Dee Alexander Returns to Bradley Symphony Center Stage

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: 2023.24 Season, Bradley Symphony Center, Guest Artist

Dee Alexander’s next visit to the Bradley Symphony Center will be in a very different atmosphere from her first.

In February of 2021, the popular Chicago jazz vocalist was the first-ever Pops act to appear on the stage of Allen-Bradley Hall. The pandemic had wiped out the Milwaukee Symphony’s fall programming, and the MSO had to create new virtual options. Alexander and her band, the Alexander-McLean Project, performed to an empty hall while the concert was streamed to MSO patrons.

But on Dec. 2, she will return to Milwaukee to perform a holiday jazz concert for a full audience.

“I remember that concert was really different,” she said recently by phone from her home in Chicago. “We went through that horrible year of not being able to perform for an audience, but the show must go on. But we’re accustomed to vibing off the energy of the audience, and that’s what I really missed. I’m glad this time we’ll have an audience. It’s give and take, what we give them and what we get back.”

Since the world opened up again, “I have been very busy,” she said. “I’m really grateful for that, but I have to be mindful of getting my rest.”

The holiday program, which will be presented without the MSO, will feature her with her longtime band: guitarist John McLean, pianist Steve Million, Jeremiah Hunt on bass, and Charles Heath on drums. “They’re my friends first,” she says. “They’re my friends and family, and I think it’ll come through in the music.”

Does a December jazz program feel different from a non-holiday gig? “I don’t think so,” Alexander said thoughtfully. “Music is music, whether it’s sacred or a swing band or a trio or solo. It all speaks to the human spirit. My mom told me that when I was a baby, she played music all the time, and we would dance and jump up and down. Whether you’re nine months or 99 years, it reaches the heart and soul of a person.”

The program will include jazzy Christmas pieces such as “Little Drummer Boy” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” but she also plans to include some of her own original songs.

Composition has been a sideline of Alexander’s for years, and she has her own repertoire of holiday tunes to include in a set. “Things come to me in dreams,” she says. “I keep the phone close to my bed, and if I wake up with an idea, I turn it on and sing into it.” But listening to the playback the next morning is sometimes a surprise, she said with a laugh. McLean is her frequent collaborator; sometimes she starts with lyrics and a bass line, “and I give it to John and he runs away with it.”

The supply of holiday songs goes back centuries, but new ones come out every year and frequently find an audience and become part of the standard repertoire. “Christmas means different things to different people,” Alexander said. “You get different perspectives with each generation. You have the old classics and the new generation.”

The only problem is how to fit everything into one evening, but there is an art to constructing a jazz set. “We like to have a continuity with ebb and flow,” she said. “We’ll keep the energy up, then bring it down to a contemplative mood, and have a big finish.” One possibility to end the half or the evening, she said, is “When the Saints Go Marching In.” She didn’t use to think of it as a Christmas song, she said, “but it’s spiritual. It’s very appropriate.”

The jazz repertoire does not overlap much with traditional carols with sacred lyrics, but Alexander loves singing those tunes with gospel groups. But in Milwaukee, she said, “I’m going to throw in a couple surprises. I just don’t want to bring them up right now.”