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Vocalist Carmen Bradford remarks on Ella Fitzgerald's influence, future of jazz

Courtesy Photo

Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist Carmen Bradford has worked with many greats, including Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Wynton Marsalis.

She will be in concert with the Lisa Hittle Big Jazz Band at Newman University in Wichita on Saturday, Nov. 20.

Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist Carmen Bradford will perform Saturday at Newman University.

Bradford has been a featured vocalist with the Count Basie band for years and has worked with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Wynton Marsalis. One of her music idols is the legendary Ella Fitzgerald.

Bradford spoke to Carla Eckels about how Fitzgerald influenced her style and career.

Interview highlights

How did Ella Fitzgerald shape your music career personally and professionally?

Where do I begin? Well, I met her first at Neiman Marcus. My mother and I were shopping there, and she was in the perfume department. We approached her. I must've been about nine years old. Then I met her again in my teens, also in the same Neiman Marcus. She was in the perfume department, and I was with my mother. So, this was getting a little spooky, right? So then I met her again at Neiman's. Isn't that something? I met her again at Neiman's three times, and that was the time after ... Mr. Count Basie had just hired me and I had been out with the band for just a short time.

And she said, "Oh baby, that's so wonderful." She said, "Now don't eat a lot on the road."

I said, "OK," (laugh). Yeah, that was 1983, but she has always meant a lot to me. I grew up listening to my mother, who was the greatest example for me and continues to be when it comes to singing, but I've always found Ella, everything that she sings and sang, deeply challenging. But I've also always loved her phrasing.

Of course, I loved her improvisation, her improvisational skills are just ... there is no one greater that scats like that. There just isn't. And she was so wonderful when I paid tribute to her on my first and second album and she got to hear the second one, with Mr. Paganini. That was in tribute to her, and she got to hear it and she really loved it.

Courtesy Photo
Louis Armstrong and Carmen Bradford in 1964.

I bet that was really special.

It really was. But what was really, really, special is that … she had had her second … her leg was removed ... she had diabetes. She was bedridden. And so she was at home when she got to hear my album with Mr. Paganini on it titled, "With Respect."

After she passed away, about eight months had passed, I had gone to hear a jazz vocalist, Carmen Lundy, who was appearing at this club called Catalinas in Hollywood.

The next day, Carmen called me that morning and I said, "Hey, Carmen, what's going on?" And she said, "Listen, I need you to meet me at Ella's house right now." I said, "Ella who?"

She said, "Fitzgerald!" I said, "Well, what's going on?" She said, "Just get to her house right now." I said, "OK."

So, I drove to Ella's house in Beverly Hills. I didn't live too far from where I was going. I got there and the door was ajar at her beautiful mansion ... I could hear a lot of voices in there, and I knocked and knocked, but nobody answered. So I stepped on in and I looked, I said, "Hello?" I looked to the left and to the right and I looked a little further. She had a beautiful, beautiful foyer with a beautiful staircase; long, old Hollywood home.

I could see her dining room was to the left, and there were lots of furs. Most of the furs were turned inside out and you could see her initials in there. Everything was monogrammed. Further down, past the dining room, there were about four or five elderly ladies in there, and they were kind of arguing over her crystal and china. And I just assumed, I said, "This has gotta be the estate sale that's going on."

And so then, Carmen Lundy came down the stairs ... I hugged her, and I said, "What's going on?" She said, "Give me your hand, let me help you up the stairs. ... I said, "You don't have to help me." She said, "No, I need to hold your hand."

And so, she took me upstairs and we went into Ella's bedroom. The bed had been stripped and there were a few empty perfume bottles on her dresser. And then Carmen pointed her hand across the room ... and on the bedside table, my CD jewel case and a little tiny boombox were sitting there. Those were the only things in the room other than those little perfume bottles. So there was this little tiny boombox that only held one CD and my CD was in the boombox!

[Talk about] about somebody falling out. I fell out on that bed, and I must've cried for 15 minutes. It was really something. Really, really something.

Carmen said, "I want you to sit up a minute ... let's just sit up a minute and take this in, OK? That we are sitting on the First Lady of Song's bed, and she'd been listening to you. She'd been listening to you sing at the end of her life!"

And it just kind of changed my life at that point. It kind of just gave me a jumpstart because I just think I had had big band burnout. You know? I've been touring just forever, 40 weeks a year for the longest [time], and I just think I needed a break. And it gave me just a lovely jolt to keep going and to work harder and to ... make a bigger statement towards this music.

Wow, what a magnificent story.

Carmen, you are also part of a teaching faculty at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. What do you think about the up-and-coming jazz singers?

I'm with their jazz program called RJAM, which stands for Roots, Jazz and American Music, and there are some wonderful, wonderful, singers. Young singers today that have such old spirits. I mean, look at Cécile McLorin Salvan, she is spectacular. There are several young vocalists that I really, really love.

Share an example of what young jazz artists have to keep in mind when developing their skills.

You have to be willing to listen and take the time to check out how somebody breathes. It's like if I'm getting arrangements written — Shelly Berg has written a lot of arrangements for me, along with John Clayton, and when Frank Foster was alive he wrote a lot of arrangements for me — they pay attention to how you breathe. They know your vocal ability and how long you're able to hold a note and when you need support. It's quite an art.

In December 2021, you will receive the Los Angeles Jazz Society Award. How does it feel to be a jazz vocalist honoree?

It means so much. I'm going to cry. It means so much to me because I'm from Southern California and ... Joe Williams has received that award — Carmen McRae, there's ... been a lot of greats that have received that award. And just to be in that company is really something. But I just have so much respect for the Los Angeles Jazz Society because they help students with scholarships. They're just always doing such good deeds for young people across the country. So, I just have a lot of respect for them, and I'm so honored. I really am. Thank you.

What can the audience expect when you sing live Saturday with the Lisa Hittle Big Band at Newman in Wichita?

Well, how wonderful is that? This is Lisa's band. I'm so excited! I've worked with her for years when she was head of the Jazz Department at Friends University, and I'm excited about that.

I'm doing music that I know an older audience would enjoy, and I think that's what we're going to have. But of course, I always love to see young people at these concerts as well.

I'm doing lots of standards, lots of music that people recognize. It's just, it puts a smile on people's faces when they can sing along with me, or at least they know them. They know my arrangements are going to swing, and there's a sway that happens in the audience when they recognize something.

So, it makes me happy to do that, to sing standards. And I love the great American songbook. I really do. I enjoy singing standards.

Jazz Vocalist Carmen Bradford will be in concert with the Lisa Hittle Big Jazz Band at Newman University in Wichita on Saturday, Nov. 20, at 7:45 p.m.

This event is presented by the Grumpy Old Men Philanthropic Performance Group, supporting local nonprofits and charitable causes.

Carla Eckels is Director of Organizational Culture at KMUW. She produces and hosts the R&B and gospel show Soulsations and brings stories of race and culture to The Range with the monthly segment In the Mix. Carla was inducted into The Kansas African American Museum's Trailblazers Hall of Fame in 2020 for her work in broadcast/journalism.