Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, July 20, 2001


Carmen Bradford

Basie vocalist
at jazz fest

Carmen Bradford performs
in a tribute to Stan Kenton

By Gary C. W. Chun

Thanks to no shortage of youthful chutzpah, Carmen Bradford has established herself as a prime jazz vocalist. Known for her lengthy stint with the Count Basie Orchestra, she's in town as one of the guests for this weekend's Hawaii International Jazz Festival, performing tonight as part of a tribute to another formidable giant in jazz, Stan Kenton.

Bradford "grew up with a lot of R&B and Motown in the house," she said by phone from her Los Angeles home last week. She comes from a solid jazz gene pool, with her vocalist mom Melba Joyce and trumpeter/composer dad Bobby Bradford still performing.

Besides keeping busy performing and recording schedules, Bradford is a jazz vocal instructor at the University of Southern California. "Her kids" and conductor Shelby Berg will lay down that quality sound tonight as one would expect from the high-caliber Trojan school.

It was while she was a student herself, attending Huston-Tillotson College in Austin, Texas, that she took her bold first steps to make a name for herself in the early '80s. "The guy I was dating back then was going to be part of an opening gig for Basie's band, and I went along with him as the singer, knowing I had some jazz background, even though I was doing rock 'n' roll gigs wearing Levi's and cowboy boots!

"I met Mr. Basie backstage before the gig -- this was in his later years when he was getting around in his motorized cart. So I went up to him, said hi and introduced myself, and then basically told him that, 'you've had all these male vocalists in the band, I'm a young female singer, you know you'd get billions of dollars more if you hire me!'

"And I'm sure he was thinking where did this young female come from, who does she think she is? But I told him to listen to me sing with my boyfriend's band before they went on. I did 'Foggy Day in London Town' and 'Lost in the Stars' that night, and after the performance, Mr. Basie said he'd hire me, and I asked 'when?,' and he said he'd get back to me."

Months went by after that meeting, but Bradford stayed in contact with the band through two trombonists of Basie's, Grover Mitchell and Bill Hughes, men who are still with the band; Mitchell has been its leader since Basie's death in 1984.

Then one fateful day, Basie was on the road and in his hotel room with jazz impresario and associate Norman Granz, reviewing tapes for potential new band members, and, according to Bradford, her tape is put in the player by mistake.

"Norm asks, 'who is that?,' and Basie says it's this girl that approached me months ago asking for a gig. Norm said 'Hire her! She's going to be your next Joe Williams,' " Williams being Basie's most popular band singer from 1954-'61.

In the meantime, Bradford had just blown out the candles on her birthday cake, making a wish that Basie would get back to her. "I was leaving for Santa Fe for a gig, and just before I was out the door, the phone rang and my roommate answers it. She said 'some old man on the phone is asking for you.'

"At first I thought it was my grandfather, but then I heard this voice on the other end of the line saying 'is this the little girl that wants to sing with me?' I thought it was my cousin Otis -- who knew I wanted to sing with Basie's band -- fooling with me, so I basically told him off and hung up.

"The phone rang again soon afterward and when I took the phone from my roommate again, the voice said 'if you hang up on me again, I'm not hiring you!' "

Bradford then knew her birthday wish had come true. And her "happy ending" became a nine-year tenure with the Basie Orchestra, during which the band won two Grammy awards. "I'm very blessed to have my career start with the Basie band," she said. "It was an honor to follow in the line of other female vocalists who sang with Basie, like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday. I was the last singer he hired.

"There is an art to singing with a big band, and it helped to know that with Mr. Basie, it was always great arrangements and great music."

"Traveling with the Basie band, you have to realize at the beginning, it was 18 men and me, all of 22 years old," Bradford said. "It was difficult at times because they always saw me as a little girl -- it was like traveling with a bunch of fathers and grandfathers who were always nosy and protective of you! They were pains in the ass at times but still very sweet. But come showtime, we'd do our business!"

Bradford celebrated her 41st birthday yesterday while in the islands.

Hopefully, promoter Abe Weinstein and Berg remembered to throw her one of her patented "surprise birthday parties I like to give for myself, done up right with fine china and crystal instead of paper plates and plastic cups!"

8th Annual Hawaii
International Jazz Festival

Where: Blaisdell Concert Hall and McKinley High Auditorium
When: 7 p.m. today through Saturday at the Blaisdell and 4 p.m. Sunday at McKinley
Tickets: $20, $35 and $40 per night (a multiple-day pass is available as well as special senior and military discounts, and student tickets are $5, with proof of ID required). Available at the Blaisdell Box Office and Ticket Plus outlets or charge by phone at 526-4400.

Today and tomorrow

Tribute to Stan Kenton: With Carmen Bradford and the USC Big Band and Nestor Torres (Friday) and The Four Freshmen, Bud Shank, the Marvin Stamm Duo and the San Diego State Big Band (Saturday). Other Kenton alumni on both nights include Gabe Baltazar, Bill Mays, Buddy Childers, Eddie Bert and Dick "Slyde" Hyde.


Parade of Big Bands: Featuring the presentation of a lifetime achievement award to Gabe Baltazar and student scholarship winners, as well as the big bands from UH, USC and San Diego State, and the Oahu Junior Jazz Ensemble.

Do It Electric
Click for online
calendars and events.

E-mail to Features Editor

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]

© 2001 Honolulu Star-Bulletin