We all know the Lifetime version of Billie Holiday's life — a brief, brilliant florescence followed by a battle of attrition with drink, drugs and abusive men. But Dee Dee Bridgewater thinks there's more to that story.
"I was just tired of all of these maudlin tributes that had been done about her and to her music, and I just felt that she deserved something a little broader," Bridgewater said of the impetus behind her new don't-call-it-just-a-tribute-album devoted to songs Holiday made famous, Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie with Love from Dee Dee Bridgewater. "This was a full woman: She wasn't crying all the time. I talked with a lot of musicians who said she was very funny. She loved to tell jokes; she could curse like a sailor; she loved to cook for the musicians. At the same time, she was very independent and fiercely defensive of her beliefs."
Bridgewater points to Holiday's embracement of "Strange Fruit," the controversial song about lynching that became part of Holiday's repertoire for 20 years, as an exemplary instance of her bravery and independent-mindedness. Eleanora Fagan closes with Bridgewater's spare, affecting treatment of the song.
"When I do 'Strange Fruit,' it evokes the actual happenings of the period: the lynchings, the way that African-American people were treated in general," she said of the performance. "I usually just close my eyes and put myself into the moment, the situation. Sometimes it's very, very hard for me to do; sometimes I don't want to go there, so I just don't do it."
Bridgewater first immersed herself in Holiday's music in the late '80s, when she performed the lead role in Lady Day, a one-woman musical based on Holiday's life and music. When Bridgewater tried recently to revive that musical for a Broadway run, she conceptualized a double-album as a part of the project, the first disc being a cast recording of Lady Day, and the second being devoted to Bridgewater's own interpretation of songs Holiday performed. But her attempt to revive Lady Day stalled after Bridgewater found that these are difficult times to raise money for a show, and she was left with only the second disc, which record execs on her label's parent company, Universal, urged her to release.
But Bridgewater was hesitant. "I didn't want to put it out, because I didn't want to continue the idea that Dee Dee Bridgewater is someone who does tributes to all the other singers." Indeed, Bridgewater's discography includes a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald (Dear Ella), and other albums featuring the music of Kurt Weill, Horace Silver and Duke Ellington. But one might think of her output as being dominated by concept albums instead of tribute albums, cohesive works that dig into a particular repertory or music instead of opportunistic attempts to benefit from another's fame.
Her last two records before Eleanora Fagan saw her exploring indigenous musics by way of investigating her own identity: 2007's Red Earth blends jazz and Malian folk music, and 2005's J'ai deux amours is devoted to French chanson. Bridgewater lived full-time in Paris throughout the late '80s and '90s, and "J'ai deux amours" was a meaningful pick for an album title: the song, made famous by African-American singer and expatriate Josephine Baker, sometimes carries the translated title, "J'ai deux amours: Two loves have I, My country and Paris."
"France is a country that allowed me to grow up as an artist and woman, that has allowed me to experiment musically, to realize all of the things that I've ever wanted to do," Bridgewater, who spoke to NUVO from Paris via phone, explained. "I found that it was much easier for me to accomplish these things because I was not regarded as an African-American but as an artist; my color didn't come into it, and that is one thing that I will always, always be indebted to France for allowing. I owe a great deal to this country."