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Capital Jazz Orchestra pays tribute to Ella Fitzgerald in Concord

  • Grammy Award-winning vocalist Carmen Bradford

    Grammy Award-winning vocalist Carmen Bradford

  • Ella Fitzgerald, "the First Lady of Song," has died at her home in Beverly Hills, Calif., Saturday, June 15, 1996. Fitzgerald, shown in this 1983 file photo during a concert in Newport, R.I., was 78. (AP Photo/Julie Markes)

    Ella Fitzgerald, "the First Lady of Song," has died at her home in Beverly Hills, Calif., Saturday, June 15, 1996. Fitzgerald, shown in this 1983 file photo during a concert in Newport, R.I., was 78. (AP Photo/Julie Markes)

  • Grammy Award-winning vocalist Carmen Bradford
  • Ella Fitzgerald, "the First Lady of Song," has died at her home in Beverly Hills, Calif., Saturday, June 15, 1996. Fitzgerald, shown in this 1983 file photo during a concert in Newport, R.I., was 78. (AP Photo/Julie Markes)

My only musical regret is that I never saw Ella Fitzgerald perform live. I had the opportunity, once, a long time ago. I just didn’t take it.

It was September 1989, and I was a student at a college in western Massachusetts. Ella was singing at a venue 45 minutes from campus. I had a car and enough money for a ticket. I just didn’t have anyone to go with me. I’d asked everyone I knew to come along, but they all had said no. It was the first weekend of the new school year, and the campus was ready to party. In the end I was too self-conscious to go by myself, so I skipped the concert and I missed my one chance to hear the greatest jazz vocalist ever. I regret it to this day.

On Sunday, the Capital Jazz Orchestra will present the latest concert in its Moment in Time series with “A Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald,” featuring Grammy Award-winning vocalist Carmen Bradford. For fans who were lucky enough to hear Ella sing, this concert will bring back vivid memories. For those us who may have been too young (or may have made poor choices as a youth) it’s an opportunity to experience the music and spirit of the first lady of song: Ella Fitzgerald.

In the history of American music, Ella’s presence is huge. Mostly recognized for her interpretations of the Great American Songbook, Ella performed for nearly 60 years, winning 13 Grammy awards and recording thousands of songs on nearly 100 albums. She toured the world, performing with the greatest musicians of her era: Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and Dizzy Gillespie.

Ella Fitzgerald is by far my most favorite jazz singer. No one else even comes close. Ella’s voice was instantly recognizable. Her phrasing was gorgeous. Her diction was flawless. Her intonation perfect. And I loved that little sizzle that would break as she went through her upper-mid range. Billie Holiday’s voice was dark and foreboding, Sarah Vaughn’s was smooth like warm caramel, and Ella’s was as peppy as a box of Altoids. One could feel the joy and happiness radiating from her voice. Ella was pure fun.

She had the power to drive a 20-piece big band like a swinging freight train, or to hang back in the pocket, Kansas City-Basie style. Her scatting imitated the style of the beboppers Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and her improvisational ideas were endless. She constantly took risks onstage, pushing her voice into new directions.

With an encyclopedic knowledge of the jazz repertoire, and instant melodic recall, Ella was a master of quoting snippets other songs, within an improvised solo. She could do this many times within a single tune. The more recognizable and popular quotes would get huge cheers from the audience; the more obscure ones, a smile and a discreet nod from the band.

Vocalist Carmen Bradford, who will perform with the Capital Jazz Orchestra on Sunday is no stranger to Ella. The daughter of trumpeter Bobby Bradford and jazz vocalist Melba Joyce, Bradford grew up surrounded by music. “My father was always practicing, and my mother would play jazz and a lot of Brazilian music,” she said. “So I heard a lot of Ella, Sarah Vaughn and Tony Bennett. My brothers and I listened to lots and lots of Motown too.”

One of Bradford’s greatest early influences was her mother. “I listened and copied everything I heard her do. She is still a serious influence on my style and phrasing.”

Bradford’s career was launched at age 21 when she was hired by Count Basie to join his legendary band. She would work with the Basie orchestra for nine years and perform on three Grammy award-winning albums. After leaving Basie, Bradford went on to work with jazz greats such as Tony Bennett, George Benson, Frank Sinatra, and many more.

While touring with Basie, Bradford had many opportunities to work with Ella Fitzgerald. Bradford remembers Ella as a friend and a wonderfully sweet person. She speaks of the influence Ella has had on her own voice, “I’ve listened to and loved her for so long that you hear her in my voice. You’ll hear that when I sing.”

The two became close friends. “She was a lovely, lovely person.” Bradford said, “She was very sweet. And I still miss her.”

Bradford also remembers Ella as a humble person, despite her fame and stardom. Appearing together with the Basie band at Carnegie Hall, the two were in the dressing room before the show, when Ella began to pace the floor. Bradford asked her if she was okay, and Ella replied, “I sure hope they like me”  

Bradford paused for a long time and responded, “Pardon me, who?”  

“The audience. I hope they like me,” Ella said.  

Bradford thought for a second and said, “I have never, ever, heard you not sound anything other than great!”

“Well, baby, nobody is great all the time,” Ella said.

“You are, Miss Ella!  You are!” Bradford said.

The Capital Jazz Orchestra presents “A Moment in Time: A Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald,” featuring Carmen Bradford, at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Capitol Center for the Arts. Tickets are available at the box office, by phone at 225-1111 or online at ccanh.com. Student tickets are available for a special price of $20.

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