It is only fitting that singer Dee Dee Bridgewater would headline the inaugural Miami Nice Jazz Festival — and it’s not just because she headlined the Nice Jazz Festival, one of the most storied annual summer gatherings in Europe, on the French Riviera just a few weeks ago.
Bridgewater, who lived in France between 1986 and 2007 and was celebrated as the new Josephine Baker, can speak with a well-earned authority to the fascination about jazz abroad and the experience of jazz in Nice.
“What attracted, and still attracts, French audiences was authenticity,” she says in an interview from her Henderson, Nev., home in advance of the Friday night concert at the Olympia Theater at Miami’s Gusman Center. “If you are going to be doing jazz, they want it to be as authentic as possible. They are not fans of smooth jazz or pop jazz. And if you are a jazz singer they identify you with standards. When I was doing that, they were very happy with me.”
Presented by the city of Nice, the Miami Nice Jazz Festival will feature Bridgewater, Nuyorican pianist Eddie Palmieri (fresh from being honored as a 2013 NEA Master), bassist Kyle Eastwood, Nice native drummer Andre Cecarelli with singer Alex Ligertwood, as well as the FIU Big Band featuring Sally Night and the South Florida Jazz Orchestra featuring Nicole Henry. The evenings also include after-show jam sessions at the Miami club Avenue D that are free with a concert ticket.
Her first visit
Bridgewater first visited France with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra in 1971. So by the time she returned in 1984 to tour with Sophisticated Ladies, a Broadway musical revue based on Duke Ellington’s music, “ I wasn’t an unknown,” she says. “By then the French had me in their radar as a promising, up-and-coming jazz singer. ”
She returned to star as Billie Holiday in Lady Day, what she calls “a play with music,” in 1986.
“ Lady Day was very successful. It ran for 10 months, and [then] we did it in London for another six months,” she says. “Then I went back to Paris and put together a repertoire that combined some of the Billie Holiday repertoire I had been doing and standards from the Great American Songbook. “
By then, the jazz festival in Nice had found its groove.
The event had a significant history dating back to February 1948, when the city hosted what it says was the first international jazz festival. Under the artistic direction of jazz critic Hugues Panassié, then president of the Hot Club de France, the event featured jazz masters such as trumpeter Louis Armstrong, violinist Stéphane Grapelli and guitarist Django Reinhardt.
It was a pioneering effort — but Nice had to wait until 1971 for another jazz festival, and this only because the city stepped in as a replacement host for the festival at neighboring Antibes Juan-les-Pins.
Interest in a jazz festival lay dormant again until 1974. Then George Wein — an American jazz pianist and impresario who had been instrumental in creating the Newport (R.I.) Jazz Festival and a part-time resident of nearby Vence — decided to take matters into his own hands, bothered by “the absence of traditional jazz on European concert programs,” as he recalls in his autobiography, Myself Among Others. Backed by strong city support, Wein then produced La Grande Parade du Jazz, an event that eventually grew into an 11-day festival that featured continuous music from simultaneous concerts in four stages. It was staged at the Arénes de Cimiez, a spectacular park in the hills north of Nice that contains the remains of an ancient Roman city, including an amphitheater, gardens and olive groves.
By the time Bridgewater settled in Paris in mid-80s, the jazz festival in Nice, writes Wein, “was the most successful event in France.” As it turns out, Bridgewater’s Parisian mentor was Simone Ginibre, a co-producer of the event.
“And I remember she told me explicitly to stay out of the singer’s club circuit,” Bridgewater recalls. “She said ‘If you can get some work until the summer festivals when I can book you do it, but underground.’ And that’s what I did.”
Bridgewater found work at club called The Palace, accompanied just by a pianist, and she became “this big underground singer that all the stars came to hear. I would have people like Chet Baker come in and sit in.”
“And then I played the Nice jazz festival — many times, “ she says. “It’s always been one of my favorite French festivals. It used to be at this beautiful park and I loved, loved, doing that festival because families would come, kids would be in the audience, running around, and [the festival] would have these great food stands. It was just fantastic.”
Bridgewater sounds intrigued at the prospect of translating jazz-in-Nice into jazz-in-Miami.
“I am coming early to Miami because I want to see this,” she says enthusiastically. “I think it’s going to be very interesting and I hope it succeeds. It would be so good for jazz.”