Ottawa Jazz Festival: Dee Dee Bridgewater delves deeply into her Memphis musical roots

When Denise Eileen Garrett was young living in Memphis, Tennessee, she had a secret passion. Like a lot of kids, she liked to listen to music at night after lights out. Under her blankets she was enjoying soul, R&B and blues tunes until 2 or 3 a.m., sometimes so late that her parents had to work hard to get her up for school.

Sixty years later, Denise is DeeDee Bridgewater and she is an award winning jazz singer. But she has never forgotten that early secret passion and in many ways it is the inspiration behind her latest album Memphis … Yes, I’m Ready which celebrates her home town and its place in the history of American music.

“This is the music from my growing up,” she said from her new home in New Orleans. “This is the music that inspired me and moved me when I was teenager.

“I didn’t share listening to this music with anybody. I listened to it after hours when I was supposed to be asleep. I couldn’t share this because my parents might hear about it and I’d get in trouble. It was my secret musical garden.” That one of the stations she listened employed her father as a DJ was an added incentive. Matthew Garrett was known as Matt The Platter Cat on the black station WDIA.

The record has allowed Bridgewater to go back to a time “that I had kind of skipped over and to understand it, share it and make it bigger than me.”

The music of Memphis will be part of her show at the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival on Sunday.

There is indeed an incredible music history in Memphis. It is the musical home of Elvis Presley and Sun Records. But there is so much more, she said. And she believes the city is not as well known or as appreciated as it should be.

“At the time when Memphis was doing blues and soul music it was given the moniker Soulville. There was focus on the city and a lot of musicians came to that city. It does have a huge music history coming out of Memphis besides Elvis Presley.

“Elvis overwhelms everyone else,” she said. Memphis was home to people like Howling Wolf, B.B. King, and Rufus Thomas. Stroll along Beale Street and the history of the Blues rolls out in front of you. Singers such as Aretha Franklin and Al Green are from Memphis. Stax Records, the great soul and R&B label was formed in Memphis. The label’s biggest artist before he died tragically was Otis Redding.

“There were great musicians who came out of Memphis besides Elvis, but because he gained so much notoriety and status, he has become the symbol of Memphis.”

Bridgewater’s father also worked with a man named Willie Mitchell. He started Hi Records and produced all of Al Green’s albums at his Royal Studios which has just celebrated its 60th anniversary. It’s now known as Willie Mitchell’s Royal Studios. Bridgewater recorded her latest album there with Willie’s son  Lawrence ‘Boo’ Mitchell producing. He’s more than following his dad’s footsteps. Boo Mitchell won a Grammy with Bruno Mars and the album Uptown Funk.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Memphis was shoved to the sidelines with the rise of Motown, Bridgewater said.

“That kind of drew the focus away. Unfortunately in our country, in the United States, there can only be one black whatever it is. Memphis was no longer the flavour of the month.”

This current album emerged out of a larger project that did not materialize.

Bridgewater was embarked on a musical ambition that aimed to trace the roots of Malian music in Africa through the Blues of the Mississippi Delta all the way to Memphis.

“What was in my mind was to do a Blues album and my original concept was a little daunting. I wanted to go from Mali and trace it in the Blues when it came to U.S. You can hear Malian Griot music in Delta Blues. (The Blues performer) Keb’ Mo’ was going to produce the album. He wanted me to go to school. He said,’ DeeDee if you are going to do this project I need you to go and do your homework. I want you to know what the blues is about’.”

She started, but she didn’t finish. Her mother developed Alzheimer’s Disease and that stopped the project. And when she started again another project popped up first that took her in another direction with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. After her mother died she returned to Memphis.

“Going to Memphis to research my formative years I was also researching my father’s history in Memphis. He had taught at one of two high schools for black kids in Memphis called Manassas High School. My father taught musicians such as Charles Lloyd, Phineas Newborn Jr, Harold Mabern, George Coleman and Booker Little.

“As a baby I had this music around me. Some of the guys would come over to our house for private lessons. Jazz music was always being played. I have sung all my life. I could always sing. I walked around house singing. I thought everybody could sing when I was seven. I just could do it.”

In her research she even found a photograph of her dad in the Stax Records Museum with a band led by Herman Green. She called her dad about the photo. He had never mentioned it. The connections she uncovered are endless. For example, when Bridgewater recorded in Royal Studios Willie Mitchell’s daughters were around and they told her that they had known her as a baby.

“I have been able to link those years to the rest of what I know about myself. It has helped to explain for me why I have always had a love of blues even though I have never recorded blues music until now.”

But she’s not sure of a future in this music.

“I’m really wrestling with how deep I should go into this. It was quite funny that this album project came to fruition the same year I was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master.

“I thought to myself, ‘This is a fine howdy do’.”

She was wondering what jazz people would think about her making a blues record. That matters. Still “one thing that I am known for is I am going to do what I want to do. I walked my truth. The album also buoyed my spirit as my mother was dying. I needed something light.

“I have always tried to stay true to myself and my musical journeys and beliefs and influences. That has served me well. I’m one of a few jazz singers who has had a long-standing career and part of that I attribute to the fact that I vary my musical style.”

For example she has put together a collection of Kurt Weill standards on one album called This Is New and on another called The Red Earth, she explored her ancestry in Mali, Central Africa.

“Every album has been different and had its reason for coming into existence.”

She’s also been adventurous in the places she has lived. She spent two decades in Paris, France where she landed on a tour with the musical called Sophisticated Ladies. The tour was cancelled after Paris and she stayed. Now she has moved to New Orleans where she is still unpacking into the home she shares with her Maltese-Shih Tzu cross Daisy.

Her life reminds one of the great American dancer Josephine Baker, who was a sensation in Europe when she moved to Paris in the 1920s.

“My great aunt Lottie Gee is one of the people who convinced Josephine to move to Paris. When I lived in Paris I was the honorary president of the Josephine Baker Association. I met five of her adopted children. They called me the modern day Josephine Baker.

“When I was seven years old, I announced to my mom and dad that when I grew up I wanted to be an internationally well-known jazz singer. I wanted to live in Paris, France. And I was going to buy them a house and a car. And I did all those things. I can say to young people follow your dreams because they can come true.”

DeeDee Bridgewater with the Memphis Soulphony
TD Ottawa Jazz Festival
Where: Top Shelf Main Stage Marion Dewar Plaza
When: June 24 at 8:30 p.m.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.