Melissa Merli: Bridgewater dazzles in return to C-U, Krannert

Melissa Merli: Bridgewater dazzles in return to C-U, Krannert

If the Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour concert here Wednesday night was a good indication of the festival itself, put it on my bucket list.

Headlined by vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, who has a few local connections as most of us know, the concert was warm and uplifting. Bridgewater and her top-notch band mates performed several sub-genres of jazz, from a lullaby to hard-driving post-bop, with polish and most importantly, spontaneity.

It was everything a jazz concert should be — except it took place in the (sold-out) 980-seat Tryon Festival Theatre at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts rather than a small jazz club.

But Bridgewater and the stellar musicians, all musical leaders in their own right, made the big hall feel intimate. Bridgewater, who has a commanding yet empathetic stage presence, told the audience a few times "We love you."

You felt the affection.

And she's a trip: Wearing what looked like 5-inch stiletto heels and a sleeveless, knee-length dress, Bridgewater bowed to the audience when she first came on stage by genuflecting and spreading her arms wide to us.

Bassist Christian McBride, musical director of the tour, then imitated her, laughed and said Bridgewater makes every concert they play feel like it's their first one. I believe it.

Said Bridgewater: "It's nice to once again grace this stage where I have been so many times before."

Bridgewater, nee Garrett, transferred to the University of Illinois from Michigan State in the late 1960s after the legendary John Garvey, then leader of the UI jazz band, recruited her — he had heard her sing at a collegiate jazz festival at Notre Dame.

While here, she sang with the UI Jazz Band and local jazz combos and fell in love with UI jazz band trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater, a Champaign native. The two married on June 13, 1970, and moved to New York, where they joined the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band.

Dee Dee's career took off — she kept her married name after she and Cecil divorced, having already made a big name for herself.

On Wednesday night, she and the band played in different configurations and she sang several standards, among them "A Child is Born," the best-known composition by Jones, whom Bridgewater called her mentor.

After she finished the emotionally moving song, I heard at least two "wows" and an exclamation of "beautiful" from the audience.

Known as a singer in the Ella Fitzgerald tradition, Bridgewater also did a lot of scat singing Wednesday night while grooving with her band mates.

One of her three Grammy Awards is for her tribute album "Dear Ella." Another came in 2010 for her Billie Holiday tribute album, "Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie with Love from Dee Dee Bridgewater." She performed at Krannert one of Holiday's most famous songs, "God Bless the Child," giving it a bluesy, gospel-like feeling. Impressive.

Bridgewater also won a Tony Award in 1975 for best featured actress in a musical for playing the Good Witch Glinda in "The Wiz" — the first musical in which she appeared.

McBride and the other Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour band members — pianist Benny Green, drummer Lewis Nash, saxophonist Chris Potter and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire — might not be as well-known as Bridgewater — McBride called her the star of the show — but each is talented and skilled, and Bridgewater's respect for them was palpable.

The band has been on the road together for a year with the Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour, which pays tribute to the 55th anniversary of the annual festival in Monterey, Calif.

Addressing the audience after intermission, the youthful-looking Green (born in 1963, but no one believed it) said he will never forget traveling with this particular band.

He said the tour is designed to celebrate the "magic" of the Monterey Jazz Festival and to bring that to people who might not be able to get there.

So the band performed mainly music presented over the years at Monterey by such artists as Ray Brown, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie and Horace Silver. It also performed a few originals by McBride and Potter.

"All of Me" was among the jazz standards Bridgewater sang, after telling the audience she sang it the first time she appeared at Monterey, in 1973. She dedicated the song to her former mother-in-law, Erma Bridgewater of Champaign, who was in the hospital that evening.

Krannert director Mike Ross told me Erma Bridgewater, 99, a beloved figure in the C-U community, had asked doctors to release her from the hospital so she could attend the concert. No go. I'm sorry because she missed a memorable one, but I'm sure other members of her family, who were at the event, will tell her all about it.

Of course, Dee Dee Bridgewater and the band received a standing ovation.

"Well, I guess you liked it," she said before they performed as an encore Silver's "Filthy McNasty." A hard-driving but odd choice, as nothing about this concert was filthy or nasty in the traditional sense of those words.

Ron Cannon, RIP

Back in the late '70s in C-U, Big Daddy Sun and the Outer Planets was a hot rockabilly band. I remember my good friend, Celia Forster, who died in 2002, talking them up all the time.

Alas, Ron Cannon, aka Big Daddy Sun, died March 15; he had been hospitalized for almost a week. On Facebook, Mark Rubel of Pogo Studio called Mr. Cannon a great musician, personality and man.

He had known him for some time: Big Daddy Sun and the Outer Planets were among the first five or six groups Rubel recorded in his downtown Champaign studio, in 1980.

"Recently, Ron has been kind enough to come in and play rockabilly music with Mark Obuchowski and me in the rock classes at EIU every semester," wrote Rubel, who teaches at Eastern Illinois University. "You might not know that he was a partner/instigator/visionary of the precursor to the precursor of my studio: Supreme Being Studios. I certainly will miss him, and send love to his daughter Claire Cannon, and all who loved Ron."

(Claire Cannon is a violinist who plays with The Duke of Uke and his Novelty Orchestra.)

Jeff Elbel, one of Rubel's Facebook friends, commented that he remembered Rubel's visit to play with Big Daddy Sun and Brad Elvis at the Double Door in Chicago.

"I really enjoyed talking with Ron before the show," Elbel wrote. "He was welcoming, full of character, and wide open — he clearly had piles of stories to tell."

A memorial service took place March 18 at the Channing-Murray Foundation, where Mr. Cannon had been active for years. He also was active in the Champaign-Urbana Folk & Roots Festival.

I missed the service but dropped by the jam session that followed; many musicians were there, including Urban Djin, who was a member of the Outer Planets.

Mr. Cannon, who was 60 when he died, was self-employed as a carpenter, musician and recording engineer and was of the Unitarian-Universalist faith. Memorial contributions may be made to Channing-Murray Foundation in Urbana.

Honors ...

— Julia Kellman of Urbana recently received from the National Art Education Association the 2013 Beverly Levett Gerber Special Needs Lifetime Achievement Award, handed out by the association and two other groups.

The award, determined through a peer review of nominations, recognizes an association member whose lifetime career has made a unique and lasting impact on the important role of art education in the lives of people with special needs. The award was presented at the association's national convention in Fort Worth, Texas, earlier this month.

Kellman is an associate professor emerita of the University of Illinois School of Art + Design.

— Kari Rajkumar, an award-winning portrait artist who lives in Paris, Ill., received an honorable mention for her portrait "Tom 'Bear'" in The Pastel Journal's annual Pastel 100 international art competition.

As a result, the portrait was published in the April 2013 issue of the magazine. This is the third magazine publication in as many years for Rajkumar, who is a primarily self-taught artist who focuses on photo-realism.

In addition to accepting portrait commissions and creating personal works, Rajkumar occasionally teaches classes and workshops for students of all ages. Her next workshop, a one-day session on basic realistic drawing techniques, will be April 20. For more information visit

— Soprano Helen Todd, a co-founder of the Sugar Creek Symphony & Song in Watseka, will sing the role of Princess Turandot in Minnesota Opera's 50th season finale production of "Turandot" on April 13-21. "Turandot" is considered Giacomo Puccini's last and greatest opera.

The role is part of Todd's new repertoire of more spinto and dramatic soprano roles.

"I have been studying this role for the past three years and I am thrilled to sing with Minnesota Opera in this new production by French designers Barbe and Doucet," she said in a news release.

"The role of Princess Turandot is demanding; It requires great stamina to perform one high C after another. 'Turandot' is powerhouse singing, bombastic, loud and high."

Todd has sung the role before, for the Pittsburgh Opera in March 2011, after having performed it in January 2010 with DuPage Opera Theatre in Chicago.

Todd, who grew up in Watseka but lives in Cleveland, is helping plan the 2013 Sugar Creek Opera Festival, for which she will produce "Cold Sassy Tree," an opera created by Carlisle Floyd and sung in English. She will sing the role of Love Simpson in that.

For more information about the festival, visit

News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or Her blog is at