Dee Dee Bridgewater’s Road to Mali, Chapter 4.2 of THE LANDFILL CHRONICLES
DEE DEE BRIDGEWATER’S JOURNEY TO MALI:
THE LANDFILL CHRONICLES — CONVERSATIONS ON MUSIC ELEVATED TO A STATE OF ART
Chapter 4, part 2 in the Medium book The Landfill Chronicles, the conversation memoirs by Dan Ouellette
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DEE DEE’S LONG ROAD TO MALI
Hanging with Dee Dee in Mali feels like a natural outgrowth of our friendship over the years. I first conversed with Dee Dee in 1995 when she was doing interviews for her Verve album, Love and Peace: A Tribute to Horace Silver. I met her in San Francisco, and we became fast friends when I told her about the bumper crop of tomatoes in my backyard. Tomatoes! A few years later when I went to the jazz festival in Berne, Switzerland, we conversed deep into the night after her dynamic show. She remembered the tomatoes.
Based on those times as well as writing liner notes for two of her subsequent albums, I came to appreciate the arc of Dee Dee’s career. But in her journey to Mali, her artistry rose into a new sphere that was profoundly and emotionally more personal.
JAZZ, BROADWAY, ROCK
Dee Dee made her New York debut in 1970 as the lead vocalist in the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. At the time, she was married to trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater, who was in Horace Silver’s band. In 1974 she recorded her first album as a leader, Afro Blue on the Japanese Trio Records label. Despite her early jazz successes, she broke from the jazz camp that year to perform on Broadway in the show The Wiz. In her role as Glinda, the Good Witch, she won a Tony Award in 1975.
A few years later, she jettisoned onto the pop music scene via Elektra Records. “I grew up in jazz, and jazz was second nature to me, but I was a closet rock ’n’ roller,” she says. “When I got signed to Elektra, I was over the moon to be on the same label as Jackson Browne and the Eagles. Don Henley wanted to produce my first album, but the label said to me, “No, you’re black. You have to make a soul/disco album, not rock.”
Finally, after battling for creative say, she recorded her label debut in 1978, Just Family, produced by Stanley Clarke and George Duke, where she got the chance to cover an Elton John song and enlist rock violinist Scarlet Rivera. “Back then I was living in a make-believe world,” she recalls. “I didn’t know a thing about record sales, I was treated like a queen, was wined and dined, and treated to L.A. Lakers [basketball] games. I was the darling. But unbeknownst to me, I was paying for all of this from my royalties.”
When she moved over to Atlantic Records, her music was “canned because I wouldn’t sleep with the vp of the label,” Dee Dee says. Meanwhile, she continued to perform in musicals that led to her portraying the role of Billie Holiday in Stephen Stahl’s Lady Day. In 1987, her London performance garnered her a best actress nomination for a Laurence Olivier Award.
When Dee Dee moved to France in 1986, she was immediately heralded as the new Josephine Baker. That’s when she says she also “got serious about music and not waiting for a record company to help. I decided to help myself. Before, everything was done for me. All I had to do was sing.”
Dee Dee boldly broke free from the constraints of the recording industry. It was then, she says, that she realized “I wanted to work on my albums, from beginning to end, from choosing the musicians I wanted to work with to deciding on the arrangements.”
In 1993, she met Jean-Philippe Allard, the head of Polygram France at the time. “He believed in me,” she says. “So, he gave me a producer contract. Since that time, I’ve had complete control over my music — the songs, the sound, the studio, the image. I’ve been able to express myself in any way.”
In 1997 Dee Dee released her tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, Dear Ella (Verve), which scored a Grammy and received critical accolades. But that combined with her Billie role and Josephine image began to take its toll. “I took a five-year walk with Ella,” she says. “I was determined to help keep her image alive. But all the while, I felt like I was losing myself. Wonderful things happened to me in France, but I got to a place where I became a person with a serious identity crisis. What am I? Who am I?”
THE EMBRACE OF AFRICA
Those questions were amplified by coming to terms with her racial identity. She knows she’s part Cherokee, Chickasaw, Irish and German, but she rarely questioned her African heritage, a subject her mother did not encourage her to pursue when she was young.
“It was all about being more white than having African roots so that you could get a better job,” Dee Dee says. “When I was young in the ’50s and ’60s, Africa meant ignorance, savages, loin clothes, spears and bones pierced through the nose. I was into emulating white girls, straightening my hair with a hot comb and trying to fit in as much as possible.”
Dee Dee notes that she was always in an all-white environment. “Even as a little girl when I was sent to Catholic school where the kids used to call me nigger-bitch,” she says. “I used to get in fights over that, so being on the defense is like second nature to me. That continues today, as I recently had to endure a new racism when I grew my hair out and did the African dread thing. People refused to sit next to me on airplanes.”
Dee Dee turned a corner after Polygram France unceremoniously dropped her, and in 2005 she recorded J’ai Deux Amours (recorded by her own DDB Records and released by Sovereign Artists in the U.S.). It’s a remarkable album of well-known French chansons given the jazz treatment. However, the French press lambasted her, criticizing her for turning her back on the jazz tradition.
“I’m damned if I do, and damned if I don’t,” she says, with a tinge of bitterness in her voice. “I’ve always been about keeping vocal jazz alive in my own way, and I’ve always set out to emulate Miles Davis by doing something different each time out. I hate repeating myself.”
All this paved the way for Dee Dee’s musical and spiritual journey to Mali. “Doing the American-African thing is the result of an accumulation of all my life experience,” she says. “I’m entering the third phase of my life, and I want to go out as a whole person. I want to accept myself totally. So, let me go to Africa, let me find the country that I believe I’m from, let me embrace its music while at the same time educating people about the motherland.”
Dee Dee, who at the time had been the host of NPR’s JazzSet (jazzset.org) since October 2001, signed a deal with the international arm of Universal Records, based in England. It is distributing Red Earth internationally via its newly resurrected Emarcy imprint. Polygram France may have dumped her, but, ironically, it’s now selling her latest CD that’s been supported by the overarching entity of the major label.
END OF PART 2 OF CHAPTER 4
Next week in Part 3, we continue to follow Dee Dee as she sings at Oumou Sangaré’s Space Cultural Wassulu and visits rural areas as a UN Food and Agriculture Organization ambassador.
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