Riding the crest of her own wave

Dee Dee Bridgewater's artistic odyssey has led her across the globe to discover her African roots, onto the stage and into recording studios.

DD Bridgewater 88  224 (photo credit: Philippe Pierangeli)
DD Bridgewater 88 224
(photo credit: Philippe Pierangeli)
It is hardly a new idea - African American jazz musicians have been exploring their African roots through their art since the discipline first emerged in the late 19th century. But you get the feeling that singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, who will perform at the Holon Theater on June 3 as part of this year's Israel Festival, is following that avenue with more than average gusto. Memphis, Tennessee-born Bridgewater's upcoming gig here will be based on material from her recent acclaimed album, Red Earth, which she recorded in Mali with jazz bassist Ira Coleman and pianist Edsel Gomez - along with a host of local ethnic musicians. It has been a long and ultimately enriching odyssey. "Red Earth is very much about me looking for my African ancestry," the singer says in a telephone interview from her home base of Paris. "Every time I listened to music from Mali I felt knew it innately. After four years of always turning to Mali music I decided to go there." That happened in August 2004 and, as she suspected, Bridgewater instantly felt at home there. She also got some impressive backing for her intuition. "I feel my ancestry was from there. I really believe that. Even the president of Mali said he believes I am a descendant of people from Mali." For Bridgewater, in many ways Red Earth is the culmination of that cultural and spiritual homecoming. "I have been to Mali three times now. Being there gives me a better idea of myself as a whole person. It is wonderful to be in a place where most people are of a similar color to me, and to feel at home there. I have spent my life in a white world trying to assimilate and fit in." BESIDE HER African explorations, 58-year-old Bridgewater's professional path has wended its way across widely ranging artistic terrain. She has won kudos for her acting abilities, including a Tony Award in 1975 for her role in Glinda the Good Witch, and in 1986 she was a nominee for the Laurence Olivier Award for her role as legendary jazz diva Billie Holiday in Lady Day. Add France's top music award, the 1998 Victoire de la Musique for Best Jazz Vocal Album, and a couple of Grammies along the way, and you get some idea of Bridgewater's across-the-board public appeal and her standing in the profession. Like most budding jazz artists from outside the Big Apple, in 1970 she gravitated to New York and quickly came to the attention of some of the big guns of the jazz community, including the likes of drummer Max Roach, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins. She also fronted the acclaimed Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. Her debut recording, Afro Blue, came out in 1974 and was well received. She has been wowing audiences across the globe ever since. Not just a showcase of impressive vocal abilities, Bridgewater is, like all the great divas, very much an entertainer. Her highly animated early Eighties spot at Tel Aviv's Mann Auditorium, for example - as the warm-up act for Nina Simone - literally stole the show. And her Live at Yoshi's album from 2000 conveys the rapport she strikes up with her audience in no uncertain manner. Bridgewater has never been inclined to stick to one area of her craft, and she says her eclectic approach comes over well here. "I have performed in Israel before and I feel people in Israel are pretty open to different styles and cultural influences, and to what I do." She is also very much her own person and prefers to steer her own professional path. "I have been producing myself since 1993. That gives me the freedom I like. It's too easy to stay in the same vein of music. That gets boring, I need a challenge." You can bet your bottom shekel that the Holon show will be anything but boring. Dee Dee Bridgewater will appear at the Holon Theater on June 3 at 9 p.m. Ticket information: (03) 502-3001/2/3 or www.hth.co.il