NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
The voice is unmistakable.
(Soundbite of song, "God Bless The Child")
Ms. BILLIE HOLIDAY (Musician): (Singing) Them that's got shall get. Them that's not shall lose. So the Bible said and it still is news, mama may have, papa may have. But God bless the child that's got his own, that's got his own.
CONAN: Billie Holiday first recorded "God Bless The Child" in 1941, one of the songs most closely associated with arguably the greatest jazz vocalist of them all. The drama, the improvisation, the dynamic range, the passion, often the melancholy are as much a trademark as the gardenias in her hair.
Amid her great success, Lady Day wrestled with demons: stormy relationships, substance abuse, jail time. Now, Grammy-winning jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater pays tribute to Billie Holiday on her new album.
(Soundbite of song, "God Bless The Child")
DEE DEE BRIDGEWATER: (Singing) Them that's got shall get. Them that's not shall lose. So the Bible said and it still is news. Mama may have, papa may have. But God bless the child that's got his own, that's got his own.
CONAN: If you'd like with Dee Dee Bridgewater about this tribute and about what Billie Holiday's music means to you, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Dee Dee Bridgewater joins us now from our bureau in New York. She's the host of JAZZSET WITH DEE DEE BRIDGEWATER from NPR Music. The new CD is called "Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee." It's nice to have you back on the program.
BRIDGEWATER: Thank you so much. It's very nice to be here.
CONAN: And Billie Holiday's music had to mean something important to you too.
BRIDGEWATER: Well, you know, I think Billie Holiday is singularly the most influential jazz singer that we've ever had. And I had the fortunate opportunity to portray her in a very wonderful play called "Lady Day" that I did in Paris in 1986 and in London in 1987. And so, in my researching her, I really got to know her well. But I came to her with her ghost-written autobiography, "Lady Sings the Blues," when I was 19 years old. And my soon-to-be first husband, Cecil Bridgewater, insisted that I listen to her music. That it was absolutely, you know, something that I had to do if I was going to be a jazz singer.
CONAN: Yet, of course, as you suggest, her influences, you can hear her in every jazz singer that followed her. Nevertheless, when you're approaching the idea of doing a tribute to her, you said you performed her in a play. Nevertheless, you can't imitate the voice. You can't imitate the phrasing. You've got to do it yourself, right?
BRIDGEWATER: No, darling.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BRIDGEWATER: I can imitate the voice and I can imitate the phrasing.
(Singing) Them that's got shall get, them that's not shall lose.
Yeah, she took over. She possessed me when I was doing the play in London. She truly did. But, for me, this is more of a celebration of Billie Holiday than a tribute. That's how I look at it. And I thought it was time that people saw the more positive side of Billie because she was a full woman. She was a full human being. And it wasn't just black and white.
You know, she also had wonderful moments. She had a very wry and a very dry and quick wit and sense of humor. She really could cut up with the musicians. The musicians that I talked to when I was preparing for the play who had worked with her said that she can tell the dirtiest jokes that you would ever want to hear. She could curse like a sailor. And whenever they were parked in any one city for like a week or so if they were doing a club, that Billie loved to throw on the pots and pans for the musicians. So she was a full woman.
You know, how she got stigmatized with this tragic, tragic figure that, you know, people like to think of her is, you know, it's kind of, you know, how we sensationalize people's lives. You know, but she was a full woman and she did have joyous moments in her life.
CONAN: Sure. But that dark side and maybe the result of a movie by the same name as her autobiography.
BRIDGEWATER: Yeah, yeah.
CONAN: Nevertheless, as you try to bring her what part of her is in your brain when you're singing these songs on this record?
BRIDGEWATER: That's a good question. What part of Billie is in my brain? I would say the woman, just the woman is in my brain, the woman who went through joyful periods, who went through agonizing periods, who went through difficult relationships, who was a victim of her time when racism was very prevalent in this country, who suffered great humiliation. One cannot imagine how it must have been during that time to suffer such adverse segregation and, you know, being lauded on one hand by a white public, and then being relegated to going through kitchens to get to - or back doors and, you know, like, you know, servant entrances to get to her stages, and then being forced to, you know, seek lodging in the black community.
You know, that had to have been horrific for her to travel in the South and to actually see bodies of black males that had been lynched hanging in trees. That was, you know, all of that, you know, I feel is what created, you know, this suffering that Billie went through, being abandoned by her mother, being raised in a house of prostitution. You know, being a prostitute by the age of 13, being on her own and having to support herself, not having the guidance that, you know, I grew up with or, you know, people, you know, anybody in - I would say most people today, you know, have grown up with having two parents and a kind of normal upbringing.
You know, all of those played into Billie Holiday's life. You know, and for me I think it's amazing that she lived as long as she did. And I can understand her turning to drugs, because I can say as a performer in the 20th and 21st century, it's a hard life being on the road. It's very hard. It's very lonely. And, you know, there are times when I thought about turning to drugs.
And, you know, because what are you going to do? You talk to four walls. You get on airplanes today. In her time, they had to get in cars and drive for hours and hours. And if they would go in the South, they had the fear of being stopped. And, you know, the musicians being pulled out of their cars. You know what I mean? It was another time and I think she was a militant. She refused to conform to the norm of singers during her period. When Lewis Allan wrote "Strange Fruit" and gave it to her and she insisted on singing it, you know, when clubs or performance halls told her that if she did, that they would throw her out. And she kept doing it and doing it until she finally was able to record it. That is the mark of a very strong, a very militant and a very brave human being.
CONAN: It's interesting. A week ago we were talking with Bernice Reagon, one of the original freedom singers, about the music of the civil rights movement, and this is not "We Shall Overcome," but "Strange Fruit" is certainly a very important civil rights song.
Ms.�BRIDGEWATER: Oh, I believe so, you know, and I believe that it's a song that must be performed, you know, especially today, especially today because here we are with our first African-American president, Barack Obama, and his wonderful wife, our first lady, Michelle Obama, and their two wonderful children, and they are being persecuted.
I'm sorry, there's no two ways about it. I will say it on the air. They are suffering from racist thoughts and actions on the part of the Republican Party. I will say this. It is true, and nobody wants to say this. You know, he can't get anything passed. They, like, stall everything that he's trying to pass just because, just because.
And it's no wonder that the man has become defensive, you know, now that, you know, we're getting ready to go into his, you know, second year of presidency. Who wouldn't? Who wouldn't? He's being personally attacked. I mean, he has you know, we're talking about lynchings. This is a subtle lynching that is going on, unfortunately.
So when I sing this song, and I've had musicians say, oh, Dee Dee, I don't think you should sing it, and I said, well, I'm very sorry. I didn't ask you if I could sing it. You know, this is my show. If you don't want to play it, you can lay out. I'll sing it a capella.
I really don't care, because I feel that our country will not be a unified United States. I call it our un-United State of America because we are un-united, and as long as we don't deal with this part of our past, and as long as there is no apology to African-American people, you know, for the suffering that our ancestors went through, this country cannot move forward in a very positive manner. I'm sorry. That's just what I believe.
So you know, and going back and doing her music and singing these songs that, you know, she either wrote the lyrics to or she penned completely, it's really made me look at where our society is today, and it's in a pathetic state. It really is, and I think that she was ahead of her time. She was a visionary.
She was one of the first people that wrote about her actual experiences in life, you know, and in a way that people, you know, generation after generation have been able to identify with; I think that is it's something phenomenal. It's something phenomenal, and that is why, you know, you can talk about any jazz singer, and but when you say Billie Holiday, everybody knows about Billie Holiday.
CONAN: Our guest is Dee Dee Bridgewater. Her latest CD, "Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee," a tribute to Billie Holiday. If you'd like to talk with her about this tribute and about what Billie Holiday's music means to you, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Grammy-winner, jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater is with us. Her new CD is a tribute to Billie Holiday. If you'd like to talk with Dee Dee Bridgewater about the lady and her music, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation at our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And let's get Anthony on the line, Anthony calling us from Phoenix.
ANTHONY (Caller): Hey, you are you doing today?
CONAN: Very well, thanks.
ANTHONY: Great, Dee Dee, congratulations on your new project.
Ms.�BRIDGEWATER: Thank you, Anthony.
ANTHONY: Bless your heart, God love you. I, too, am a musician and a singer, jazz particularly, but one thing that I know I am out in the minority here, I have - the appeal of Billie Holiday's voice has escaped me. I mean, I find nothing it sounds like she's got her hand stuck in a ringer. To me. When Madeleine Peru(ph) came out with her first album a couple of years ago, I was like oh no, she sounds like Billie Holiday.
Granted, you can't like everybody, you know, but, like, to me, Ella, Shirley Horn, you know, Lena Horne. I mean, those to me were great singers, great I think Billie was a great writer, but I don't know. What am I missing?
Ms.�BRIDGEWATER: You're not missing anything. A lot of people, you know, even I, when I first started my professional career, I didn't consider Billie to be a great singer, singer in quotes, singer being the operative word, because Billie Holiday does not have a lot of range excuse me, did not, but I like to speak of her in the present.
ANTHONY: Oh, of course, yeah.
Ms.�BRIDGEWATER: Billie doesn't have a lot of range. She basically interprets her songs. She tells stories. She's a storyteller, and she's a storyteller with the use of the music, you know, and however, if you talk to other musicians, they will tell you that she's a great musician.
When I was recording "Eleanora Fagan: To Billie With Love From Dee Dee," you know, James Carter(ph), Christian McBride(ph), Edsel Gomez(ph), who wrote all the arrangements, and Louis Nash(ph) got together on one of our breaks, and James Carter had brought in a song that I just didn't want to do because I hadn't revisited it, and I didn't know all the lyrics, and it's called "I'm Pulling Through."
And they were dissecting it from a musical standpoint, saying listen to her hit this chord against that chord, and listen how, you know, she slides her voice into this. You know, so she is for musicians a musician, and you have to try to listen to it from that standpoint. She's not a singer.
ANTHONY: Yeah (unintelligible)...
Ms.�BRIDGEWATER: In the traditional sense.
ANTHONY: I mean, Ella even had her own band.
Ms.�BRIDGEWATER: Well, you know, Billie had her own band.
ANTHONY: Ella drove the bus even when the guy walked out.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms.�BRIDGEWATER: This is true too, but you don't know all the stuff that Billie Holiday did because no one has dealt with Billie Holiday's personal life.
CONAN: Getting back to her as a singer, Dee Dee, you've also done a celebration of Ella Fitzgerald singing, and they are very different singers, Ella known for her precision, among other things. What's the how would you compare the two of them?
Ms.�BRIDGEWATER: You can't. They are two different voices, they are two different human beings. They had two different lives. You know, Ella came out of poverty, and you know, her earlier years were very difficult, but Ella was a singer who decided that she would be positive, and she would not bring her personal life into her music.
Ella was oftentimes criticized for not being more personal in her singing, especially with her ballad singing. You know, she just, she sang, you know, and she really thought of and used her voice as a true instrument.
You know, so you know, and I think I'm somewhere in between them. Maybe I'm the baby of Ella and Billie, you know, seriously, because, you know, I can understand all of the pain and suffering that Billie wrote about in her songs, but also, she didn't write a lot of songs now, Anthony. She interpreted more songs than she wrote, and but she could take them and personalize them in a way that no one else could do, and back in those days, in the '30s and the '40s and the '50s, she went against the grain of a popular singer.
CONAN: Anthony, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.
ANTHONY: Hey, thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Also with us there in our bureau in New York is Fara Jasmine Griffin, the author of "If You Can't Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday," professor of English and comparative literature and African-American studies at Columbia University. It's very good of you to be with us today, too.
Professor�FARA JASMINE GRIFFIN (Columbia University): Thank you, I'm glad to be here.
CONAN: And in your book, you go out of your way to debunk myths that you say we believe about Billie Holiday. What are some of the biggest ones, things we get wrong?
Prof. GRIFFIN: Well, I think Dee Dee has really touched upon many of them one, that she simply sang from this place of tragedy and victimhood in her life without ever acknowledging the sheer joy that she experienced in her artistry and being with other musicians.
I think that the myths tend to make her far less complicated than she really was.
CONAN: So simplifying.
Prof. GRIFFIN: Very much simplifying, but that's what myths do. I mean, we have to kind of flatten out our icons, and for some reason we like our women tragic.
Ms.�BRIDGEWATER: Oh yes, we do.
CONAN: At least at a distance, in any case.
Prof. GRIFFIN: Exactly.
CONAN: As you look at her life and her accomplishments, which were many, one of the interesting things was, yes, she was a victim of all of the pernicious racism of the time. Nevertheless, jazz was much more popular when Billie Holiday was performing than it is now.
Prof. GRIFFIN: Well, certainly. It was, at one point, America's popular music, and you know, it gets kind of superseded with the emergence of rock 'n' and roll and some would say rhythm and blues before then, but it was very popular, and she was a popular singer; never had the popularity of someone like Ella Fitzgerald because of the kinds of artistic choices and the artistic integrity that she had, but certainly she was a popular singer.
CONAN: I wonder, Dee Dee Bridgewater, the world of music is so different now than it was in Billie's time, certainly jazz. There are many fewer places to work.
Ms.�BRIDGEWATER: Well, yeah, there are a lot fewer places to work, and then there's a lot less music in our public school system, and then there's a lot less support of the arts in general and culture in general.
It's just a sign of the times. We have become a very superficial nation, and it's become about greed and quick money and quick success and quick everything, fast food. Everything's got to happen fast, fast, fast. With the emergence of the Internet and all of this new technology that's going on, people can get their hands on just about anything they want at the push of a button. So there's no, like, in-depth studying going on.
I think that the few jazz clubs that remain today need to be supported. I had a conversation with Chick Corea a few years ago, when I first started coming back to the United States to perform, while I was living in Paris, and he said, Dee Dee, we owe it to the jazz clubs to play there, to support them because if we can draw a full house, then they can turn around and for the next two to three weeks, they can bring in lesser-known acts and keep their clubs alive.
And that changed my whole perspective, you know, about working in clubs, and that's why now I will work in some clubs, not all clubs.
I think that the big labels did a lot to bring about the downturn in jazz music. Universal, when it took over Polygram, in what, about 10 years, it killed Verve Records; Verve Records, which is, like, I mean, it just belongs with the history of jazz music, is now just a catalogue label. I cannot believe it. You know, how can you kill a label? How does one kill a label, especially that has the history that Verve Records has?
You know, so I believe that the recording industry is at fault. They went through the period in the '90s where they tried to create what they called the young lions, and they took all of these young jazz musicians who had promising careers and they put them out there, and they tried to make them big artists, like they do in pop, and it worked for a while, and then when it stopped working, they just dropped all of these musicians like hot potatoes, and these musicians didn't know what had happened to them.
And now, you know, it's just a few that are still out there and are able to, you know, to eke out a living.
I was speaking with Christian McBride last night, who is an incredible bassist, just a phenomenon on the bass, and he was saying I asked him, I said, Christian, how many albums do you sell? How many albums did you sell with your new album with your group, Inside, what is it, Inside what is it? Inside, I forget the last name, so he'll shoot me.
But he said, you know, his label, which is called Mack(ph) Records, is happy because he sold 10,000 records. That's ludicrous. You know...
CONAN: Ludacris sells a lot more records than that.
Ms.�BRIDGEWATER: Ludacris sells a whole lot more records than that. You know, I was thinking about, you know, going to someone like a Jay-Z or a Timberland and asking them if they would, you know, collaborate with me on a project, you know, because I think...
CONAN: Well, let's see if we can get back to Billie Holiday just for a minute. And there is one of the aspects of the new technology, the Internet, is that all her music is available to anybody who wants to listen to it. And some are divided. It's interesting. Some favor her earlier work and a smoother voice, others prefer the latest songs and the rougher more textured vocals. One of her early recordings came in 1933 with "Miss Brown To You." Let's listen to that.
(Soundbite of song "Miss Brown To You")
Ms. BILLIE HOLIDAY (Singer): (Singing) Who do you think is coming to town? You'll never guess who. Lovable, huggable Emily Brown, Miss Brown to you. What if the rain comes pattering down? My heaven is blue. Can it be sending me Emily Brown, Miss Brown to you. I know...
CONAN: Not a lot of melancholy and tragedy in that. That's from 1933. Dee Dee Bridgewater chose to cover that one from her earlier years, though her version is a bit more up tempo.
(Soundbite of song "Miss Brown To You")
Ms. BRIDGEWATER: (Singing) Who do you think is coming to town. You'll never guess who. A lovable, huggable Emily Brown, Miss Brown to you. What if the rain comes pattering down? My heaven is blue. Can it be sending me Emily Brown, Miss Brown to you. I know her...
CONAN: And I wanted to get some response from Farah Jasmine Griffin. As you listen to those different interpretations of that great song, there is so much energy and excitement in the - in all those different eras of Billie Holiday.
Prof. GRIFFIN: Right. And when you were talking about people who have their favorite era, I love all the eras,...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. GRIFFIN: ...because you get the full range of a woman's experience there. Those early ones are flirtatious and hip and fun and, you know, they're just beautiful, very energetic as you said.
CONAN: Farah Jasmine Griffin with us at our bureau in New York, professor of English and competitive literature and African-American studies, director of the Institute for Research and African-American Studies at Columbia University. I should mention, we have a couple of the songs from Dee Dee Bridgewater's tribute album for Billie Holiday on our Web site, "Lady Sings The Blues" and "Good Morning Heartache." You can listen to both of them at npr.org. Just go ahead and click on TALK OF THE NATION. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get Cali(ph). Am I pronouncing that correctly on the line?
CALI (Caller): Cali.
CONAN: Cali. Go ahead, Cali, calling from Gainesville, Florida.
CALI: Right. Well, I'm a jazz singer, singer with a small s because I haven't had much chance of work since I came to Florida. But one reason for that is I've gotten with several folks have told them, I'm going to do "Strange Fruit." We have to do that. And a lot of folks tell me that's a downer or, no, we don't want to get political. And I push for it.
In fact, based on her comments, I'm inspired to go ahead and drop it on the group I'm working with that rehearsal tonight because I've been procrastinated by. So I want to thank you for pushing me on to do that. And I want to reflect back on something that Ms. Bridgewater put out of two years ago, "Tequilla Mockingbird."
That was one of my list of a excessive favorites, one of those things that I played the death 'til the recording wore out. And what grabbed me was how she turned so many different, you know, some of you will call it tricks or rifts but, you know, something that I hear other singers do as their only trick or rift and she incorporated so many styles. So, I've always admired her singing. I think I heard her do a version of "My Favorite Things" with some alternate lyric that talked about Gershwin and Porter and I just love that kind of imagination and work.
Prof. GRIFFIN: Well, thank you, Cali. But I think that for "My Favorite Things," you might be referring to Dianne Reeves. I sing "My Favorite Things" with the original lyric. And then, to comment on me giving you the inspiration to do "Strange Fruit," one thing that I say on this new CD, I have a quote on the back of the CD that I address to young people.
I think that, you know, we should all dare to be our own individual selves and to stand up for the things that we believe in much as Billie Holiday did and I say dare to be a Billie Holiday. So if you feel the need to sing "Strange Fruit," then you must sing it. Billie Holiday was thrown out of clubs for trying to sing it and was taken off of stages if she tried to sing it, until finally she was able to record it and get it done.
You've got to fight for what you believe in. You've got to stand up for what you believe in. and if you go down, at least, you know you've gone down fighting, okay?
CONAN: Cali, thank - good luck with it.
CALI: Okay, thank you.
Prof. GRIFFIN: You're welcome.
CONAN: Let's go next to Cindy(ph), Cindy with us from Wilmington, North Carolina.
CINDY (Caller): Hi, thank you so much for allowing me on the program. It's interesting that the previous caller talked about the song "Strange Fruit" because that's one of my favorite Billie Holiday songs. And what I love about her music is it's so tangible. When she's singing, you can really visualize and feel, and especially in that song, you can really feel the pain.
I'm from the South, and a Caucasian female, and lived and born all of my life in the South. And so for me, just being able to hear it and feel it and somebody else to skin, was so wonderful and unique and I love all of her music. I do particularly like the earlier versions with the rougher sound.
CONAN: Okay. Cindy, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
CINDY: Thank you.
CONAN: Farah, we just have a few seconds left. But, Farah Jasmine Griffin, I wonder, as you researched into "Strange Fruit," I wonder what you found out and interested you about that song and how it came to be on record.
Prof. GRIFFIN: Well, just - all history of it having been written by a Jewish American activist, Louis Allen, who wanted Billie Holiday to sing it, the struggle she had to record it, as Dee Dee has said. Also, noting that there were FBI agents, for instance, who would follow her and track her and tell her that they would stop harassing her if she wouldn't sing the song, and she continued to sing the song. The "Song of History" - set to dance by the dancer, Pearl Primus, and the various vocalists, from Nina Simone to Ms. Bridgewater, who have also sang it, I think, are worthy of a cultural history in and of itself.
CONAN: Well, Farah Jasmine Griffin, thanks very much for being with us today.
Prof. GRIFFIN: Thank you.
CONAN: I mentioned her book. It's "If You Can't Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday." She joined us from our bureau in New York. And Dee Dee Bridgewater, always what a treat it is to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.
Ms. BRIDGEWATER: Oh, Neal, thank you so very much. I'm very happy.
CONAN: Dee Dee Bridgewater of NPR's JAZZSET with Dee Dee Bridgewater. And again, the new album is "Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee." And she was with us from our bureau in New York.
Up next, the most dangerous man in America. We'll talk with Daniel Ellsberg about the Pentagon Papers.
Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.