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Orange County will be treated to two great jazz acts this month. Big band leader and multi-talented musician Gordon Goodwin brings his Big Phat Band to Chapman University’s Musco Center on March 10. And Dee Dee Bridgewater comes to the Irvine Barclay Theatre on March 14.
The two artists represent a wide swath of jazz styles and decades of history.
The Big Phat Band is an 18-piece jazz ensemble with an all-star line-up of musicians, including Orange County saxophonist Eric Marienthal. It artfully melds Golden Era big band swing style with funk, fusion and other more contemporary sounds. Since its origin, the Big Phat Band has received two Grammy Awards and four nominations. The Chapman University Big Band will join the pros on stage during the concert.
The band is led by Gordon Goodwin, a multi-talented Los Angeles commercial music veteran who arranges, composes, and plays piano and saxophone.
Goodwin was born in Wichita, Kansas. After getting his music degree from Cal State Northridge he worked at Disneyland, where he was given the opportunity to write a musical show featuring past and present Mouseketeers, including Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. The experience whetted his appetite for arranging.
Goodwin was later recruited by Louie Bellson’s big band, where he played with Pete Christlieb and Don Menza. He went on to play under Les Hooper and Grant Geissman.
The Big Phat Band came about by accident, Goodwin writes on his website.
“I assembled what would become the Big Phat Band in mid-1999 with the intention of recording a record and nothing more. I wanted to document the music I was writing for the big band genre, but no way did I want to hassle with doing live gigs and all the logistical problems and phone calls.
“But around the time of the release we got a call to play a concert at my alma mater, Cal State University Northridge. I remember some of the guys had doubts we could even get through a whole concert of the charts I had written. But we did, and not only did the audience love it, we had a blast. For a bunch of session musicians, playing for a live audience again was intoxicating.”
After almost 20 years with the Big Phat Band the band, Goodwin says he’s after subtleties now that he never had the luxury of pursuing earlier in his career – assuming he can get his ensemble together to rehearse.
“It can be pretty precious to find a three-hour block where all those guys can show up and be at the same place at the same time,” Goodwin told ArtistWorks Live. “It’s tough. I really wish we could play together more than we do because what we’re trying to do now as a band is find that deeper level of nuance in the music. More than just playing the right notes, playing the right rhythms … that’s our culture anyway. It’s always going to be tight.”
Goodwin longs for the days when big bands played together nightly in a regular gig or on the road.
“The thing about a band like Count Basie’s, they play the same charts every night. And there becomes a deepening of the understanding of the music when that happens. And I don’t know if there’s a real shortcut to that.”
Still, Goodwin’s ensemble is creating a sound that’s unparalleled in the industry, experts agree. When Quincy Jones first heard Goodwin’s group, he was fascinated. “I was immediately taken by Gordon’s contemporary musical viewpoint, the dynamics of his ‘Big Phat Band,’ its bevy of superb soloists, and the exhilaration of its sound.”
‘My goal is to plant that seed’
Dee Dee Bridgewater is a three-time Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter and a Tony Award-winning stage actress. Many remember her as the host of National Public Radio’s syndicated radio show, JazzSet, for 23 years.
Born Denise Eileen Garrett in Memphis, Tennessee, Bridgewater was raised in Flint, Michigan. Her father, Matthew Garrett, was a jazz trumpeter and teacher at Manassas High School, and through him, Bridgewater was exposed to jazz from an early age. By 16, she was performing professionally around Michigan in groups.
Bridgewater went to Michigan State University then switched to the large music school at to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to finish her studies.
After marrying trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater, she relocated to New York City and sang with Horace Silver’s Band, then joined the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra as lead vocalist. It was just the break she needed. Over the next few years Bridgewater performed with some of the best jazz musicians of the era: Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Max Roach, Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
Bridgewater’s stage career started shortly later. In 1984, she performed on Broadway in “The Wiz,” winning a Tony Award for her portrayal of Glinda the Good Witch.
After more than four decades at the top of the jazz world, Bridgewater still tours frequently, appearing all over the world.
As her many years on NPR attest, Bridgewater often acts as an ambassador for her art form. She’s a vocal supporter of jazz festivals and celebrations of all kinds.
“I love jazz because it is, I think, a musical experience that allows one to be completely free, to speak independently, to express oneself without any kinds of barriers or limitations,” Bridgewater said in a 2016 interview.
As she nears her career’s 50th anniversary, Bridgewater says she loves nothing more than seeing young people in the audience at her concerts. “As a jazz musician that is so thrilling to me. My goal is to plant that seed in the minds of the young artists that I work with. I’ve been in this business for (a long time) and it’s time for me to give back and to try and help young people realize their dreams, their visions.”
Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.