Denise Eileen Garrett, known later in life as jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, was born on May 27, 1950 in Memphis, Tennessee. Her earliest exposure to music was through her father Matthew Garrett, known to his fans as “Matt the Platter Cat.” Matthew Garrett was a jazz teacher at Manassas High School, a famous trumpet player, and an MC on the hit local radio station WDIA. At the age of three, Bridgewater moved to Flint, Michigan with her family for her father’s new job.
However, she still found ways to listen to Memphis music, tuning into the radio across state lines. In Flint, Bridgewater began performing, but she found that she took music much more seriously than her peers. Her father helped her get involved with jazz trios at local clubs, but because Bridgewater was underage she had to sit in the kitchen between sets. In and after college, Bridgewater’s musical talents reached international fame early on in her career. In 1969 she toured the Soviet Union with the University of Illinois Big Band, and in the 1980’s she spent several years in France, where she released her first solo album.
Memphis’s impact on Bridgewater, though she only lived there for a short period of time, has remained significant throughout her successful career as a jazz musician. In the fall of 2016, she returned to Memphis to record her new album at Royal Studios. “Memphis… Yes I’m Ready” revisits her memories of her Memphis childhood through covers of iconic songs she recalls hearing on WDIA, the radio station where her father was an MC. Bridgewater sings the likes of Al Green, Otis Redding, the Staple Singers, and Big Mama Thornton in a soulful, jazzy fusion of sound.
Only a return to Memphis itself could make this celebration of the city’s music complete for Bridgewater’s tribute album. On Saturday, September 23rd, 2017, she performed at the historic Levitt Shell for Rhodes Night, hosted by the Mike Curb Institute for Music at Rhodes College. Bridgewater’s performance of Memphis classics was a great reminder of the rich history that Memphis music has to offer. She played almost every song from her album, but thanks to all of the performers’ jazz skills, all of the songs were improvised upon to create a unique rendition of each song from the album. Since everyone in the audience knew the classic hits, you could hear them singing along and putting on their own twists.
Bridgewater ended her show with an encore of Prince’s “Purple Rain.” She dedicated the song to her mother who had recently passed away and to anyone in the audience who had lost someone they loved. Although this song was not recorded in Memphis, it has the same grit, honesty, and emotion characteristic of Memphis music and all of the songs Bridgewater chose for her album. There was an electric emotion in that historic space as everyone sang along, allowing the sound to wash over them. Bridgewater’s performance was a powerful reminder of how much the history of Memphis music impacts the music of the present--how we can remember the emotions we once felt while listening to those songs, and how we can see those songs evolve over time to affect us today.
Text by Harlan Hutton '20, Savannah Seagall '19, and Sarah Johnson '18