Dee Bridgewater talks to Joanne Kee about inspiration and collaboration and allowing yourself to be in the moment                               Image courtesy Mark Higashino

JK: You have had such a richness and sense of family in your musical career.  What are some of the most rewarding musical experiences you have had, though I am sure there have been many.

DB: I have.  I have been so blessed. I have had so many amazing musical experiences throughout my life. I would almost have to go and read my own biography right now, (honey toned chuckle) but you know, of great jazz musicians Thad Jones, Mel Lewis, Clarke Terry, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Max Roach I mean I’ve been all over the gamut –  Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Pharoah Sanders, then there’s George Duke, then there’s Stanley Clarke, then there’s Chick Corea, then there’s Herbie Hancock…

JK: I don’t think there’s anyone that you can’t name.

DB: And I work with Ray Charles. Over the years I’ve recorded a duet with Ray Charles. BB King, I am going to the family funeral on Saturday. I am singing at the funeral because I played on several occasions with BB. And then you can go into the pop world and more, European Zucchero and I don’t know, I’ve been a lot of places.

JK: When you play with these musicians what is it that makes that spark of something special?

DB: It’s allowing oneself to be open and to be in tune with each other and to allow yourself to just be transported musically. For example on this State department tour I just did with the Thelonious Monk fellows and with Herbie Hancock.  Herbie and I just decided to do something that we have never done. That was just literally, I sat down on the piano bench with him and he just started to play and we completely improvised, 100%. In order to do something like that, (I mean that’s something he does musically. He’s done that a lot, he and Wayne Shorter are known for that), but he’s never done that with a singer.

So, we had some conversations and I said “You know what Herbie, rather than us trying to find a song that we both know and doing a jazz standard (and we’re both tired of that) let’s just improvise. Let’s just sit down and we did.

Each time it was beautiful, each time it was different and what happened in those situations is, it creates a kind of spiritual connection that happens in that moment. It is something that then lingers because you and that other individual have transcended to another level spiritually together because of that connection. So it’s just a beautiful thing to have that kind of moment.

JK: And I guess it also makes for an incredibly special experience for the audience as well?

DB: Absolute, absolutely, that is totally the truth.

JK: Your project with Irvin and New Orleans, can you tell me about that please, how it began, where you see it going to, I see you have an album release coming up?

DB: I first worked with Irvin doing a Christmas show in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He’s artistic director for the jazz program with the Minneapolis Philharmonic and he put together a Christmas show and asked me to be a part of it. So I performed some songs with the Minneapolis Philharmonic and then with Irvin and his trio. I don’t know we just had a connection and subsequently I stole his drummer (chuckles).

I stole his drummer for a year and a half and then after that I was taken by a friend when I was visiting New Orleans (they have a famous festival there, the New Orleans Heritage Festival). I stayed on for a couple of days and I was over at a friend’s house and she said “Oh, let’s go out to hear this young trumpet player. He’s name is Irvin Mayfield and I said “I know him.” And she said “you know he has a club” and I said “Nooo”, so she took me to his club and he was performing and I ended up just inviting myself up on stage and (laughs), in the middle of a blues. Irvin and I ended up doing a kind of free style competition of blues lyrics and once again,  it was one of those magic bonding things.

After that he asked me to sing with the band and maybe the first time was two years ago. I did the New Orleans Jazz festival with NOJO, the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and Irvin (then I don’t remember the chronology), I performed with Irvin and a quintet out of the band at a second club that Irvin has.

I was actually caught in New Orleans in another hurricane called hurricane Isaac. After that we did another festival together and they named me their honorary Chair person of their Board and I’ve just been working along with their board. I am involved with the New Orleans Jazz market . I am going to be doing a vocal workshop, trying to find young singers from all over the States and even outside the States that I can kind of mentor. We’re about to set up a program. The stage is going to be named the Dee Dee Bridgewater stage, the New Orleans Jazz market.

It’s about letting go and being in the moment and the things that grow out of that. You know all of these things that are happening have grown out of that first meeting that we had six years ago. You just never know when you open yourself up.

The album itself, Dee Dee’s Feathers was actually intended just to be a product that was going to be sold at the New Orleans Jazz market when it opened. It opened on April 2nd . We went into the studio a month after the ground breaking ceremony which was February 26th of last year and I said to Irvin I wanted to do all New Orleans songs and I wanted him to introduce me to New Orleans. So he and this fabulous big band took me on this wonderful journey. After three days of recording when I listened to the tracks I said “Holy cow, this is something special. This is something special and maybe it deserves to be a commercial CD”. So I was able to get it licensed through Sony okay and it’s on my label DDB records.

I think it’s about you know Joanne, the album and the whole experience in New Orleans, and this kind of special kindred spirit that I feel with this city, is all borne out of allowing oneself to be open and to go with one’s intuition, go with one’s feelings and not to have any preconceived notions . Just to allow yourself to be in the moment that you find yourself in in life.

So this album for us is a celebration of life in New Orleans. It’s a celebration of life itself and it’s about the resilience of the city that has come back from such a huge devastation, that the world knows about, which was Hurricane Katrina. So for me and Irvin it’s about that. It’s about the joy and resilience of the people, the history and the commitment to protecting and honouring this history and the fact that New Orleans is the birth place of jazz, so it’s all of those things . That’s a lot of things.

Dee Dee Bridgewater is performing with Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra

Sydney, City Recital Hall 6 June 2015

Melbourne International Jazz Festival 7 June 2015

Release date Dee Dee’s Feathers, August 2015

JK: There was a quote you made in the Guardian. They asked you a question and your response was “I am just a frustrated man”. Do you remember the question they asked you? (deep, rich laughter).  It was about challenges and being in the industry.

DB:  I think I was a man in another life. I think in one of my former lives I had to have been a man, because I am very comfortable with men and I don’t have any fear when I find myself in a situation with a lot of men. I’ve always been the only woman with a lot of men and my bands are predominantly all male, and so I’ve had to learn how to wear both hats.

I’ve had to learn how to use femininity to get what I want from a male dominated situation. Because what I have found and what I try to tell women is not to be afraid of your femininity and to use your femininity, and it has nothing to do with your sexuality. Use your femininity because you can beguile a man and you can get so much done (laughs) and so I am not afraid of my femininity and using it.

I can still get my point across with a smile and saying it softly, as a woman. I don’t have to raise my voice. I don’t have to act like I am a man. I don’t want to be a man. I like being this person that I am. Although that’s taken me years to appreciate who it is. (laughs)

JK: Following on from the mentoring program, what advice would you give young artists?

DB: It is an extremely challenging industry today. You know I recently gave the Commencement speech to the 2015 graduates of Berklee College of music and what I told them is that they have to work hard and that nothing is given. They are not entitled to anything. Young people today have this feeling that they should have fame. It doesn’t work that way. You have to earn everything. No one wants someone who is arrogant, who is young and just starting out and they act like they know everything.

So I say to young people trying to start out in this business to be prepared as you can musically. To be able to read a contract, to not allow anyone to sign contracts on their behalf, you’ve got to sit down, you’ve got to begin to understand the legalese. Get a legal dictionary if you don’t understand legalese when you are reading a contract. It’s just like if you are reading a book and it has vocabulary you are not used to, what would you do? You want to understand your story. Now it’s an online dictionary but you still have to go to a source.

JK: It’s been lovely to speak to you. Thank you so much. I am looking forward to seeing you in Sydney.

DB: You have to come. We’re going to second line. We’re going to come down into the audience and we’re going to second line. We’re going to have a party.