Jazz concert at Krannert with Dee Dee Bridgewater full of warmth, spontaneity

If the Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour concert on Wednesday night at Krannert Center 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 for the fact it took place in the (sold-out) 980-seat Tryon Festival Theatre 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 on one knee 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.

And she said it was really great to be back here. “It’s nice to once again grace this stage where I have been so many times before,” she told the audience.

Bridgewater, nee Garrett, transferred to the University of Illinois from Michigan State in the late ‘60s 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 Thad 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 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 Center 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 ever 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. The band also performed a few originals by McBride and Potter.

“All of Me,” written in 1931 by Gerald Marks and Seymour Simons, was among the 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 is in the hospital and will in two weeks start dialysis at the age of 99.

Krannert director Mike Ross told me Erma Bridgewater, 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 Horace 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.

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