In December, Dee Dee Bridgewater ruptured her Achilles tendon after missing a step while taking out the trash. Three months later, during a festival in Indonesia, she was being led backstage in the dark and fell down a stairwell. She ruptured her Achilles in a second place, along with her tibia. Bridgewater had to get a metal plate and several screws in her knee.
Bad luck? Not to the three-time Grammy-winning jazz singer and longtime host of NPR’s JazzSet. Bridgewater said she believes everything happens for a reason. “I’m starting to see the importance of handicap accessible entrances,” she said. “A lot of hotels are not handicap accessible.”
The insight is classic Bridgewater, who has been active on social issues throughout her life. In 1999, she was named an Ambassador for the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, which battles global hunger. She has helped raise funds to help residents suffering from the water crises in Flint, Mich., where she grew up. Named a 2017 Jazz Master for the National Endowment for the Arts, she has spoken out against the Trump administration’s proposed defunding of the NEA.
“I want to stand with people and draw attention to problems,” she said. “I’ve always done that.”
And she has. With the Black Panthers in the 1960s, she served breakfast to hungry children. When she lived in New York in the 1970s, she performed at prisons across the state, and even wrote music with inmates. If she wasn’t a musician, she said, she thinks she’d be a defense attorney.
“There are musicians who talk the talk, and there are some who walk the walk,” said Larry Blumenfeld, jazz writer for the Wall Street Journal “Dee Dee is certainly one who walks the walk, and really understands the issues she’s talking about.”
Irvin Mayfield, a Grammy Award-winning trumpeter from New Orleans who has recorded with Bridgewater, recalled an episode that has stayed with him. “I was at a show with Dee Dee at the Apollo Theater and a woman came up to her and said, ‘I used to listen to your music and it helped me get through a rough time. My husband used to beat me, and your music helped me,’” Mayfield said, taking a moment before continuing. “That had a profound impact on me as an artist.”
Mayfield said that Bridgewater, who has also won a Tony for her performance in "The Wiz," belongs to a league of artists who have transcended their “revolutionary spirit” through their music. It’s an experience fans feel when listening to Bob Marley, Nina Simone and Louis Armstrong, he said.
Bridgewater got her start in 1971 with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. Soon after, she began recording with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon. In the 1980s, she moved to Paris, where she was nominated for a Sir Laurence Olivier Award for her portrayal of Billie Holiday in a one-woman show. She returned to the United States in the mid-1990s.
She has made a name for herself interpreting influential songs from other artists. Her albums have included tributes to Duke Ellington, Kurt Weill, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, who she portrayed on stage in the 2013 off-Broadway musical "Lady Day." Her most recent album, "Feathers," is a tribute to New Orleans, where she moved last year.
At the Spoleto Festival, she’ll perform songs from a new project that looks back at artists from Memphis, where she was born.
“This is music that I think is going to surprise people who know me as a jazz singer, to hear this other side of me,” Bridgewater said.
The songs hearken back to a Memphis radio station called WDIA that played music by B.B. King, Otis Redding, and Gladys Knight, she said.
“I’m at the point in my life when I want to have fun,” Bridgewater said. “I want audiences to have fun. We’re in such troubled times that I think we need music that just has a groove or a positive message.”
Brianna Kirkham is a Goldring Arts Journalist at Syracuse University.