Dee Dee Bridgewater has an uncanny ability to channel Billie Holiday's voice at will.
That's a gift she acquired during the 1987 London run of the one-woman show, "Lady Day," when she felt "completely possessed" by the legendary jazz singer's spirit in a performance that earned her a Lawrence Olivier Award nomination for best actress in a musical.
Bridgewater had hoped to do a revamped version of "Lady Day" on Broadway in 2009, but the global recession and the need to care for her mother, who's battling Alzheimer's, made her shelve the plans. Instead, she released an album on her own imprint with Bridgewater singing contemporary arrangements of Holiday's songbook — a project she proudly notes she produced all by herself.
That album, "Eleanora Fagan (1917-1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee" (using Holiday's birth name), is now up for a Grammy for best jazz vocal album. It's her eighth album to be nominated for a Grammy since she rededicated herself to jazz with the 1989 album "Live in Paris" after enjoying success in musicals, including a Tony Award-winning supporting role in "The Wiz."
"I consider this to be more of a celebration of Billie Holiday's life than a tribute," said Bridgewater, speaking by telephone from her home in Henderson, Nev. "I was so tired of all these melancholy tributes to her where ... everything is down.
"I wanted this to present a more positive aspect of Billie. Somehow she's just gotten pigeonholed into this tragic figure. ... But she was funny and tough and refused to compromise. ... I've got a message on the back of the CD aimed at young people saying that I want them to be like Billie Holiday — to dare to speak in their own voice and to be brave like she was."
Bridgewater's only Grammy-winning album was her 1997 tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, "Dear Ella." That gives the 60-year-old singer the unique possibility of winning Grammys for albums dedicated to the two most influential — though completely different — female jazz vocalists.
"I think it would be such a beautiful statement to have won for the tribute to Ella and then to win for Billie," said Bridgewater, who has hosted NPR's "JazzSet" since 2001. "I'm all about trying to keep the tradition of jazz music alive in the 21st century."
Bridgewater says she used to scat along in her crib to the Ella recordings her mother was constantly playing. She considered Fitzgerald the "definition of a jazz singer" with her improvised scatting and instrumental-like vocals.
"Ella Fitzgerald had this incredible knack to always seem extremely positive and her music has good vibes ... but people have always said Ella couldn't really put the pathos into a ballad because she was such an up person," said Bridgewater. "Billie Holiday wore her heart on her sleeve ... and you can taste the emotion when she's singing a song. She didn't scat or have the vocal range that Ella had, but she was ingenious in knowing how to use her instrument."
Bridgewater says she didn't really appreciate Holiday until her first husband, trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater, had her read the singer's ghostwritten autobiography, "Lady Sings the Blues." Bridgewater found that she shared experiences from Billie's life: undergoing stern discipline at a Catholic school, being raped as a teenager, and falling into some abusive relationships with men. Unlike Holiday, Bridgewater resisted the temptation of hard drugs.
"I can identify on a personal level with the kind of suffering that Billie went through," she said. "However, I choose not to let that influence my music. My music is my refuge, it's where I go to heal myself, where I can be free and happy even though I might be having some traumatic experiences in my personal life."
Bridgewater's insight into Billie deepened when she spoke to musicians who had worked with her while researching her "Lady Day" role. She discovered that Holiday had a dry sense of humor, could curse like a sailor, and liked to cook for her band.
It's this other side of the jazz legend that she conveys on "Eleanora Fagan" — for which her pianist and music director Edsel Gomez wrote new arrangements of Billie's songbook.
"I truly believe that this is Dee Dee at her best. She was completely at ease with all the elements of the recording," said Gomez, "and it was just magical for all of us in the studio."
Bridgewater refrained from doing her spot-on Holiday imitation, only occasionally using some of Billie's phrasing.
"I really wanted it to be Dee Dee Bridgewater celebrating Billie Holiday, and Dee Dee Bridgewater does scat and comes from the bebop era," said the singer. "I can bring the kind of pathos to a song that Billie did and then have that kind of exuberance in the voice that Ella did."
Bridgewater has been touring for more than a year with her Billie Holiday repertoire, but she has started work on her next CD — an album of songs written by her longtime friend, jazz singer Abbey Lincoln, who died in August.
"We were kind of like kindred spirits and I really loved her," said Bridgewater. "She wanted us to do an album together, but then she got sick so that never happened. Abbey's dream was to get her songs out there and to have other people sing her songs, and so I just feel that that's what I have to do."