music: March 2010 Archives
Dee Dee Bridgewater has long been among the top rank of jazz singers. But something clicked--a door was opened--when she recorded Red Earth, her last CD, for which she immersed herself in the music of Mali. The effects of that experience, not to mention a bit of Malian musical style, spilled into her latest recording, a tribute to Billie Holiday... here's my recent Wall Street Journal piece.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
March 24, 2010
Dee Dee Plays Billie, In Her Own Voice
By Larry Blumenfeld
"Young people take note of this woman's life, this woman's bravery, so you can stand up and not be afraid to speak in your own voice. Children, stand tall and dare to be a Billie Holiday." So writes singer Dee Dee Bridgewater in a note to her latest CD, "Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee" (DDB Records/Emarcy), a tribute whose title begins with Holiday's given name.
Ms. Bridgewater has considerable experience with daring to be a Billie Holiday, much of it literal. She earned critical acclaim in Paris in 1986 and a Laurence Olivier Award nomination the following year in London for her portrayal of Holiday in Stephen Stahl's play "Lady Day." "I was possessed," she said. "I would take my first step onto the stage and could feel her take over." Ms. Bridgewater can do a dead-on impersonation of Holiday--she briefly eased in and out of Holiday's drawn-out phrasing and playful intonation over the phone for me--but that was never the point.
[the following is a Blu Notes column in the Spring issue of Jazziz Magazine]
I remember Robin D. G. Kelley as the guy with the best show-and-tell in class. It was 2001. Kelley had been appointed to a professorial chair endowed in Louis Armstrong's name through Columbia University's Center for Jazz Studies, and I was at Columbia on a one-year arts-journalism fellowship. When I heard about Kelley's class focusing on Thelonious Monk, I signed right up.
Kelley was researching a biography he planned to write about the pianist. He talked about the cooperation he was enjoying from Monk's family, especially Monk's widow, Nellie. He pulled out a cassette, popped it in, pressed play. It was Monk, playing Chopin -- beautifully, correctly, devilishly fast. Kelley played us another tape; after a tender rendition of "Tea for Two," Monk asked Nellie, with even greater tenderness, "Were you recording that?" Something in his voice told me they were having a great deal of fun and were much in love.
The messages -- conveyed posthumously by the pianist himself, via tape -- seemed clear enough: Monk was no primitive who created music absent knowledge or influence of Western classical music, nor was he a stoic madman incapable of communication aside from his music.
Those themes are central to Kelley's Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original. Its 451 pages of densely packed narrative (588, with notes) are first and foremost bent on clearing away misinformation and mystification. "For well over half a century," Kelley writes in his prelude, "the press and the critics have portrayed Monk as 'eccentric,' 'mad,' 'childlike,' 'brooding,' 'naïve,' 'intuitive,' 'primitive,' even 'taciturn.' ... The myths surrounding Monk have gotten in the way of the truth, and the truth about his life and music is fascinating and complicated -- and no less original or creative than the myth."
The figure that emerges in Kelley's exhaustively detailed pages is funny, caring, attentive to and curious about the world around him. He's interested in reaching a popular audience -- even searching for a "hit" -- yet steadfastly committed to his own musical ideas. At the age of 11, Monk studied with Simon Wolf, an Austrian émigré who had studied under the concertmaster for the New York Philharmonic. After not too many sessions with young Thelonious, Wolf declared: "I don't think there will be anything I can teach him. He will go beyond me very soon." Before long, Monk absorbed the music of jazz pianists such as James P. Johnson and Duke Ellington, soon enough moving beyond those influences too.