The acclaimed jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater and the Elmhurst College Jazz Band were just one song into the rehearsal for their performance at the College’s 17th annual Summer Extravaganza concert last week, but Bridgewater was ready to begin the ovations early.
“Quite exemplary work you do here,” she said to the band, adopting a mock-posh accent after scatting her way through Duke Ellington’s “Cotton Tail” with their backing. “I’m most impressed.”
When Bridgewater and the band got together for the rehearsal in the band room in the basement of Irion Hall the night before the June 16 show, Bridgewater was just returned from a tour of Australia; the band had recently come home from 11 nights of performances in Serbia. But a listener might have thought that they had been working together for a while. They covered tunes like the Ella Fitzgerald vehicle “You’ll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini)” and the Billie Holiday hit “Lover Man,” most of the time sounding so polished that at one point Bridgewater cracked, “Why are we even rehearsing?”
If the singer liked what she was hearing from the band, the admiration seemed to be mutual.
“This is what makes Summer Ex one of our favorites: You get to play with such great musicians. If you keep your ears open, you can learn so much,” said Andrew Ecklund, a senior trumpet player from Grayslake. “You say, ‘Oh, so that’s what it’s supposed to sound like.’”
This wasn’t the first time Elmhurst students had the opportunity to listen to and learn from Bridgewater. She had headlined the annual summer concert on the campus mall, which pairs the band with a visiting jazz luminary, four other times. Bridgewater comes from a college jazz program, having sung with the University of Illinois big band before going on to a career that has included Grammy and Tony awards and critical acclaim.
“I love working with young musicians,” she said during a break in the rehearsal. “And this is one of the best college big band situations around. What Doug does here is invaluable.”
Bridgewater seemed to enjoy the rehearsal every bit as much as the students in the band. She arrived at Irion Hall toting her four-legged traveling companion, a Maltese named Ayo, who she immediately introduced to the students. During the run-through, the dog occasionally interrupted one of the singer’s vocal flights with a bark, a signal for Bridgewater to refill his water dish or send him chasing after a chew toy. During a break, the musicians crowded around to take turns playing with Ayo.
“They’ve been asking for a band dog, now they’ve got one,” Beach said to Bridgewater.
For the 18 members of the jazz band, the chance to perform with Bridgewater was shaping up as one of the highlights of a typically busy summer. Their summer break is really no break at all. The student musicians had barely finished their final exams before taking off on their tour of Serbia, which had them playing jazz festivals in front of enthusiastic audiences. Upon their return, they squeezed in an outdoor show in Oak Brook, their rehearsal with Bridgewater and their performance at Summer Extravaganza on consecutive nights. Still ahead: Three days of studio sessions at Chicago Recording Center for one of the band’s nearly annual CD releases.
“When we get out of school, it’s time to do all our jazz band stuff,” Ecklund said. “Doug wants us to do the things professional musicians would do. And it’s fun for us when we get to show what we can do.”
Onstage at Summer Extravaganza, Bridgewater sounded every bit as impressed with the band as she had during rehearsal. She paused mid-set to turn the spotlight on the students.
“Let’s hear it,” she urged the audience gathered on the campus mall, “for this year’s Elmhurst College Jazz Band.”
The ovation that followed hit just the right note.