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Author: Becca Vaclavik, additional contributions by Corinne Baud

Dee Dee Bridgewater brings a piece of her musical history to Boulder Sept. 22

When she was only 3 years old, Dee Dee Bridgewater’s family moved from Memphis to Flint, Michigan. But even hundreds of miles away from the R&B epicenter, young Bridgewater felt its iconic music calling to her late at night.

“My parents always wondered why I could not get up in the mornings to go to school, and they didn’t know it was because of this: I listened to this [Memphis] radio station WDIA, which I could only get after 11 o’clock at night. I never shared with my parents or my sister that I was listening to this radio station—because I was supposed to be in bed sleeping.”

Though her family listened to a great deal of jazz and Top 50 Motown hits, WDIA’s playlist of blues and gospel offered her a unique listening experience she especially loved.

“This music that I listened to—I’ve now coined it as my secret musical garden—it was a different type of music than I was getting on the radio station during the daytime. [It] was just more blues oriented, and it just had a grittier sound than the clean Motown sound … It was just a mish-mash of great music. So, I think it informed me, but in a subconscious way.”

This inspiration might come as a surprise to Bridgewater’s fans, who know her as a jazz giant with a storied musical career. After earning her first professional experience as a member of the legendary Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band, throughout the 1970s she performed with jazz notables like Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon and Dizzy Gillespie.

Now, four decades later, she’s a 2017 NEA Jazz Master; Tony Award winner and three-time Grammy winner: for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocal(s) and, most recently, Best Jazz Vocal Album (2010). And those are just her wins—Bridgewater has been nominated for an additional six Grammy Awards.

So why return to the blues after all this time?

It all started with a trip back to her hometown to understand her personal history: “My father is not a talker, and so he never really shared all that he did. I decided I needed to go back to Memphis and just try to unearth some of his secrets.”

With that goal in mind, Bridgewater began to explore her past. In Memphis, she wanted to see if her family’s home was still standing—it is—or if the church chapel where she was born was still around—unfortunately, it isn’t.

“I wanted to, you know, just kind of reconnect with the city if that was at all possible, because I was so young when I left.”

It was on one of these pilgrimages to Memphis that she learned a shocking piece of her own story. When she was too young to remember it, her father had been a disc jockey for WDIA, the very radio station that introduced her to her favorite music. It was a passion she didn’t know they shared.

“I found it ironic, that here he had been a DJ on this radio station that I discovered as a young teenager, and because I was keeping my secret, I didn’t share that with him. But, you know, he never volunteered the information, either.”

The discovery helped set the wheels in motion for her latest album, an homage to her hometown titled, “Memphis… Yes, I’m Ready.” Returning to her musical roots has been an important transition both artistically and personally, she says. “[Around the same time,] my mother was beginning to transition with her dementia, so I knew her death was imminent.

“I wanted to be able to dance, I wanted to be able to just lose myself in a music, and this music I felt allowed me to do that. Because the melodies are simple, the stories are simple. It’s all about the funk and the rhythm, the beat, you know, and the basslines.”

On Sept. 22, Bridgewater will bring her musical history full circle for Boulder audiences when she performs a selection of songs from the album.

“I found at this point in my life, [this music] just became very uplifting … for me and for my spirit. And so this has been very healing for me in that respect.”

See Dee Dee Bridgewater and The Memphis Soulphany in concert Friday, Sept. 22 at 7:30 p.m. in Macky Auditorium. Tickets start at $20.