“I could always sing. I thought everybody could sing because I could always sing and I never had any formal training.” That is what Dee Dee Bridgewater has always thought about herself.
The Tony and three-time Grammy award winner singer-songwriter was born in Memphis, Tennessee. Her father, Matthew Garrett, was a jazz trumpeter. He also was a disc jockey at WDIA, a top Memphis soul music radio station, and the first in the United States that was programmed entirely for African-Americans.
“As a young girl the music moved me, inspired me, made me dance and feel,” she says.
The Bridgewater family moved to Flint, Michigan when Dee Dee was young, and by the time she was a teenager, Dee Dee Bridgewater was entering singing contests. She won some of them, one contest in particular, she came in second to a woman who as Dee Dee saw it, “had a voice like Aretha Franklin and could S-A-N-G”! Bridgewater says she never thought her voice was ‘black enough,’ because though she could sing jazz, she didn’t know how to do all the jazz riffs.
But she soon was singing in clubs in Michigan and was a member of a rock and rhythm- n-blues trio. In the 1970s, Bridgewater joined the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra as lead vocalist, the beginning of her jazz career. But Blues music was a passion.
“For my mother, the Blues represented all things ‘negative’ and where it relates to women it meant women who lived lawlessly,” Bridgewater says. And being one who didn’t like to conform (her Catholic upbringing has something to do with that), it was that which attracted her to the music.”
In the 1980s, Bridgewater moved to Paris. Her performance in Sophisticated Ladies and Lady Day, a one-woman portrayal of Billie Holiday, earned her a nomination for the Sir Laurence Olivier Award.
Bridgewater returned back to the United States in 1995. She self-produced a CD, “Love and Peace: A Tribute to Horace Silver.” During a journey to Mali, West Africa in 2004, she visited several clubs where she was able to hear griots singing songs like that of a jazz singer.
“I hear the similarities between the Malian music and the Delta Blues and then the improvisation that we do in jazz as a vocalist to sing a melody and then to completely improvise in the middle and that is what the Griots do.”
Bridgewater’s travels to Mali inspired her to record and release “Red Earth” – A Malian Journey in 2007. This album features Blues, griot songs, and Africa-inspired themes and contributions by musicians from Mali.
The experience moved herM to return to Tennessee and her own roots in the blues, and the result is her newest album called Memphis….Yes, I’m Ready, recorded at Royal Studios in 2016.
“This is me coming home. This is the music that I’ve always wanted to do, this is the music that would show that I am black and this is what I am supposed to do. I just want to give exposure to the things that I believe in,” says Bridgewater. “I did this album for me.”
At age 67, Dee Dee Bridgewater is enjoying life and being recognized for her jazz vocals as well as her good will. In April she received a Jazz Masters award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Later this month she will be honored with The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) Foundation Champion Award for her decades of work for those in need.