How Carmen Bradford Joined Count Basie and his Orchestra

Carmen Bradford

The RJAM faculty member walked straight up to the jazz titan and the rest is history

In her own words, Carmen Bradford, professor of jazz voice and director of jazz vocal studies recounts how she came to join one of the most legendary bands in jazz history.

How did I come to be hired by Count Basie? Well, that’s an interesting story. I was a sophomore in college and was opening the Basie concert with the band Passenger. When I saw him backstage I said to myself, “Well, I'm going over, I'm going to say something.” I built up my courage, walked across the stage, and I said, “Hi, my name is Carmen Bradford, and I'm part of the opening act for you tonight. And I think you'd make a million dollars if you'd hire me.” He said, “Really a million dollars. Wow.” I replied, “Yes. There's nothing like having a young lady on your show in a lovely dress.”

There was a pause and even the gentleman that traveled with him just kind of stared at me a minute in disbelief. He finally said, “Sure, honey. I’ll listen.” So I went out and I did my two tunes. I sang “A Foggy Day” and this tune called “Lost in the Stars”, which is a beautiful, beautiful ballad. I did those two tunes and I came offstage. I said, “Well, what did you think?” He said, “Well, I'm gonna hire you. I'm gonna hire you.” And I said, “Really? Tonight? Because I can leave. I can leave school tonight. I can go back to the dorms and pack my stuff.” But he said, “No, no, not tonight. But I'll be in touch with you, okay?” And I said, “Okay.”

During the intermission, I ran to my dorm, got a taxi, ran in the door, and picked up a cassette of me singing, r&b and rock and roll tunes—I was singing in an r&b band called Minor Miracle, led by Jon Mills. I went back to the theater, and said, “Mr. Basie, I wanted you to have this cassette in case you take a long time to call me. I'm singing rock and roll, but it still sounds like me.” And he said, “Okay, honey, so I'll be in touch with you.”

I didn't hear from him that night. It was the longest night of my life. In fact, nine months went by. At that time, I lived in an apartment with two other women and they had both said to me, “That old man is not going to call you.” It was my birthday the next day, and I said, “Oh, yes, he is. He's going to go call. I believe that I know it, he's gonna call me.”

My birthday came and when I was blowing out my candles I said, “Oh, God, please let Count Basie call me tomorrow.” The next day came and I was getting ready to leave to go to a gig in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I was just getting in the car door and my roommate said, “Hey, there's some old man on the phone.” My immediate thought was, it must be my grandfather, maybe there's something wrong. I went back into the house and I said, “Hello?” He said, “Is this the little girl that wants to work with me, this is Mr. Basie.” I paused for a minute, and said, “Is this Otis? Otis, you know, I've been waiting for Count Basie to call me, don't play on the phone like that.” And I hung up the phone and I went back out to the car.

My roommate ran out and said, “It’s that old man on the phone again.” I thought, “Oh my goodness, that was really him.” I went back into the house and answered the phone. He said, “Listen, if you hang up the phone on me again, I’ll call another little girl, this is really Mr. Basie. Now do you want to work with me or not.” I said, “Oh Mr. Basie, I thought you were my friend, I’m so sorry about that. I've just been waiting so long for you to call me.” He said, “I'm sorry about that but we'd like for you to join us really soon.” I said, “Well when?” He said, “Really soon. I'm gonna have my road manager contact you.” I said, “Okay, well, how much does it pay?” Like just got really brave, you know? He said, “Well, what do you care?” and I said, “Well, I don't care. My dad makes me ask when I babysit and do little gigs and stuff.” There was another pregnant pause on the phone. So he said, “Well, don't worry about it, we'll take care of you.”

I got a call from the road manager that Wednesday and he told me that I would be joining them on Friday, and I said, “Friday, my god the day after tomorrow.” He said, “Yes, so bring all of your big band arrangements.” I said, “Well, I sing rock and roll. I don't have any big band arrangements.” He said, “Okay, well, bring all your little beaded gowns.” I said, “I wear Levi’s and cowboy boots and sweatshirts on stage.” He said, “Well, put a little rope around your suitcase, and we'll see you Friday.”

Work with Carmen as a student in the Roots, Jazz, and American Studies Program.