Too bad we didn’t video record this listening session. To see Dee Dee Bridgewater’s animated facial expressions and watch her respond, both physically and emotionally, would add an extra layer or two of meaning to the text. I caught up with the peripatetic vocalist (and her little Maltese, Iyo) at her hotel during a tour with the Monterey Festival All-Stars, a few hours before their performance at the Kennedy Center. The actress and three-time Grammy winner continues to host NPR’s Jazz Set while pursuing her intercontinental musical adventures. Her latest recording is the compilation, Midnight Sun, on her own DDB Records.
1. Betty Carter
“Thou Swell” (from Social Call, Columbia). Carter, vocal; Ray Bryant, piano; Wendell Marshall, bass; Jo Jones, drums. Recorded in 1955.
Betty, man. She was so friggin’ underrated. She was a genius. I mean, just the way she heard music and how she could take a simple song like “Thou Swell” and turn it into a masterpiece of the moment. The trio was so tight and she just floats on top of it like a horn. People say they’re inspired by Ella, Sarah and Billie, but she’s my main inspiration.
She was a part of the band and yet, she led the band. She produced her own music, had her own label. She did her own distribution with Bet-Car Productions. If I’m producing today it’s because of Betty Carter.
Did you get to know her?
Yeah, I spent time with her. I was her shadow for the first two years that I was in New York. Even when I was doing The Wiz, wherever she was performing in New York, if I could go, I’d go. And I’d always go by myself because I didn’t want to be disturbed. I went to her home when she was living in Brooklyn, next to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. She used to waylay me, the way she contorted her body. She went through a period when she was toying with singing behind the beat, and she would be so far behind that I’d think she was lost, but the band kept playing and then bam, she was right there. I love Betty Carter. Thank you. That was a great way to start.
2. Ray Brown/Milt Jackson
“I’m Going To Live The Life I Sing About In My Song” (from Much In Common, Verve). Brown, bass; Jackson, vibes; Marion Williams, vocal; Wild Bill Davis, organ; Kenny Burrell, guitar; Albert “Tootie” Heath. Recorded in 1964.
Before: Mm…woo! I don’t know who this is. Got church. Uh, huh. The voice kind of reminds me of Mahalia Jackson; an amazing voice and great control. She doesn’t even have to force her voice. She’s got the feeling. I love the music. I like the churchiness of the organ and the jazz vibe on top. It’s fabulous. It’s a great amalgam of gospel, blues and jazz. But this is a gospel singer. Woo, I get goosebumps. Who is this?
After: This is Marion Williams? Wow. The combination was great. What an incredible voice. Fantastic. She took me to church. She was uplifting. And the way she used her vibrato with such control, it made me feel like, wow, I wish I could sing like that. I hear joy in her voice, but it’s a spiritual joy. Thad Jones told me to never listen to singers so that I could develop my own voice, so I never really did. But listening to her, I need to download that, get that album. What a wonderful surprise. What have I been missing? I was raised Catholic, so I didn’t join a black church till I was an adult in my late 20s, early 30s. I always felt growing up that I had missed part of the black experience because of where I went to school; I was one of only 3 or 4 black kids. I always loved gospel. So I want to deal with that. I could listen to this on the [tour] bus.
3 Joe Williams with Thad Jones & Mel Lewis Orchestra
“Get Out My Life Woman” (from Presenting Joe Williams and Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, The Jazz Orchestra, Solid State). Williams, vocal; Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. Recorded in 1966.
[immediately starts to clap and sing along with the arrangement] Yes, baby! I’m lucky I got to sing this arrangement. Joe was so bad. Hey! [whooping and hollering]. Yes, Joe. Hey, baby, wow! This is the music that formed me. That band, the way that Thad could dissect a big band and give you these mini ensemble things. I just watched him take arrangements and totally redo them as the band was playing. He was brilliant. It makes me feel like I need to go back and listen to Thad some more because he shaped my whole notion of sound. If I go back and listen to his albums it might help to give me some more clarity for explaining how I’d like arrangements done. His arrangements never felt boxed in. They were liberating. As a singer, you have this amazing cushion of sound that would push you along and get you excited. He provided all these colors and you just had to go with it. And I always thought Thad & Mel with Joe Williams was such a great pairing. Joe never tried to do vocal gymnastics. He’d just tell the story with a great sense of rhythm. It was like molasses on top that dripped all into the seams. So the combination was great.
When you were with Thad & Mel, did Thad tailor his arrangements to suit your voice?
I sang “Get Out My Life” with them, but I didn’t sing it like that. That was funky. Thad was funky.
As a musician, or as a person?
Both. He was such a character. He and Elvin were alike. Their personalities were larger than life with those big laughs. When they walked into a space, they just took the space. They became the center, the light, the focus. Thad was very charismatic; a big man, barrel-chested, he would hug you. Hank was always cool and dapper and restrained. I miss Joe Williams. He had the blues and the jazz and an amazing instrument. He always sang with such ease. He would stand there, totally debonair and soulful.
4 Victor Wooten
“Get It Right” (from Words and Tones, Vix). Wooten, Meshell Ndegeocello, bass; Rod McGaha, trumpet; Joseph Wooten, keyboards; Derico Watson, drums. Released in 2012.
Before: Like the bass. Oh, I like the mix, all the layers. I like how she’s got the bass out front but not too out front. I love the song, I love Michelle’s playing, I love the lyric. But I love how the bass is right in the center with all these layers around it. And everything is so clear. Mixing is so important to me, so that was very cool. I’ve never listened to Michelle. I played with her; we were part of an evening at the Barbican in London called Me and Billie with Amy Winehouse before she blew up, and Neneh Cherry and Fontella Bass.
After: So this is Victor Wooten’s record? Is this new? I don’t know him at all, just the name. Can I hear this again? The drummer is great. I like that music has morphed into something jazzy, funky, so you don’t always know what it is. But this is Michelle singing, right? [starts singing along on the chorus]. It’s just cool. I like this a lot. It’s very today with a subtle jazzy thing under it. But you’d have to be from jazz to hear that. To another ear, like a hip-hop ear, they’d just say, “Oh, man, this is some bad shit.” But I love the mix. I work with Al Schmidt on my records and he’s made me acutely aware of such things. And like I say, I don’t really know Michelle. I worked with her once and she had some ego issues and we had to talk, then she was ok. Victor-who has he played with? I’ve got to check him out. As a jazz musician, if I wanted to open up, I’d go that way. I really like that. Lot of substance there. I’m a new fan. You’re taking me to school today.
5 Sarah Vaughan
“If You Could See Me Now” (from The Chronological Sarah Vaughan, 1944-46, Classics). Vaughan, vocal; Tadd Dameron Orchestra with Freddy Webster, trumpet solo. Recorded in 1946.
Before: I’ve heard this. As she got older her sound got a little thicker [demonstrates]. I think this was on a compilation of her music that I did for Verve; I chose this. Her voice here is lighter. It didn’t have that operatic quality that you heard in later years. But there’s something in the timbre of her voice that was Sassy. She had a wonderful rhythmic sense, and a wonderful range. For me, she was a musician. She didn’t have to always embellish a melody because her voice was such a beautiful instrument. That was the thing I liked about Sarah. A song that comes to mind is her version of “Send In The Clowns.” Her voice was like velvet. But this voice, the younger Sassy, is such a pure sound. And it’s a real voice. It’s not contrived at all.
Did you get to know her?
Yeah. First of all she had that little girl speaking voice [imitates it]. She came to see me one time and I was performing at Paul’s Mall in Boston. I was opening for B.B. and she came down with [trumpeter and husband] Waymon Reed. She came backstage and said, “Now I understand, you do sound like me.” And I said, “Really?” I would always go to see her at the Rainbow Grill, I’d get all dressed up.
Do you think you sounded like her?
No, I didn’t think so. Maybe I could hear where somebody else could hear her in me. Like, I didn’t think I sounded like Ella, or any of these women I’ve been compared to. I can sound like Billie Holiday, but that’s because I studied her to do the play. So I can talk like her. But Sassy, velvet.
If she were here today, what would you want to talk with her about?
[long pause] If she were here today, I’d like to talk to her about female things. How it was for her being on the road. How did she deal with her loneliness? How did she deal with having a man in her life, or not having a man? I’d want to ask her personal stuff. I had a wonderful evening with Ella in the early 80s in Tokyo. I went to see her after doing Sophisticated Ladies and I went backstage because I’d never met her. I knocked and Norman Granz opened the door. I introduced myself and he said, “Dee Dee, I know who you are. Come on in here.” I was really shy. I still am but I know how to mask it.
So what did you talk to Ella about?
How did she pack all those gowns? Her dressing room looked like a giant wardrobe closet. I found out she had a companion who traveled with her and took care of her gowns and laid them out for her, got them all fluffed up and ready and steamed and all that. Then they’d get together and decide what she’d wear based on what she felt like that night. That was a luxury. I don’t have that luxury [chuckles]. We talked about how hard it was being on the road. She shared with me that she thought she was not a good mother to Ray Jr. because she was on the road so much. She talked about how exhausting it was and reminded me I needed to get my sleep. I felt like I was talking to someone in my family, like she was an auntie giving me advice. We talked for about 45 minutes. Then, I went to see her in Paris and I took notes on the songs she sang, how long she allowed for solos, how she segued from one song to another. In another conversation she said: “Take care of your children. Don’t leave your children. Take them with you.” She was really tired of the road, then. She said it’s so lonely out here.
6 Gregory Porter
“Be Good (Lion’s Song)” (from Be Good, Motema). Porter, vocal; Chip Crawford, piano; Aaron James, bass; Emanuel Harrold, drums; Keyon Harrold, trumpet; Yosuke Sato, alto saxophone; Tivon Pennicott, tenor saxophone. Recorded in 2012.
Oh, I love Gregory. He’s great. He makes me cry. You know what he is? He’s hope. We haven’t had a male singer like him in a long time. He’s such a wonderful writer. He tells these great stories. There’s a soulfulness to his voice, I don’t know what it is about Gregory Porter that makes me cry [with tears in her eyes], but it’s a joyful thing. I’m a huge fan. I love watching him live. He’s like a modern Leon Thomas. He reminds me of the 70s brought forward. He’s just precious to me. He’s got a timbre in his voice that reminds me of Kurt [Elling] a little bit; God–I love Kurt. I feel like Gregory’s an old spirit reborn. He’s like a composite of a lot of great black men. I feel there’s hope for the black man, there’s hope for the black male singer. We’re not going to be buried in the whole new whitewashing of jazz music. I can’t explain it because I’m still trying to figure it out. I’m going to ask him to do a duet with me on this blues project I’m working on. I’m even thinking of asking him to write with me. I like stories. I like telling stories, and he’s a storyteller. I like imagery, like comparing himself here to the lion in the cage. I love that kind of stuff. And his voice is smooth with just a little bit of an edge. It speaks to that feminine wile in every woman I know. He makes us swoon. He projects this gentle giant, and he’s a good-looking man. He’s like, the whole thing.
7 Nat Cole
“Azure-te” (from Nat King Cole Sings/George Shearing Plays, Capitol). Cole, vocal, Shearing, piano, Ralph Carmichael, arrangement. Recorded in 1961.
I love strings. I was thinking I grew up seeing this man on TV, this man with this voice that captivated people all around the world. And I’m thinking I don’t know anything about him and how he was able to get through the crack of the time that he grew up in, to be accepted and to be regarded as just a great voice and a great musician without any regard for his color. And he was a dark skinned man, which usually is more threatening. Even today, in the 21st Century, we don’t have a black man hosting a show with his musical background and guests on who sing with him. We don’t have that. He and Louis Armstrong were the two great ambassadors of music that this country had, for diplomacy, for racial integration. So it’s interesting that listening to this I go there instead of the music. At my point of consciousness today, when I hear this man and his music, I think, my goodness, what was his life like? What did he have to go through? How brave he must have been. You know? It makes me want to read his biography to know more about him. Musically, there’s nothing else to say. He’s withstood the test of time. He made it possible for us to dream on so many levels. Then I’m thinking about that song and he’s singing about Paris and I’m thinking; now why did I leave Paris? [laughs] But I know why I left.
8 José James
“Sword + Gun” (from No Beginning No End, Blue Note). James, Hindi Zahra, vocal; Robert Glasper, keyboard; Pino Palladino, bass; Chris Dave, drums. Released in 2013.
Before: I don’t like the mix. Is this John Legend? José James? [listens for a while]. Does it go somewhere else? Ok, this is a problem I have with the young children today. It’s like they create a mood. They create a vibe and they give you a light story in the beginning, and then it’s all about mood and it just doesn’t go anywhere for me. The song isn’t strong enough to be a song on its own. And I don’t like the mix; it’s muddy. He was at Monterey when we were there and I stopped for a second and it just didn’t hold me, so I kept going.
After: I know there’s a lot of buzz around him and I think that’s great for him, and I’m sure he’s got his niche. I respect him, but he just doesn’t move me.
9 Arthur Prysock
“You Could Have Told Me” (from Arthur Prysock Count Basie, Verve). Prysock, vocal; Basie, organ; Count Basie Orchestra. Recorded in 1966.
[immediately] Is this Arthur? My mama listened to Arthur Prysock. What a man, what a man, what a mighty fine man. Listen at that voice. Woo! One of our great crooners. Doesn’t he sound like a sax? Makes me want to have a cigarette, and I don’t smoke [laughter]. He’s making me cross my legs. Mm, mm. We don’t use organ like we used to. Just tasty. You don’t hear people talk about Arthur Prysock. He was one of my mama’s favorite singers, so we had a lot of Arthur Prysock records. I remember he came to a supper club in Windsor. Chile, my mama just about had a cow. She told my father: “Matthew, you’d better take me to see Arthur Prysock.” I remember they came back and my mama was in heaven. My father looked disgusted [laughs]. It’s that sound, that voice, and when he went in to the baritone register, ooh. There’s a certain timbre that if a man has it, chile, we fall at their feet. We were talking about that on the bus last night, about Barry White and Isaac Hayes and Teddy Pendergrass cause we were watching some Soul Train videos that Christian [McBride] brought on the bus. I was telling them, you all don’t understand. It’s a female thing. We become like putty. I remember going to those concerts and women throwing their panties on the stage. It makes our legs go [makes a playful erotic gesture]. It’s the mighty V [!!]. Arthur Prysock was a great singer, great sense of time; Just a clean voice. No acrobatics necessary. That’s also a great song. Songs were written to have a climax. That’s why we don’t have great songs today. Now, it’s all about a groove. The story is now just an introduction to the groove. That’s José. Prysock just had a great, great voice. I think if kids would check out an Arthur Prysock, a Joe Williams, a Billy Eckstine, it might influence them to write some songs again. You’ve got someone with a great instrument today, like a Mariah Carey, and it’s all groove. Where’re the great songs? I’m not excited with the new crop of singers with their light, ethereal voices. I need some meat on the bone. Arthur Prysock? Yeah, man. Fantastic singer. I asked my mother why he wasn’t as popular as Billy Eckstine. She said Billy was cuter. He was gorgeous, but I thought Arthur Prysock was handsome.
10 Billie Holiday
“Everything Happens To Me” (from Rare Live Recordings 1934-1959, ESP). Holiday vocal; Jimmy Rowles, piano, Artie Bernstein, bass. Recorded 1955.
Where’d you find this? She could take any song, and once she sang it…this is, wow. Is that Jimmy [Rowles]? What is that?
It’s a rehearsal.
Get out of here. I need that. It’s like being there with her. It’s interesting when Jimmy Rowles suggested she sing that phrase differently. I know when we did the Billie record, the guys would go off into a corner and listen to her phrasing and analyze it, along with what the musicians did behind her. I said to the guys, really? Why do you do that? So hearing Jimmy make that suggestion was like opening the window a little crack. It was also interesting because I’ve listened to her so much that I can anticipate how she’s gonna phrase. So I did a serious analysis in the four months I did her. Listening to this reminded me of Thad’s advice; don’t listen to singers. If I had listened to Billie, I would have sung like Billie. My ear is like a sponge and I’m good at imitating. So listening to that brought it all back to me. She had such an unusual voice. Just the sound of it, and the texture of it after the drugging, smoking and drinking, gave it an interesting quality. It was nasal and whiny and husky, but she had a way of phrasing that was unique to her. Her sense of timing was impeccable. She is singularly the jazz singer who has influenced the most jazz singers. When you talk to pop singers, if they’ve listened to anyone in jazz, they’ve listened to Billie Holiday. I don’t know if it’s the pathos in her life, or the aura she’s been given. There’s Billie Holiday, there’s James Dean, there’s Marilyn Monroe. There’s this myth around her. And it keeps drawing every generation to these myths. I don’t know what it is. I’m fascinated with it too.
So what speaks to you about Billie?
It’s the sensibility of the woman. I don’t listen to Billie. When I listen to Billie I get sad. I think she was a woman who died so young, 49. She had such a hard life and she was a militant, kind of a rebel during her time period. And I just can’t imagine living how she lived. Can you imagine driving in a car down the road in the South and seeing black bodies strung up, that have been lynched, that have been hung? And this is your view going to the venue where you’re supposed to perform, not being allowed in the front door, and then being relegated to having to find a place to stay every night? Now what does that do to one’s psyche? I hear anger in her voice. I hear frustration in her voice, I hear hurt. I hear so many things and it conjures up so much that it’s hard for me to listen to. She’s hard for me to listen to like Abbey Lincoln is hard for me to listen to. I feel that Abbey is the extension of Billie. Abbey was more prolific as a fighter, but Billie wrote “God Bless The Child.” I couldn’t sing for 4 months after I did the play. She consumed me. I was truly possessed by Billie Holiday, so I don’t like to go to that place. When I listen to Billie, it dredges up stuff that I’ve tried to push into a dark, dark corner of my life.
Some recordings that changed your life?
Nina Simone’s Four Women. Aretha, all of Aretha. Now that’s a voice. I’ve had experiences with her, personally. She’s quite a character. And Tina Turner; I just love the grit in her voice. I love the woman. She’s about survival and sticking to her guns. She did amazing things with her limited vocal range. She knows how to work what she has and she’s this bigger than life person to me.
This piece originally appeared in the May, 2013 issue of JazzTimes. Photographs by Larry Appelbaum