Without any disrespect intended, Dee Dee Bridgewater wants her own niche. She simply doesn't want people to listen to her and think of her jazz vocalist predecessors, Sarah Vaughn or Nancy Wilson.
"I want the audience to know that I am a singer with ideas of my own, with an intellect, that I have definite ideas of myself and my music," said Bridgewater, 27, relaxing in her temporary quarters before starting her three nights with the Persuasions at the Cellar Door this weekend.
To anchor her identity - and to carry her audiences from her four years with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band, her two years in "the Wiz" (which won her a Tony Award), into her months-old phase of sole jazz singer - she did two things:
For the cover of her new album, "Just Family" she used a nude picture of herself, heavy in her pregnancy, standing on a dried-up lake.
For the recording, she had bassist Stanley Clarke produce a relaxed compound that veers between jazz and pop and sounds best in the jazz tradition.
"Well, I felt very beautiful when I was pregnant," said Bridgewater, who now is married to theater producer Gilbert Moses. Their daughter, China, three months, is crying softly in the next room. "But I wanted people to know that the artist is a human being, not just a voice, not just a name."
She sloped her tall, generous body, covered in beige and black knit, into a corner of the armchair and smiled confidently, a broad smile that added more roundness to her heart-shaped face.
Two years ago, Bridgewater explained, she didn't feel that secure. She had the post-Tony blues, caused not by a man but the statuette all theater people crave.
"When I first got the nomination letter, I fainted: I didn't deserve it. Then when I won, it sent me into a depression for a year. I just didn't think that I deserved it, and there were some people who agreed with me out loud. But now I feel I must have been good."
The award was given for the 10 minutes she spent on stage as Glinda, the Good Witch of the South.
Concurrent with that depression, Bridgewater had a bad experience with a record company: "People promised me things that didn't happen. But it was a learning experience. Now I know I have to keep control of my career in my own hands. Starting in January, 1977 I began to come out again, did a couple of 'Tonight' shows and began to trust people again."
Prior to her Jones-Lewis experience, Bridgewater, who grew up in Flint, Mich., had performed with the University of Illinois Jazz Band for six months. Her first husband, Cecil Bridgewater, played trumpet with Jones-Lewis.
"Just about all the musical knowledge I have came from the band period. Thad is an incredible arranger, and to be in front of all that music, 17 pieces, I learned you have to be another instrument. I was anxious to be known as a musician. I didn't want to be just the band singer," said Bridgewater.
She was encouraged by the greats, Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter and Carmen McRae. "When I met Sarah I was in awe. Betty told me what I was doing was just fine and Carmen said I was on the right track."
She soon felt the jazz singer label was too confining. Record companies, she said, told her the category wasn't marketable. "At that point I just wanted people to know I was talented, that I had capabilities. I wanted to be known on my own, not as a singer with Norman Connors, Roy Ayers. I wanted to be an individual," Bridgewater said firmly, knotting her belt as she talked.
"All the downs so far, I prefer not to deal with them extensively. In 'The Wiz' they cut my scene, my first song in half. But I decided it didn't matter what they finally gave me. If they gave me just half a line. I was going to work that line to death," said Bridgewater, who will perform April 25 at Painters Mill Music Fair, Pikesville.
Her mile is once again elated. "Well, it's beginning. People know I am serious about me."