Dee Dee Bridgewater traveled a short psychic distance from guest of honor to star attraction at the 2019 WBGO Champions of Jazz Gala, on Wednesday night at Capitale in New York.
During the final stretch of a program full of surprises, she was caught off-guard by yet one more — when Carla Thomas, the Queen of Memphis Soul, emerged to perform her 1966 hit “B-A-B-Y.” Bridgewater, who was born in Memphis, stood beaming during the song, as most of the show’s other featured vocalists filed onstage: Alicia Olatuja, Lillias White, Dominique Fils-Aimé, Alexis Morrast.
The song stretched out into a vamp, and that’s when Bridgewater shifted into gear, improvising a refrain (the song’s four-letter title, in syncopated phrasing) and taking a lead for her fellow vocalists to follow. Her natural leadership, like her radiant talent, was an incontrovertible fact.
Bridgewater was one of two honorees at the gala, along with her friend and longtime supporter André Ménard, cofounder of the Montréal International Jazz Festival. The event also capped a year of 40th-anniversary celebration for WBGO, combining fond reminiscence and a festive air with a nod to the future. (See photo highlights from the gala in a slide show at the top of this page.)
The program’s host was Joe Morton, an actor known for his work on both stage and screen. His first entrance was preceded by a scene from John Sayles’ 1984 film The Brother From Another Planet, in which an extraterrestrial (Morton) falls in love with a jazz singer (Bridgewater).
A similar This-Is-Your-Life resonance extended to the musical offerings in the show, as singer after singer performed songs with a personal connection to the honorees. Kurt Elling luxuriated in a mid-tempo, Latin-flavored take on “Speak Low” — a nod to Bridgewater’s Kurt Weill songbook album, This Is New. And Olatuja delivered the Nina Simone anthem “Four Women,” which appears on Bridgewater’s Red Earth.
Fils-Aimé — a Montréal native handpicked for the program by Ménard — made an equally strong impression with “Strange Fruit,” the searing tone poem that Bridgewater has performed in multiple tributes to Billie Holiday. Morrast, a young talent with deep reserves of composure, did the same with “Filthy McNasty,” from Love and Peace: A Tribute to Horace Silver, and “Believe in Yourself,” which Dee Dee sang in the original Broadway production of The Wiz. (Her role, as Glinda the Good Witch, earned her a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.)
Another song from The Wiz, “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News,” provided kindling for a fiery performance by Lillias White; from her seat at the foot of the stage, Bridgewater held a hand, as if in worship.
Here and throughout the show, which was conceived by WBGO president and CEO Amy Niles, trumpeter Steven Bernstein served expertly as musical director. He led a house band whose members included Craig Handy on saxophones and flute, Natalie Cressman on trombone, Dell Smith on organ, Jon Cowherd on piano, Steve Cardenas on guitar, Brad Jones on bass, Daniel Sadownick on percussion and Jerome Jennings on drums. There was also a special appearance by pianist George Cables (with bassist Ed Howard) and a high-octane “Caravan” featuring WBGO Latin Jazz Cruise host Bobby Sanabria on drums.
Ménard, who retired as a producer of the Montréal Jazz Festival this year, after its 40th edition, spoke to his longtime bond with Bridgewater: she has appeared on the bill in Montréal on a dozen occasions, never repeating a concept. At one point in the program, guitarist Pat Metheny appeared onscreen in a prerecorded video to point out that he may be the only artist to have performed on the festival more times than Bridgewater.
In the warmth of his remarks, Metheny underscored the sense of community that bound the program together; he also donated an autographed Pat Metheny Signature hollowbody Ibanez guitar, which was sold in a live auction (to Bridgewater, who seemed thrilled by her new acquisition).
Bridgewater, Menard and Metheny were also united in their praise and support of WBGO, as the organization rounds the corner on its 40th year. Two of WBGO’s foundational figures, Dorthaan Kirk and Bob Ottenhoff, delivered remarks reflecting on its growth and evolution since 1979, when it began with scant resources but an abundance of pluck and optimism.
Ottenhoff compared the journey to an expedition to Mount Everest, and restated a sentiment he’d shared in the program notes: “Forty years from now, WBGO will be completely the same in its principles and traditions and completely new in ways we can’t even imagine.”