!”. I never knew until a friend came over and told me all my Asian art was in fact Chinese.
Do you think China could be the next frontier of Jazz?
I have no idea. I can’t be so precocious as to make a statement like that. I believe that Jazz is a reflection of the social times, and as we are in an economic downturn, Jazz is in a social downturn. When the economy is thriving, then Jazz is always on the rise. I think it is America’s Classical music which has become international: that’s why I’m here today. For me, it’s like Classical music: it’s a language that musicians around the world can use to communicate with each other.
Where are you drawing your inspiration from these days?
Oh, many things. I’d say my daily inspiration to keep touring, which is very difficult, is my strong belief in a God, and my spiritual values. My praying and my belief that my absolute talent is god given- I never had to study to do this, I never even studied to be an actress. It’s just something I have innately in me. I just allow myself to be free and open to whatever musical encounters I may have. I may think I want to do a particular project, but end up shying away for some reason- that’s why my music is so eclectic. But I’m very, very conscious of the performance level, and I believe that one of the reasons I’ve had a successful career is because I entertain. I don’t just sing: I dance, I do self-depreciating comedy, I do my best to draw the audience in at each and every show.
Tell us about your upcoming album.
My next album is farther away from the last one, Red Earth, which was my attempt to reconnect with my African roots- the new one is a collection of Billie Holiday. I was in a play, which I wanted to do on Broadway this year, but due to circumstances, that didn’t happen. This album was supposed to be paired with the play, but now it’s become it’s own project. This year, I was able to give a concert in Victoria, Spain, and I performed on July 17th, the day that Billie Holiday died, which was very meaningful to me. The album has great significance to me, and everything about the project has come together wonderfully. I love it when the stars seem to align, musicians I want to work with are available, things work in production, and everything just falls in place.
What excites you the most in music today?
I think it’s the constant challenge of doing different projects that challenges me on a muscial level: working with musicians, the experience of having musical conversations on stage with gifted musicians, the fact that I’m getting more involved with the educational side of things. I’m now the host of the Mary Lou Williams: Women in Jazz Festival at the Kennedy Center, I’m on the committee of the Kennedy Center for Honors, as well as being more involved with the Monk Institute of Jazz. I’m the singer who puts the instrumentalists through their paces for the finals, and I love becoming more involved. Also, I’m becoming more active politically: I’m a goodwill Ambassador for the UN’s Food and Agriculture program. When I perform on Friday, it’s the official World Food Day: the FOA has an office here, so we’ll set up a stand at the show, and I’ll talk about the importance of the World Food Program and all the great work we do in rural areas. We’re also beginning to reach out into rural areas of China, so we hope that our message is received with enthusiasm.