Dee Dee BridgewaterDee Dee Bridgewater has just made her first visit to Melbourne, effectively weaving her particular musical magic over the audience (she performed with her Quintet on the closing night of the 2012 Melbourne International Jazz Festival) and it appears that the love affair is very much a two way thing. I had the pleasure of speaking with Bridgewater and before we began the formal interview she talked excitedly about her initial impressions of Melbourne: it's funky ... kind of laid back ... I feel I could just come here and be wack and it'd be all right!

Music has always been part of her life. Born Denise Garrett on May 27 1950 in Memphis, Tennessee, she grew up in Flint, Michigan where her jazz trumpeter father was a teacher. There was always music playing in the house, if it wasn't a record, an LP [throaty laughter], I had the radio on (R&B because there was no jazz station in Flint) .... I always listened to music, I always sang and at the age of seven I announced to my parents that when I grew up I was going to be an internationally renowned jazz singer ... and I used to say to mum, you know I'm going to move to France one day. I need to live in France.

Bridgewater was around in Flint when Motown started and famously said 'no' to Motown's founder Berry Gordy. I did! Is that cute? She was sixteen and Gordy had suggested that her father bring her back when she was eighteen but, riding back from the audition I said to my daddy, I don't want to go back ... I wanna sign with Capitol records, that's where Nancy Wilson is.

Still in her teens Bridgewater sang with the Sherman Mitchell Quintet (her father was the trumpeter) – Nancy Wilson, Dionne Warwick or jazz standards where among her repertoire. She even formed her own vocal trio, The Irridescents, and wrote songs because that's what I thought you did in R&B.

At Michigan State University she met Andy Goodrich and became the 'Plus One' of The Andy Goodrich Quintet Plus One. When they played in a competition at the University of Illinois, she was awarded a special prize (there was not a prize for vocal) and invited to join the University Jazz Band, led by John Garvey, on their cultural exchange tour to Russia.

After this she married trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater and they moved to New York where her husband worked with the Horace Silver Quintet. My honeymoon was being on the road with Cecil, listening to Horace Silver music which I'd fallen in love with at fifteen when I first heard 'Song of My Father'.

Cecil next joined the Thad Jones and Mel Lewis Big Band. When Jones and Lewis decided to audition for a female singer Bridgewater didn't have the nerve to say she was interested. However she took time off from work as a bank secretary to be at the auditions and couldn't believe their choice – I was like they can't be serious, she's horrible. I remember going up to Mal Lewis and saying excuse me Mr Lewis, ... I'm a singer and I'd like to audition.

Because they had no more studio time Lewis said that if she wanted to audition she'd have to sing at the club that Monday night. The Club was The Village Vanguard, still famous for its Monday night Jazz orchestra. She was hired on the spot, and so out of that experience I performed with some of the biggest names in jazz; these included Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Max Roach, Sonny Rollins and Chic Corea.

In the1980s Bridgewater travelled to France for the first time, as one of the stars of the musical review Sophisticated Ladies, based on the music of Duke Ellington. In 1986 she returned to France, this time with a one woman show based on the life of Billie Holiday, Lady Day. And, France is where she stayed until recently when she returned to the US to look after her mother.

One of the people she met in France was Abbey Lincoln, who became her friend and mentor. My next recording project is going to be Abbey's material and that's a promise I made to her. Bridgewater admits to being more than a little daunted by the project. Lincoln's world is so profound and so distinctly her that you have to leave yourself in order to go into her world; her lyrics are very difficult to learn.

Asked about the experience of trying to make another person's work her own, Bridgewater says that it's as if something kind of morphs into me. I will take the song and learn the song. When I start performing the song, in the beginning, I'm pretty much married to the original version. And then as I get more and more comfortable with it I can start to interpret it in my own way. Sometimes it's easier than at others. Difficult or not, Bridgewater gave a beautiful rendition of Lincoln's The Music is the Magic at her Melbourne concert.

Bridgewater has a host of awards to her name both for jazz and for musical theatre, among them three Grammy Awards, a Tony for her role as Glinda the good witch in The Whiz (1975) and an Olivier Award nomination as best actress in a musical for Lady Day (1987).

Above all she likes entertaining an audience. I've been critiqued a lot because of my dramatic readings.... [Laughter] ... But I can't help it, it's just who I am. ... I like that I've become, to coin what Tony Bennett said, a jazz entertainer ... I think that's a brilliant phrase. ... I believe that my live performance, which is what I live off of, ... has given me a good reputation so that people know that no matter what I'm doing they're going to get a good show. And I like to make people laugh; I'm into the self-depreciating humour.

And how does she keep up such a punishing schedule (this year she will performs in the US, Australia and Europe)? Well it seems that sleep is the best medicine, along with singing correctly – I sing from the diaphragm. So even if I get hoarse I'm able to still have a voice and ... after years and years and years of trying to do this and do that, drink this, gargle with that, I have found that my best remedy, when I'm performing, is sipping on hot tea with lemon and honey and drinking lots of water. ... Of course wrapping the throat up when you go out and all that. I was out today and I didn't take my scarf, but it gave me an excuse to buy a scarf that was made in Victoria. So I'm taking something back Australian. ... I wanna come back.

And if the audience at her Melbourne concert are anything to go by, we would welcome a return visit from Dee Dee Bridgewater.


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