Savannah Jazz Festival: Carmen Bradford

Acclaimed vocalist returns to Jazz Fest stage

One of jazz music’s leading ladies is returning to Savannah.

As the daughter of singer Melba Joyce and trumpeter Bobby Bradford and granddaughter of Melvin Moore, who sang with the Ink Spots and Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band in the ‘40s, Carmen Bradford has music in her blood.

“It was normal for me,” she says. “My dad taught school during the day in colleges in California and my mom was kind of every kind of mom—the den mother, the Boy Scout mother, Girl Scout mother, singer by night.”

Bradford took an interest in singing when she was just four or five. According to her mother, Bradford began to sing once she heard Aretha Franklin. Little Bradford began working on her vibrato, shaking her head to achieve the effect.

Though she’s become one of jazz’s favorite voices, her first love was R&B. When she was 16, Bradford discovered the music of Ella Fitzgerald in a new way.

“That music was played in my house all my life,” she says. “We’d do our chores on Saturday morning, and my mother would play Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, Tony Bennett. It’s one thing to wipe down furniture listening to that, and it’s another to listen to the music after chores are over. I started learning all those songs—I had no choice! It’s all kind of subliminally seeped into my brain at a very early age.”

After high school, Bradford attended Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas, performing in an R&B band, Minor Miracle, while she studied there. With sets that included the music of Chaka Khan, The Doobie Brothers, the Rolling Stones, and some jazz standards, Bradford showed off her breadth as a performer. At the time, she was dating a guy whose band was opening for the legendary jazz pianist, organist, bandleader, and composer Count Basie and his orchestra.

Talented, bold, and confident, Bradford took the opportunity to ask Basie for a job.

“I told him he’d make a million dollars,” she remembers. “Be clear now—there were 17, 18 men on that bandstand, and they were all my grandfather’s age or great-grandfather’s age. And there was me at 23 when I got the job. I don’t know if you can picture that, on a bus with older gentlemen, set in their ways, not used to having a young girl traveling on a bus with them. Know what I mean? The night I joined, Mr. Basie said, ‘We’ll get on the bus last.’ He always spoke to me as if I was seven years old—very sweet voice, very soft and very caring, like I was his little girl. So we got on the bus and he said, ‘Gentlemen, this is our new little girl.’ Then he turned to me and said, ‘What’s your name, honey?’”

Bradford laughs fondly at the memory.

“What you have to remember—he was older by then. He was 78 years old by then. So, yes, ‘This is our new little girl,’ and that’s how he treated me, like I was a little doll.”

Bradford had plenty of experience as a frontwoman. Count Basie Orchestra performed in front of huge crowds, but that didn’t intimidate her, even if she was used to singing for smaller audiences.

“Physically, the transition was more learning to sing softer again after belting for nine years straight,” she explains. “That was a physical adjustment. But the physical thing was a big deal. When you sing with a big band with that many instruments behind you, you gotta put your big girl panties on or forget it. I mean it! If you don’t have the pipes for that, then sit down. It’s no joke. It’s extremely physical every night.”

Bradford performed with Count Basie Orchestra until 1990, recording on two Grammy-winning albums with the band in the 1980s. Following her departure, she was featured on recordings with George Benson, joining him on the song “How Do You Keep the Music Playing.” She has also recorded several solo CDs and a set of duets with pianist Shelly Berg, Home With You.

She collaborated with singer/composer Kenny Rankin for the Benny Carter Songbook Project and sang “Key Largo” on the Grammy-winning album.

Hollywood movies and theatrical productions have sought out Bradford’s talents, too. She sang on the soundtrack to Oprah Winfrey’s Beloved and starred in the title role of Duke Ellington’s Folk Opera Queenie Pie at the University of Texas, Butler School of Music.

These days, Bradford has returned to her roots: singing the music of Ella Fitzgerald.

“I’m doing symphony shows called ‘A Century of Ella,’” Bradford explains. “It’s been wonderful, but because these are her original arrangements, there’s more attention to be paid to where she paused, where I should naturally pause, and where the arranger meant to pause—which is usually where she paused. She was a great singer when the music was written for her. She sung where the director told her to sing. Nowadays, vocalists tend to sing the melody where they should so people can establish how the song actually goes. I think it’s difficult for me to listen to a lot of young singers take it on and recreate the wheel. Why would you do that when the wheel’s already written for you?”

Bradford will team up with the Savannah Jazz Orchestra for her Savannah Jazz Festival return. Expect to hear some Ella arrangements, beautiful standards, and more.

This festival is very special for Bradford—she’ll finally meet David Springfield, the Savannah Jazz Orchestra member who has written arrangements for her for 25-30 years.

“We’ve never met in person!” she says. “Just phone and email. He’s written some incredible arrangements for me. He’s such a great arranger for a singer. And he’s actually writing something new for me for the show.”

Bradford looks forward to the new challenge and returning to The Hostess City.

“I’m coming to swing,” she announces. “It’s such an honor to perform with Savannah Jazz Orchestra again. This is my joy, and it’s what I love to do.”