If jazz musicians are like one big happy family, then Dee Dee Bridgewater would certainly be the protective big sister over her younger siblings.
The vocalist, with her iconic bald head, has a career that spans four-plus decades and has earned the multitalented performer a global fan base, three Grammys, a Tony award and a slot hosting the NPR program Jazz Set with Dee Dee Bridgewater.
Bridgewater credits her success to being taken under the wings of legends such as Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry and Thad Jones. Now, she wants to focus more on helping other performers showcase their talent.
She believes her purpose as an artist is “to get the old school jazz people to open up to something new.”
“I’m at that point in my life right now where I want to provide exposure and opportunities for young musicians to get some recognition,” says Bridgewater following her recent performance at this year’s National Black Arts Festival (NBAF) gala.
“Music is healing. I’m very pleased with this new crop of young musicians. They’re coming along and bringing something fresh and new to jazz. They’re broadening the scope of jazz and making it more accessible.”
Released under Bridgewater’s DDB Productions imprint, Croker’s collection seams together jazz, hip hop, soul, funk, pop, Latin rhythms and bebop. Bridgewater refers to Croker as her “adopted child.”
“He is amazingly talented,” she says with a delightful tone. “He’s allowed me to get out of the traditional vein that I’ve been in for so many years. I like spreading my wings. We’re having a good time and playing some good music.”
At the NBAF gala, Bridgewater and Croker, who frequently perform together, filled in last minute for trumpeter and film composer Terence Blanchard. The pair staged a three-song repertoire including a soothing cover of Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It.”
Onstage, Bridgewater’s comforting vocals are equipped with lush vibrato. The Memphis native also scats and improvises. Croker, who arranged the pair’s set, blows his horn similar to Bridgewater’s vocals. The singer, whose father, first cousin and former husband Cecil Bridgewater, are all trumpeters, even refers to her voice as “a trumpet.”
Bridgewater and Croker met following one of his gigs in Shanghai. Post-gala performance, Croker, whose late grandfather, Doc Cheatham, was also a Grammy-winning trumpeter, spoke about being conditioned to become a road warrior similar to Bridgewater, who’s lived in France since the early 1980s.
Sitting adjacent to Bridgewater sipping on a beer, the Oberlin Conservatory alumnus, living in both Shanghai and Manhattan, goes into detail about his early morning schedules, hectic travel arrangements, sound checks and catnaps.
“I learned how to live on the road and play. I live for playing music,” says Croker relaxing in the Intercontinental Buckhead Atlanta’s courtyard. “That’s what Dee Dee does!”
Bridgewater, sitting with her legs crossed, a lit cigarette and a cocktail, chimes in. “That’s what I do…and getting ready to do it some more,” she says. “We gon’ be doing this for a while.”
As Bridgewater relaxes with Croker, she periodically laughs at a few jokes and thanks a few attendees who approach her. The ambassador to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization and board member to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz flashes back to performing at International Jazz Day in Osaka, Japan.
She remembers performing at the inaugural show at the United Nations’ General Assembly Hall. The following year, she was on tour and couldn’t attend the event. Bridgewater hadn’t been to Japan since the tsunami hit in 2011 but made it a priority to attend this year’s festivities.
“I’m happy to be a part of something that I think is historical,” says Bridgewater. “That was really fun. It was a beautiful experience, and there was so much talent. I got to sit down at breakfast with Lalah [Hathaway] and Esperanza [Spalding].”
“It’s nice to have that kind of respect for musicians that I hold in high esteem, and they hold me in that same category. It’s wonderful. It’s humbling,” adds Bridgewater.
Bridgewater is quite fond of Spalding. When the young bassist received the “Best New Artist” Grammy, Bridgewater, then sitting in the audience, called Spalding’s recognition “a magical moment.”
The singer jokingly admits she didn’t want to attend International Jazz Day’s press conference because she was too busy enjoying her chats with Spalding, who she affectionately refers to as “Espe.”
“She’s one of my babies,” says Bridgewater. “I’m really proud of her, too.”
Still sharing a few laughs and talking amongst themselves, Croker and Bridgewater have incredible chemistry. She can’t stop stressing how extremely proud and grateful she is to be in his company. He’s a sought after festival performer. Her longtime agent also wants to represent him.
Croker, on the other hand, is equally grateful to have met Bridgewater. Having studied under jazz greats like Donald Byrd and The Heath Brothers, the Presser Foundation Music Award recipient and former artist-in-residence at Ritz Theatre and Museum says Bridgewater’s mentorship has helped him to fully embrace his musical identity.
“[Dee Dee] helped remind me it’s all about being yourself,” says Croker. “It’s really not about following trends or trying to make other people like or understand it necessarily.”
“Being accessible is always important. Maintaining who you are within is really what matters,” adds Croker.
“I tell him don’t be afraid to do the things that he hears,” she says. “Gaining confidence from the response that he gets is something invaluable…and to be able to hang with my crazy butt doing two-and-a-half-hour concerts when we’re supposed to do 90 minutes.”
Christopher A. Daniel is the pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.