Dee Dee Bridgewater could be considered a renaissance woman. Born Denise Eileen Garrett, she’s gained fame on Broadway, in concert, and on vinyl, winning three Grammys and a Tony in the process. She hosts her own radio show on PBS, JazzSet With Dee Dee Bridgewater, and serves as a United Nations ambassador for the Food and Agriculture Organization. A read through her bio reveals a who’s who of the great jazz artists she’s performed with — Ray Charles, Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, and Max Roach among them. She’s also emulated others, recording a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald (Dear Ella) and an album dedicated to the songs of Kurt Weill (This Is New), and appeared onstage as Billie Holiday in Lady Day, a role that won her the Laurence Olivier Award for her portrayal.
And let’s not forget that other notable role of fictional fame, Glinda the Good Witch from The Wiz, which garnered Bridgewater her first Tony in 1975.
“I love every role I’ve ever done,” Bridgewater responds when asked to name her favorite roles. “I did Glinda for two and a half years. When I finally left that show, I had to take a break. It was the same when I did Lady Day. Doing Billie Holiday was my most challenging role. I did Ain’t Misbehavin.’ I did The 1940s Radio Hour. My characters have always been a lot of fun, but I really enjoyed Sally Bowles [Cabaret] — an African-American character in Germany at the beginning of Nazism. I tried to gather as much information as I could use to legitimize my portrayal of Sally. It worked. It was quite successful.”
Still, it’s her real-life associations with many of the greats of the music world that have helped make her a staple on the world’s concert stages. There was one artist in particular who left an especially indelible impact.
“Without a doubt, it was Ray Charles,” she says. “I did a duet with Ray on an album of mine in France that was never released in the United States. I worked with him over a period of two years because of the success of the duet. I did a lot of television shows, a lot of festivals and one-off concerts with him. Those two years were really an amazing period for me. That’s what catapulted me to the forefront of jazz in Europe. After I did that duet with him, it caused the album Victim of Love to be a success. After Ray, I’d say Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, and Thad Jones. I started out with Thad Jones and the Mel Lewis Orchestra. Working with them allowed me to make my first trips to Europe between 1970 and 1973.”
With all she’s accomplished in her career, Bridgewater still manages to take things in stride. “I never try to top anything,” she insists. “I don’t think of my music and projects like that. You concentrate on whatever the project is and just make it the best you can, so that it will leave a lasting impression on people."
Asked about the high points of her career, she maintains her modesty, even to the point of sounding self-effacing. “I’m 65, so I’ve had many moments!,” she laughs. “I’d rather do and show I’m worthy of all the awards and accolades over the years than talk about them. I guess you could say I’m a low key person. I can be a little extravagant when I have fun. Even there, with age, you don’t act as silly. But, I can still act pretty silly!”
Neiman Marcus Coral Gables and Stellé Audio Present Dee Dee Bridgewater. 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, November 7, at Neiman Marcus in Coral Gables, 390 San Lorenzo Ave., Coral Gables; 786-999-1000, ext. 3034. Admission is free.
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