China Moses - Dancing for Dinah
She was the bump, she says, famous before she was born. When China Moses’ mother, jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater posed naked and heavily pregnant on the cover of her Just Family album in 1978, it caused a bit of a storm.
The shot, which predates Annie Liebovitz’s now much more celebrated cover portrait of Demi Moore similarly unclothed and expectant for Vanity Fair, earned more publicity than the music that lay behind it. Bridgewater, a feisty as well as an extremely personable woman – she once took the trouble to write and thank me for my interest in her career after an interview for this paper – was unapologetic, however.
“My mum thought it was a great photo and didn’t see why she shouldn’t show herself off if she was looking good, which she was,” says Moses, who poses rather more modestly, if glamorously, on the cover of this year’s Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival brochure. “When I found the album in the house, I was in my teens, I think, and it made me proud of her, but then, I’m biased. I’m always proud of her. She’s my mum and she’s an amazing woman.”
Proud she may have been but the young China, who has grown to like her first name after finding it deeply uncool as she was growing up, had no intention of following her mother into the music business. As the offspring from Bridgewater’s marriage to the late film director Gilbert Moses, the man behind the groundbreaking 1970s television series Roots, she had other options. There was television, which she has worked in as a presenter for MTV in her adopted home, France. There was also theatre, although having watched her mother struggling to regain her own voice after playing Billie Holiday in the musical Lady Day, she would have lent more towards straight theatrical roles rather than acting and singing.
“I always liked to sing but to be honest, I didn’t think I had enough talent to be a professional singer,” she says. Her mum had other ideas. “Yeah, she pushed me into my first record deal. She said, ‘It doesn’t matter how much talent you have, it’s what you do with the talent you have that counts.’ And I’ve followed that rule ever since.”
Born in Los Angeles, Moses moved to Paris when her mother set up base there in the mid 1980s and at her mother’s insistence, she signed with Virgin (France) when she was fifteen. Her first single, the R’n’B-styled Time, was released in 1996. Promoted by an eye-catching video, the song took off and Moses followed it up with three albums and collaborations with Me’shell Ndegeocello, DJ Mehdi and Karriem Riggins that all helped to cement her reputation in the R’n’B world and opened doors into other areas of music, including heavy metal with Parisian band Alarash, with whom she still lets rip.
In fact it was through singing with Alarash that she gained the confidence and vocal power to work as a backing singer with French songstress Camille Dalmais, whose background vocals are “kind of intricate,” she says, and whose residency in Paris’s Café de la Danse led to the move into jazz that Moses swore she’d never make, jazz being her mother’s domain.
“I’d grown up on the road from pre-school days, watching my mum go through good times and bad times, playing in classy clubs, humungous venues and shitty dives and seeing how it was to be a jazz musician,” she says. “It was a great education but I wasn’t sure about the lifestyle, which is pretty tough, let alone whether or not I could perform the music well enough. There was also the thing about following my mum because she’s a pretty hard act to follow.”
Invited to sit in by Camille at the Café de la Danse, pianist and producer Raphael Lemonnier heard Moses singing. He immediately asked her to join his theatre show Dancing and invited her on a drive through the Camargue. Rummaging through the CDs in Lemonnier’s car, Moses found one by Dinah Washington, the jazz singer whose sassy, sometimes risqué interpretations had been Moses’ secret passion since she was a seven-year-old sneaking listens to her grandmother’s Washington albums.
“I didn’t realise Dinah was being risqué when I was seven,” she says. “I mean, I’d hear her singing I’m Drinking Again or Fine Fine Daddy and I just thought she sounded like she was having fun and that’s what appealed about her. I also didn’t know at that point that my mum had been taken backstage as a baby to meet Dinah, who promptly announced that this baby would grow up to be a singer. I only heard that story recently, so there was no thought of any family connection when I came to sing Dinah’s songs.”
As they worked together on Dancing, Moses and Lemonnier set about devising a Washington tribute, This One’s for Dinah, which has catapulted Moses to ‘next big jazz singing thing’ status with which she’s not entirely comfortable. As we speak, she is preparing for a gig in New York, at Birdland, the club whose stage has been graced by just about every major jazz musician of the past sixty years.
“The history’s daunting but you can’t worry about that, otherwise you’d never do anything,” she says. “For me, jazz is about being who you are. Jazz singers today are too caught up in trying to be the next Ella, Billie or whoever. I’m not trying to be Dinah Washington. I haven’t had her life, which was sad, happy, intense and troubled through her living through times of segregation, and I can’t imitate her voice because hers was much deeper than mine with a different kind of vibrato. But I am trying to follow her example of choosing good songs, singing them in – I hope – a distinctive voice, showing some emotion and having fun. And if our show makes people happy and they come away knowing a bit more about Dinah, then I’m satisfied with that.”
From The Herald, July 28, 2010.