Getting Personal: Ron Bridgewater
Getting Personal is a Q&A with a local personality. Here, 67-year-old Urbana resident Ron Bridgewater chats with News-Gazette staffer Melissa Merli. The associate professor at the University of Illinois School of Music teaches jazz saxophone and improvisation.
So ... what's new with you?
I'm hoping to spend some time this summer in New York City with my brother, Cecil, checking out the music scene. I haven't been away from my family for more than a day or two in 20 years.
How is the Bridgewater family doing without your mother, Erma?
She was a big part of all our lives and still is. She was there for birthdays, graduations, soccer games, performances and advice whenever we needed it. The tears have dried but not the memories.
Do you still have plans to turn Erma's home into a community music or arts school or center? Or does a relative still live there?
My nephew, who lived with my mother for many years, has chosen to stay in the house with our blessing. We moved into the house when I was born, so I can't imagine anyone else living there but family.
How long have you been teaching music at the UI?
I started at the UI in December 1994, so this year marks my 20th year.
Are you teaching at the Banks Bridgewater Lewis Fine Arts Academy this summer?
Yes. The summer camp began June 9 and continued through the 14th. I am also involved in the academy throughout the school year.
Are you still composing and arranging?
Not as much as in the past and not as much as I would like. I feel in a way that every time I play, I'm composing on the spot.
How long did you play sax in NYC when you were younger? What were some of the bigger-name groups you played with?
I was in NYC for 20 years performing with many great musicians, including Max Roach, McCoy Tyner, Horace Silver, Thad Jones Mel Lewis, Lena Horne, The Duke Ellington Orchestra, Cab Calloway, Larry Coryell, Cecil McBee, Reggie Workman, Billy Taylor and Frank Foster, to name a few.
Tell us about some of your most memorable times back in the day, when you were on the road, etc.
My first tour was a five-week State Department tour of the Soviet Union with the Thad Jones Mel Lewis Orchestra. They hadn't seen a jazz group since Duke Ellington some 20 years before. On one occasion, we performed in a hockey rink to an audience of 10,000. As a member of the McCoy Tyner Sextet, I performed "My One and Only Love" as a duet with Mr. Tyner in Paris, France, which coincidentally is my wife's and my mother's favorite song. It was the only time in my career I recall receiving a standing ovation for a single performance.
What time do you typically get up? What do you do the first hour of the morning?
I'm usually awake by 5 a.m. in order to make my morning prayer and get ready for the day. After that, it's getting everybody fed and off to school.
What do you consider your greatest achievement or accomplishment?
Helping to rear six children with my beautiful wife, Tamala, for the past 22 years.
What do you regard as your most treasured possession?
I have a soprano saxophone that my grandfather gave me when I was in the first grade. I took it to school after one of my lessons and of course the class wanted to hear me play. That was the beginning of my performing career; after that, I was hooked.
Do you have a guilty pleasure and what is it?
I love being around horses, even the smell. I clean stables and take care of horses a few days a week and ride whenever I get a chance. I'd own my own if it weren't such a huge commitment of time and money.
What book are you reading now? What is your favorite book ever?
For a while, I was reading John Grisham novels in Spanish while my wife read them in English, and we would compare notes. My all-time favorite novel is "Shogun." My all-time favorite book would have to be the Qur'an.
Where on Earth are you dying to go? Why?
At the moment, I'd love to be in Brazil for the World Cup. I've never been to Brazil or a World Cup.
Tell me about your favorite pet.
My dad wasn't much of an animal lover, so we didn't have pets growing up. My children had a cat, Sarabi, named after the character in "Lion King."
What's your favorite sports team?
I've been a fan of soccer for the past 12 years but have yet to pick a favorite team. I'm a big fan of the underdog.
What would you order for your last meal?
Who are your favorite musicians and why?
There are so many for different reasons. Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong for blazing a trail for the rest of us to follow. Thad Jones for his arranging talent. Stevie Wonder and Miles Davis for their genius. Coleman Hawkins, Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson for their creativity and unique approaches to the saxophone and hundreds of others who continue to carry on the tradition.
What's the happiest memory of your life?
Our parents took us on a road trip to Denver, Colo., when we were all still in our teens. That memory has stuck with me the longest.
If you could host a dinner party with any three living people in the world, whom would you invite? What would you serve?
Bill Cosby, Steve Harvey and Kevin Hart. There would be so much laughter there wouldn't be time to eat.
Which historical figure do you admire the most and why?
Prophet Muhammed overcame illiteracy and persecution to become one of the most influential figures in history.
What personality trait do you most hate in other people? Most hate in yourself?
What's your best piece of advice?
My mother always said, "If it can be done, you can do it." My dad didn't say a lot; he led by example, which is a great piece of advice in itself.
What was your first job and how much did you make an hour?
One of my first jobs, other than a paper route, was in the men's department at Sears Roebuck. I was in high school and made whatever minimum wage was at the time. The boss came through one day while a customer was desperately seeking assistance and I was folding shirts. A visit to his office at the end of the day saw an end to my career in haberdashery.
What was a pivotal decision in your career and how did you arrive at that decision?
I came back to Champaign for a visit after putting everything in storage in New York and ended up staying. It just seemed the right thing to do at the time. It was the end of my career in New York but the beginning of my life as a husband, father and teacher and gave me more time with my parents.
My life seems to have evolved in 20-year cycles — 20 years growing up in Champaign, 20 years in New York and 20 years at the UI. I'm looking forward to as much of the next 20 years as the Lord lets me see.
Do you have any regrets in your life? What are they?
I regret not asking enough questions of people I worked or came in contact with over the years. Most people are willing to share information freely and are just waiting to be asked.
My mother suggested I take business administration when I first went off to college. I wish I had listened. I chose physical education instead. The women in your life are usually right most of the time; you just have to be willing to listen.
How do you handle a stressful situation?
Inhale (nose)...exhale (mouth)...inhale...exhale...inhale...exhale...say a prayer.