- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Talk to Dee Dee Bridgewater about jazz these days and you’re likely to get an answer that involves far more than Ella, Cole and the Great American Songbook.

“I’m more of a world musician now,” says the sultry voiced singer, who will appear tonight as part of the Kennedy Center’s 11th Annual Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival.

The festival, which runs through Saturday, features some of the towering figures in the genre. In addition to the Grammy-winning Miss Bridgewater and guitarist Mimi Fox, participants include pianists, trombonists and, of course, vocalists.

Just don’t think that jazz is all that they do.

“My thing is that I don’t like to repeat myself,” says Miss Bridgewater, who grew up in Flint, Mich., but found her sound in nearby Motown. “I’m tired of doing straight-ahead jazz.”

That means finding her place and holding her own in a range of rhythms that can move from Broadway to be-bop to Brazil in the space of a minute or two.

“It’s like playing double-Dutch,” she says. “You have to find the right place to jump in at the start so you can keep it going.”

Of course, it helps to have a few role models.

“I loved Nancy Wilson,” says Miss Bridgewater, who in addition to a frenetic performing schedule also hosts “JazzSet with Dee Dee Bridgewater” on NPR. “She was everything I wanted to be — classy, beautiful, and a great singer.”

Over the years, Miss Bridgewater has performed on recordings by some of the great jazz figures of the mid-20th century, including Dizzy Gillespie and Dexter Gordon. She was a familiar figure on Broadway in the ‘70s and ‘80s, excelling in musicals like “The Wiz,” “Sophisticated Ladies” and “Carmen.” She was also the first black actress to play Sally Bowles in “Cabaret.”

But Miss Bridgewater says it was a sojourn in Paris beginning in 1986 that really helped to expand her musical sensibilities.

“I was exposed to music from all over the world that I never would have heard living in the U.S.,” she says. “All you have to do is turn on the radio.”

Her new album, “J’ai Deux Amours,” is a paean to France and her French following, and charts the course of a love affair from the first spark to inevitable ash. Now back permanently in the states, she’s already set her sights, and her sound, on new horizons.

“I want to do music from different parts of the world, from Latin America and Africa,” she says. “My ear has just opened up.”

• • •

Meanwhile, jazz guitarist Mimi Fox explores the roots and routes of the genre tomorrow at the Kennedy Center festival. Miss Fox has been a mainstay on the jazz scene since 1979, when she moved to California. She’s a perennial rising star whose trajectory seems to know no bounds.

Just don’t expect straight-up California jazz from this transplanted New Yorker. The Queens native draws her sound from a variety of sources, including Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, and her parents.

“They had a really big record collection,” she says. “There was a little bit of everything, from Aretha to Bach.” But it was while watching the television series “The Monkees” that she first fell in love — with the guitar.

“Now I was less than 10,” she says. “But my parents got me this cheap little guitar and pretty soon, I was playing that instead of coming out for stickball.”

An early interaction with classical guitarist Julian Bream confirmed her commitment to the instrument.

“I remember he asked to see my calluses,” she says. “I’ll never forget that experience.”

At 14, she bought her first jazz album — John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” and her course was set.

“I studied classical guitar, but it didn’t give me the freedom that jazz did,” she says.

Over the years, she’s shared stages with a variety of artists, including Charlie Byrd and David Sanchez.

Her newest album is “Perpetually Hip,” her seventh as the headliner. It’s a double, and features her both as a soloist and as a member of an ensemble. The title track is an original composition imbued with the spirit of a 75-year-old longtime friend.

“She really is cool,” says Miss Fox. “I actually had the title long before I wrote the music.”

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