Surprise and spontaneity are always guaranteed when Dee Dee Bridgewater takes the stage. The three-time Grammy winner, also a Tony Award winner, loves to change things up and promises a “soul-soothing” concert at the Rialto Center for the Arts on Saturday night.
Bridgewater, now 69, began her four-decade career with the legendary Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra and has performed with jazz stalwarts Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon and Dizzy Gillespie. She earned her Tony Award in 1975 for playing Glinda in The Wiz. She was the first African American to play Sally Bowles in Cabaret. She also hosted NPR’s “Jazz Set” series for 13 years.
The singer spoke with ArtsATL about her connection to Atlanta, the ghostly visit she experienced when doing Sophisticated Ladies at the Fox Theatre and her plans for Saturday’s concert. She’ll be accompanied by longtime collaborator Edsel Gomez on piano, Tabari Lake on bass and Tyson Jackson on drums.
ArtsATL: Any particular impressions of Atlanta you’d like to share?
Dee Dee Bridgewater: Atlanta is special. I love playing in Atlanta. I love the Rialto. I love that stage, I love that theater. I like the blackness of Atlanta. I love seeing my people in Atlanta, the history of Dr. King. I thought about moving there, but New Orleans was a better fit for me having lived 24 years of my life in France. But I always feel at home there and Atlanta has been amazing. I did Sophisticated Ladies in Atlanta at the Fox Theatre, which is haunted. I had an experience where the ghost came to visit me.
ArtsATL: What can you tell us about your vocal journey through jazz and theater?
Bridgewater: Theater was a beautiful complement to my performing. I like to think of each song as its own vignette and to create a mood for each song that I do, so that I’m telling a story of each song individually. People can become engrossed, I can take them on a musical journey.
I always had a thing for theater, in particular, musical theater. Watching the Ziegfeld Follies when I was young, I always imagined myself walking down this huge staircase with a man on both sides. In The Wiz, I actually came down singing, “A Rested Body Is a Rested Mind” flanked by these two gorgeous male dancers who lifted me in the air. But all of that got cut when we got to Broadway.
Musical theater and doing theater in general really helped inform me as a performer. When I’m doing a master class or mentoring young singers, I always suggest they take some acting classes to enhance their use of the stage, so that they’re comfortable on the stage and not just these frigid singers. There’s a way to stand still and sing and draw people in with your emotions. I think Cecile McLorin-Salvant is a beautiful example of that.
ArtsATL: What can you tell us about your childhood and how you began singing?
Bridgewater: I was raised in Flint, Michigan, where my mother was from. We didn’t have an extravagant lifestyle. My mother put me in Catholic school at age 7, so I grew up Catholic. I had a very wholesome upbringing. My extended family and cousins would come over on Sundays. I loved it. It was a great place to grow up.
When Motown started everybody dreamed about signing to Motown, and we were right next door to Detroit. The Marvelettes lived a block away. I had a vocal trio called The Iridescents, modeled after The Supremes and all the female groups. We used to have talent shows back in those days and The Iridescents were asked to back up some of the singers in addition to our own entries. I did some solo singing. It was a good time. But I always say Flint was a great place to be from because I would always dream a lot of what I would do when I got out of the city.
ArtsATL: For your 2017 album Memphis — I’m Ready you said, “The South has always remained buried inside me and coming back for the recording has brought me full circle in my life.” What are your thoughts about the South, how it feels and what it represents for you?
Bridgewater: I love the South, I love living in the South. I like the pace. I like the respect that you find when you’re in the South. I was born in Memphis and now I live in New Orleans. My sister just moved to Atlanta, and I have a niece who has lived there over 20 years. Things are very clear about where people stand in the South — no Northern BS saying one thing and then doing another. Everything is pretty clear and I really like that.
I love the Southern hospitality, love the food, especially New Orleans food. I almost moved to Atlanta but the history here in New Orleans and the connection with France since I lived there so many years pulled me in. This is the birthplace of jazz. I’m fascinated by the turnout of musicians and performers here. It’s mind-boggling.
ArtsATL: How do you stay fresh, relevant and inspired as an artist?
Bridgewater: I try to always do something new and different with each recording project. I think of myself as a musician and not just a singer. I noticed early on in my career that people looked at singers differently than musicians, so I modeled myself after my hero, Miles Davis. You never knew what Miles would do next and I thought, “I should be able to do that.” That’s what I did and that is something that is accepted and expected of me.
I learned to be a solid performer. People will come see you based on that. They may or may not like my last recording project. I’m always pushing myself to do something new, something different, but they know when they come to see me live, it will be a solid performance.
ArtsATL: What do you have planned for Saturday night at the Rialto?
Bridgewater: I’m going back to having a quartet as I don’t consider myself a singer with a trio, we are a quartet. I have now decided to drive that back home. We call ourselves the DDB Quartet. To be in that setting again is fun. We’ve been honoring Betty Carter. We might go even deeper — more Betty Carter and her work with pianist Geri Allen, Abbey Lincoln and some French songs. I did a French album, and we’ve never really done much of those in the States. We’ll see!
My soul needs some soothing. I’m going to try and soothe our frazzled spirits, because I never thought we’d be where we are today. You throw this coronavirus on top of it and the current hysteria, we have the perfect storm going on. You don’t need to do anything. Let’s just enjoy stories of love, have fun and imagine ourselves somewhere else. I’m coming to soothe the spirits, the minds of Atlanta.