“I was accepted in France for the talents I had. And, as a result of that, I never had any situations where I was rejected because I was black — or not black enough — which I did in the U.S.,” says versatile vocal dynamo Dee Dee Bridgewater.
You can take the internationally celebrated singing star out of Memphis, but you can’t take Memphis out of the internationally celebrated singing star, even after she spent decades living in other American cities and abroad.
That’s the happy reality for versatile vocal dynamo Dee Dee Bridgewater, who has won several Grammy awards, a Tony Award for her role in the original Broadway production of “The Wiz” and a 2017 NEA Jazz Masters Award. Moreover, following her 15-year residency in Paris, she received France’s prestigious Award of Arts and Letters and became the first American to be inducted into the tres select Haut Conseil de la Francophonie.
Bridgewater’s Tennessee roots are vividly reflected on her 21st and newest album, the intoxicating “Memphis … Yes I’m Ready.” It’s the first in her illustrious career to embrace the sizzling soul and blues that have long been synonymous with her hometown, which she moved away from with her family when she was just 3.
The result is an enticing collection that features her winning versions of such timeless gems as the B.B. King hit “The Thrill is Gone,” Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” Isaac Hayes’ “B.A.B.Y.” and Big Mama Thornton’s 1952 classic “Hound Dog,” which became a chart-topper for Elvis Presley in 1956.
“With this particular album — because it was a soul album and I was moving away from jazz — I decided I didn’t want to think about the public wanted, but what I wanted,” said Bridgewater, who headlines the San Diego Symphony’s orchestra-free “Ladies Who Jam: Women in Jazz” Bayside Summer Nights concert next Thursday. The performance will team her with a specially assembled, multi-generational band featuring pianist Helen Sung, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, violinist Nora Germain, bassist Endea Owens and drummer Sylvia Cuenca. (See below for profiles of each of the five musicians.)
The music on ‘Memphis’ grabbed me as a teenager. When I was recording the album, my mother was starting her descent into dementia and I knew she was going to die. So I wanted to do something that would lift my spirits when she was gone. I wanted simple songs, simple melodies, and to honor the artists whose songs I was doing. So I did arrangements similar to the originals, with just some little changes.”
She laughed. “It wasn’t a jazz album, so it was definitely for me!”
Bridgewater recorded “Memphis” at that city’s historic Royal Studios. All but two of its 13 selections are songs she first heard on WDIA. That pioneering Memphis radio station once featured her father, trumpeter Matthew Garrett, who had a sidelight career as a DJ known as “Matt the Platter Cat.” WDIA’s strong signal reached Michigan, where Bridgewater’s family had moved before she had even started grade school.
“I became the woman and the artist that I am because of the years I spent living in France,” said the singer, who last year was honored for her work as a Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations’ Food & Agriculture Organization.
“I was accepted in France for the talents I had. And, as a result of that, I never had any situations where I was rejected because I was black — or not black enough — which I did in the U.S. I don’t think in terms of black and white, although I do know we have distinctive cultural differences and there are elements of black culture not shared by the mass of white people.
“One of the reasons I did this ‘Memphis’ album is I wanted to see more black people in my audience — and I knew this album could bring that about. I wanted to feel more connected with my people. Because of the fact I’ve been doing jazz all these years there’s been huge disconnect with a lot of black people.”
Did it work? “Yes!” she replied “When I do concerts in the U.S. now, the audiences are half and half. I’m thinking about putting out a ‘Volume 2’ of ‘Memphis.’ But my concerts with my jazz trio are also selling out, so I’m thinking of doing an album with them, too, and putting both out.”
Bridgewater is blessed with a near-acrobatic voice and the ability to bring deep gravitas to every lyric in her unusually broad repertoire. She stands out whether singing such jazz classics as Duke Ellington’s “Cotton Tail” and Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child,” exploring the music of West Africa on her superb 2007 album, “Red Earth: A Malian Journey,” or — as she does on “Memphis” — putting her stamp on Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” and the Staple Singers’ sadly still timely “Why (Am I Treated So Bad)?”
Her audacious debut album, “Afro Blue,” came out in 1974. It was recorded in Japan with members of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, with which Bridgewater— then 24 — was on tour at the time. It brought her wide attention and set in motion a rich solo career that is still going strong 44 years later.
“I think I still have the same kind of approach as I did on that album. For me, it’s all about being a collective musical unit, so everyone’s input is important,” Bridgewater said, speaking by phone from a recent concert stop in Oristano, Italy.
“But I know what I want and can override musicians’ opinions. Whereas, in the beginning, I’d defer and do it the way they wanted, now I say: ‘No, gentlemen, this is how I want it done.’ Over the years, I found my voice. The way I hear things and want the sound that all comes from the experience and from learning. So doing all this has given me more confidence as I’ve gotten older.”