Summit Notes: Carmen Bradford
Grammy-nominee, resident and head of the Jazz Voice Department at Roots, Jazz, and American Music at San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Brubeck Jazz Summit Jazz Voice Instructor, and jazz royalty.
Ladies and Gentleman,
Brubeck Jazz Summit: Thank you for your time, Carmen! Let’s jump right into your introduction to jazz.
Carmen Bradford: My grandfather, jazz vocalist Melvin Moore (my mother’s father), sang with the Ink Spots/Lucky Millander’s Big Band/Ernie Fields Big Band/Dizzy Gillespie’s band in the 1940’s with a hit recording called, “Love Me Pretty Baby and T-Town Blues.” Hearing my family practice and hearing their live performances throughout my entire childhood, and as an adult…yes, definitely from [my family].
Brubeck Jazz Summit: Could you share insights into your career trajectory after your formal music education, such as the experiences you sought or moves you made, and perhaps what surprised you as a young, professional musician?
Carmen Bradford: Well, I have to include my formal training, as I was still a student at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas when discovered by William “Count” Basie. As a student, I was already doing commercial jingles and voice overs for television, and being part of the opening act for Count Basie and his Orchestra.
I got my formal training on stage as the vocalist with Count Basie and his Orchestra. I was singing R&B, Rock & Roll, and Country Music when I got that job, and only knew three jazz standards in their entirety when I started. Talk about on the job training, it wasn’t easy.
The night I joined them on tour they were performing with Tony Bennett, and it continued that way at least twice a week, from Carmen MacRae to Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson, Joe Williams, to Ella Fitzgerald….and I was the opening act with Count Basie! Now that’s trajectory!
The best move I made, was to practice everyday like my life depended on it. Being prepared and staying prepared for 40 to 50 weeks on the road, and the physical toll it takes on the body and voice, was and is still a concern of mine. So much practice and care of yourself…for yourself. The sleep and times of quiet, in constant preparation, for these brief, and I mean singing maybe, six tunes a night, and the mental preparation for knowing what you’re going to say, phrase, swing, and color! No joke and not for the weak!
You must be ready in so many ways, and it’s a lot to ask for someone as young as I was, though I had decided at the age of 4 years old, this was it for me! As I look back, I was watching my mother’s every move and how she sang from the beginning. I still borrow parts of her phrasing.
Practice is key, listening to recordings of OLDER singers, not the singers of today. Yes, they are very talented, but you are going to miss out on so much if you don’t go to the well, and hear it for yourself. They (the young artist of today) went to the well, and heard what their ear was ready to receive, and you, as a young singer must do the same thing. You see…you might hear more than they did! Wow…how about that! You might hear even more!
Brubeck Jazz Summit: Tell us more about your instructor style.
Carmen Bradford: I’m not sure I have a particular style of teaching, I usually begin with listening to the student sing. You have to start there, so you’ll know what they might need to work on. Phrasing is so important, breath control, can you tell a story, what are his/her favorite songs to sing, and my first question to a student is:
“I’d like to hear what you sound like, when you are singing your favorite “go to” song (s)…using all of your best runs and riffs…what does that sound like?”
And then I listen. It is very revealing, and I am able to get a clear idea of where they are musically, and what the ear/brain are hearing and what they are ready for vocally, or not. You see, what you’re hearing in your mind, may not be coming out in your singing, but it’s a great place to start. I hope that makes sense.
Brubeck Jazz Summit: That’s great insight and it makes sense. In fact, each Summit faculty member interviewed and posed with this question answered similarly in that the student will be asked to perform and the instructor, who will engage in close listening, will translate the students level. From there, the student and instructor, together as a team, will work towards the next level of craftsmanship.
Brubeck Jazz Summit: Where does this interview find you, and how are you and your family?
Carmen Bradford: This interview finds me and my family taking things one day at a time during this shelter-in-place. If I think about it too much, losing so many friends from the Coronavirus has been heart breaking. The thousands of lives lost…it’s almost too much to think about, so I practice, clean my house, do yard work, watch wonderful movies on Turner Classic Movies, I’m staying busy.
Brubeck Jazz Summit: Could you offer some insights into the relationship between a vocalist and the rest of a jazz band? How do you foster that relationship for the best results?
Carmen Bradford: The vocalist is the first instrument, and should always look at themselves as another member of the jazz band. The vocalist should always know everything that the instrumentalist knows or has to learn. The vocalist must learn every song/tune that the instrumentalist learns, and that includes improvisation, not just singing the melody.
Brubeck Jazz Summit: Do you have practice recommendations for musicians during this specific time?
Carmen Bradford: I feel that a good practice recommendation is to play along with recordings that the student may find very difficult. Transcriptions, be it vocal or instrumentals, are an excellent guide, even for me as a professional. They are inspiring!
Brubeck Jazz Summit: Tell us, what are you reading, watching, listening to by way of entertainment?
Carmen Bradford: I am reading “Ethics For The New Millennium” by His Holiness The Dalai Lama, watching TCM (Turner Classic Movies) and participating in Webinars with Scotty Barnhart and the Count Basie Orchestra.
Brubeck Jazz Summit: Finally, how do you like to experience jazz?
Carmen Bradford: I like to experience jazz as a performer. That brings me joy, and hopefully the audience as well.