Dee Dee Bridgewater, whose career spans four decades and includes Grammy- and Tony Award-winning performances, returns to New Orleans on her upcoming album Dee Dee’s Feathers. Born in Memphis and raised in Flint, Mich., the singer and producer’s attachment to the city is based on a long history of performing there, getting to know its legendary music scene firsthand.
Dee Dee’s Feathers — recorded with Irvin Mayfield and his New Orleans Jazz Orchestra in a historical church-turned-studio in the city’s famous Treme district — is a tribute to New Orleans’ resiliency on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, as well as a commemoration of Mayfield and Bridgewater’s work on the New Orleans Jazz Market, a dedicated jazz performance and education center in the heart of the city. Fifteen songs span New Orleans’ incredible musical history and celebrate the many diverse artists who’ve made it such a unique place.
Bridgewater spoke with Billboard about the inspiration for the album and shared a video of the recording session for “House of the Rising Sun,” which you can watch exclusively on Billboard below.
What’s your relationship been like with New Orleans through the years?
The first time I went to New Orleans was in 1983. I performed at the famous Saenger Theatre with the touring company of Sophisticated Ladies — I was starring in that. I was there for two weeks, and the artistic director of the theater was from New Orleans, he was a Creole guy. He took me around and he showed me New Orleans, like, real New Orleans. Not just the tourist New Orleans. I loved it.
My second was in 1996. I was living in France, but I’d come back for some dates, and one of the dates was the Jazz and Heritage Festival. There is a vibe in that city that is palatable for me, that just peaks all of my senses. It’s a magical place, a historical place. The people, the food, the architecture — people are proud of the history. You run into people on the street and they can tell you stuff about their city.
For generations, their families have been doing the music. It’s just a special place. The way that the black culture is, it really is connected to African culture, where they keep the homes in the family, and keep them for generations. That’s a very African [kind of] culture. The music, and the dancing, and the sense of community — that’s all very, very African. Maybe there’s a part of that that moved me as well.
In more recent years, I’ve been feeling the need to connect with my African ancestry. I did my DNA test. I found out that on my mother’s side of the family, we are 100% descendants of a Nigerian tribe called the Fulani. It’s a nomadic tribe, and I am a nomadic person. My kids are all nomadic. The women are fiercely independent. They’re like warriors — they’ll fight. That’s me.
Finding that out, combining that with what I feel in New Orleans — I feel like my life is starting to make sense to me.
So you had the chance to visit before Katrina happened…
I was there working with Irvin [Mayfield] and a sextet that he had, and was in a hurricane called Hurricane Isaac. That was my first hurricane — some damage, but nothing like Katrina. They had curfews, and people moved into the hotels, and then they do what they call “hurricane parties.” It’s a wild, wild city.
As a person who had visited before, how did you see the city change after the hurricane?
I didn’t get to visit immediately after. Now that I’ve been going back and forth a little more frequently, and I’ve driven around, I’m seeing how the city is coming back, and how they’re building up the neighborhoods. Irvin and his partner Ron Markham put the Jazz Market in one of the worst-hit neighborhoods, Mid-City.
I feel like the involvement that I have now, with the band and with the Jazz Market, is kind of my way of contributing to the rebirth of the city.
Obviously New Orleans have a lot of iconic songs that are tied to the city — what was the first one that you guys decided on for the album?
I think the first one that Irvin said we absolutely had to do was “St. James Infirmary.” He told me how it’s a tradition in New Orleans that when someone does do that song, they usually change the story up to personalize it, and make it their story. He changed the lyrics — I’m singing lyrics pertaining to our situation, instead of the original ones. That was very cool.
Were there any songs that you personally felt had to be included?
“One Fine Thing,” the opening track — it’s a Harry Connick, Jr. song from an album that he put out in 2013. I heard him perform it on the Letterman show and I said, “Oh my God, he wrote that song for me. That’s my song.” That was the only song that I said we had to do. Because we decided to do some older songs, some newer songs, and some i-between, just to touch a little bit on the different eras. I insisted.
That’s also the only song on the CD arranged by the only female in the band — at the time she did the arrangement, she was 23. She did a hell of a job, in my opinion. Her name is Emily Fredrickson.
You’ve recorded tributes before to artists like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Horace Silver. How do you prepare to record a tribute album?
Every album I’ve done has been totally different. [Recently], I haven’t been inspired — I haven’t done an album in five years. Something has to have sparked me to create the interest in doing that particular theme, or that particular project.
With this album, Dee Dee’s Feathers, it was not originally a concept for a commercial CD. I had gone to New Orleans for the groundbreaking ceremony for the Jazz Market, and at the dinner I was sitting with Irvin, and I said, “You know what we should do is a CD that we can sell at the venue that will show people coming in that I’m really seriously connected with the orchestra, and seriously connected to the Market.” I’ll never forget the date — February 26, and March 26 we were in the studio.
When we did it — and we did it in just three days — it sounded so good when I was listening to the tracks afterwards that I called Irvin and said, “I think I need to try to shop us a deal for this, because I think this is a little too good.”