Dee Dee’s Holiday

Jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater returns to Israel to perform songs from a tribute album to jazz legend Billie Holiday.

April 2, 2010 15:51
3 minute read.
Dee Dee Bridgewater.

dee dee bridgewater 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Even after close to four decades in the jazz singing business it must still be something of a daunting prospect to put together a tribute to one of the genre’s legends. Now a 59-year-old grandmother of two, powerhouse vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater has just put out a tribute album to late diva Billie Holiday, which she will showcase at a concert at the Ra’anana Amphi Park on Thursday.

In fact this is not the first time Bridgewater has handled Holiday material, and she was a lot younger first time round. Then again, there was a lot more of Holiday in the first effort when she starred in a musical, in the mid-Eighties, called Lady Day – Holiday’s nickname given to her by saxophonist Lester Young. “I portrayed Billie as she was in that show,” says Bridgewater. “I sang like her, and even spoke like her. I felt I was possessed by Billie then, I even received mail addressed to Billie. It actually took me a while to get back to my own singing voice after the show ended.”

Billie Holiday is known not only as one of the greatest jazz singers of all time but also as a tragic figure who endured a traumatic childhood, racial abuse, drug addiction and a not particularly successful marriage. She died in 1959 at the age of only 44. But, for Bridgewater, Holiday was far more than just a singer with a difficult life. “I put her original name [Eleanora Fagan] on the album cover because I thought that not enough people know her or associate her with being a real human being, and also a woman with a full life, with a sense of humor and a lot of strength of character, not just a tragic figure.”

The new album – Eleanora Fagan, To Billie with Love from Dee Dee Bridgewater – includes 12 numbers closely associated with Holiday. One, in particular, became a sort of anthemic song for Holiday but also represented far more than just moving music. It also presents Bridgewater with an ongoing challenge. “Yes, ‘Strange Fruit’ is a very emotive song, about lynching and racial and social injustices suffered by African Americans,” says the singer. “It’s a song that I have to choose my moments to sing it – I have to be detached in order to do it. Sometimes I just don’t feel I can handle it.”

While Bridgewater’s reading of “Strange Fruit” is chillingly emotive it is nothing at all like the original 1938 Holiday version, nor are the other 11 tracks on the new CD. “When I did Lady Day I didn’t have much personal experience in life,” Bridgewater explains, “but this album wasn’t supposed to be me doing an impersonation of Billie. This is me, doing my own thing with her material.” Actually, Eleanora Fagan was supposed to be a double album with songs from the original musical but it didn’t work out, and that’s fine. I have no problem with that.”

“Strange Fruit” has another intriguing aspect which pertains to the mutually beneficial relations between African Americans and Jews during the early days of jazz. Its poignantly African American theme notwithstanding, “Strange Fruit” was actually written by a Jew called Abel Meeropol who went by the pen name of Lewis Allan, and Holiday first sang the song at the Café Society Jazz Club, which was run by Barney Josephson and was the first jazz joint to encourage blacks to come to shows. “I was surprised when I heard that Lewis Allan was Jewish,” says Bridgewater, “but there are, of course, similarities between our two races. We were both uprooted from our native lands and struggled in our new home.”

While she says she owes a lot to Holiday, Bridgewater says it took her a while to really get into her. “When I was young I thought jazz singers had to have lots of octaves and be able to scat. Billie didn’t have either. Ella Fitzgerald was my mother’s favorite and, of course, Ella knew how to scat.” It was Bridgewater’s first husband, trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater, who directed her towards Lady Day. “He said I needed an education in her, but I said she wasn’t a singer for me. For some reason, when I had my first professional job [with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, in the early 1970s] I was compared to Billie. But Thad Jones gave me the best advice. He told me to listen to the instrumentalists.”

The April 8 show program also includes other popular Holiday numbers such as “God Bless The Child”, “Lady Sings The Blues” and “Lover Man” – all delivered in Bridgewater’s trademark highly emotive and energized style.

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