Carmen Bradford to jazz up the stage at MSO's Ella and Louis
Carmen Bradford made the decision that she wanted to sing for a living when she was about 5 years old.
“I was listening to Aretha Franklin because that was what was on the radio. Once I heard her sing, man, she just blew me away,” Bradford said.
Bradford went on to blow others away with her own singing and to earn a name as jazz royalty. While studying music in college, she became a sought after singer for TV commercials. In 1982, she snagged a gig opening for prominent jazz group the Count Basie Orchestra, and in 1983, Basie invited her to become a singer with his band. In 1991, she left the band and released a number of solo albums. She has worked worldwide with artists such as Wynton Marsalis, Doc Severinsen and Lena Horne, just to name a few.
Bradford recently was nominated for a 2019 Grammy Award for her performance on the album “All About That Basie” in the company of Stevie Wonder, Wycliffe Gordon and others. On the album, Bradford paid tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, singing “Honeysuckle Rose.” A fan of Fitzgerald, Bradford continues to celebrate her influence and to keep her music alive.
On Saturday, May 11, at 7:30 p.m. at The Maryland Theatre, Bradford will join trumpeter and vocalist Byron Stripling and the Maryland Symphony Orchestra in celebrating Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong with a program called Ella and Louis. Featuring hits from the Great American Songbook, the performance will recreate the work of the pair with jazz duets and solos.
Bradford spoke recently with a Herald-Mail reporter by phone. Born in Austin, Texas, and raised in Altadena, Calif., she grew up surrounded by musicians, she said. Her father was trumpeter and composer Bobby Bradford; her mother was jazz vocalist Melba Joyce; and her grandfather Melvin Moore sang with Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band.
Bradford spent her early years listening to Motown acts like Gladys Knight, Diana Ross and The Temptations.
“I slept it, breathed it. You have to want it like that because life is disappointing, just the different experiences in life alone, not to mention the music business. If you don’t stay prayed up about who you are and what you want and practice – whew!” she said. “In my early years, I had my ear up against that speaker, honey, trying to take in all the runs that Stevie Wonder ever sang.”
By the time she was about 16, jazz had captured her attention.
“Of course by that time, I’d gone to hear my mother sing dozens of times. That was inspiring,” she said. “But the music I did my chores to on Saturdays was Nancy Wilson, Sarah Vaughn, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra.”
She “dove in,” she said, studying and emulating those she admired, including the musical theater stylings of singers like Barbra Streisand.
“There were so many wonderful influences, you know. I took what I heard and took a little piece from everybody. And hopefully I let those layers peel away once I heard my own voice,” she said.
Bradford was a sophomore at Huston-Tillotson College when Count Basie went to Austin, Texas to perform. A friend asked her to sing in the opening act. Bradford spotted Basie offstage, sitting on a motorized scooter.
“I approached Mr. Basie and I said, ‘Hi, Mr. Basie. I think you would make a million dollars if you’d hire me.’ He said, ‘Really?’ I said, ‘Oh, yeah. There is nothing like having a young lady onstage with you. Will you listen to me when I go out there and sing tonight?’ He said, ‘Sure, honey. I’ll listen.’”
Bradford sang “A Foggy Day” and other songs. When she finished, she went offstage and asked Basie what he thought.
“He told me, ‘I’m gonna hire you,’” she said. “My roommates said, ‘Girl, that old man is not going to call you.’ I had no doubt he would call.”
About nine months later, Basie did call, and thus began Bradford’s career with Basie’s legendary orchestra.
Thirty-six years later, Bradford has sung for theater and films, including the soundtrack for “Beloved” starring Oprah Winfrey. She has received critical acclaim for her albums. She teaches vocal classes at colleges and conservatories and continues to sing from time to time with the Count Basie Orchestra.
Her most recent projects pay tribute to Ella Fitzgerald through collaborations with symphony orchestras in shows like Ella and Louis. The arrangements in the Maryland Symphony Orchestra show “will make you weak,” she said. “They are so beautiful they will make you cry. You gotta have your tissue because it is absolutely wonderful.”
Bradford believes passionately that adults should expose children to jazz.
“If you don’t bring your babies to shows at a young age, they get lost in R&B and never have this connection to jazz,” she said. “Even if you bring them kicking and screaming, they will be patting their feet by the second number. They have to experience it, or else the music will die.”
Top photo: Carmen Bradford will join trumpeter and vocalist Byron Stripling and the Maryland Symphony Orchestra in celebrating Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. (Submitted photo)