Brenda Alford, a native of Baltimore, Md., currently resides in Miami, Florida. She is a jazz vocalist, a songwriter, a recording artist, an author, a poet, and a retired educator. She is also an entrepreneur and the owner of Brenda Alford, L.L.C., an arts and entertainment company, and her own record label, Biajazz. A student and a teacher from Baltimore City Public Schools, Brenda earned degrees from Morgan State University, Nova Southeastern University, and the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music. She retired in 2015, after a combined 29 outstanding years of classroom teaching in Baltimore City and Miami-Dade County Public Schools.
From the very beginning, music held a prominent place in Brenda’s life. Her mother kept the radio playing all the time, filling their home with standards played on Baltimore’s easy listening radio stations during the 50’s and 60’s. Her Grandmother hummed and sang constantly, seeming to conjure up a popular song for the turn of just about any phrase spoken in family conversations, from “Good morning!” to “May I have a banana?” (Her Grandmother sang the old song, “Yes, We Have No Bananas.”) Brenda’s middle name, Irene, was her Grandmother’s first name, and singing it soothingly to one another, both were convincing in asserting that the song “Goodnight, Irene” was written for them.
As a toddler, Brenda began learning to harmonize with her mother during hair-combing sessions, and transferred that skill to the trio she and her twin sisters formed, playing notes on a toy piano. The trio, later becoming the singing group, “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” started off singing songs like “Over My Head, I Hear Music in the Air,” gleaned from the repertoire of traditional Black spirituals that was a part of the cultural environment in which the sisters were nurtured. As the girls grew up, so did their music, and they sang R&B and pop hits of the 60’s together as they performed in their East Baltimore community.
At the age of 9, Brenda began singing in school in a trio under the guidance of a very nurturing, musically skilled teacher. She performed with the group for the first time in public, ironically, around the same time in 1959 that the great Billie Holliday passed away. Brenda knew nothing of Billie Holliday at that time, and only heard whispers of that news among the adults in her family.
At the age of 11, Brenda purchased her first jazz record with her own money. It was “Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie,” sung by Ella Fitzgerald, with “Cry Me a River” on the B-side. Brenda had seen Miss Fitzgerald on the Ed Sullivan Show, and she “played the grooves off” of that 45 r.p.m. record!
As a pre-teen, she played records in her older cousin’s jazz collection when she visited her aunt’s home, and learned some of the standards that she continues to sing today! Her high school and college years coincided with the rise of the music of Aretha Franklin, which is still influential in Brenda’s singing. While visiting an aunt and uncle in New Jersey in her teens, she “discovered” the music of vocalese masters, James Moody, King Pleasure, and Eddie Jefferson in their record collection. She was mesmerized!
Additionally, the joy that Brenda experienced and skills learned singing Gospel music with the choir at the church she joined with her best friend in her teens gave her a foundation that, to this day influences and enriches her music and her life. She cannot let go of her Gospel roots, nor of any of the music that shaped her musical destiny, making her one of the most versatile singers of her time.
Service to the community in which she lives and works is an important part of Brenda Alford’s life. She is a Founder on the Board of Directors of the Miami Jazz Cooperative and the Education Chair on the Board of Directors of the Sunshine Jazz Organization. She is also currently an active volunteer member and past National Artistic Director of Continental Societies, Inc., an international organization whose mission is to provide resources and support to underserved children. She also serves on the Board of the Florida Xi Chapter of Alpha Delta Kappa, an educators’ honor sorority that provides scholarships to prospective and active educators. Additionally, Brenda has served for several years on the Board of Directors of the Children’s Learning Center of Richmond Heights, Florida, the educational facility housed at the church where she is a current member, Second Baptist Church of Richmond Heights. For several years, she has partnered with the Historic Plymouth Congregational Church in presenting their annual Black History celebrations-during one of which she and musical colleague Jesse Jones, Jr. were awarded citations for their individual artistic contributions to the South Florida Community.
Arts and Entertainment-Past to Present
Before moving to South Florida, Ms. Alford developed an award-winning career in Baltimore, Md., garnering multiple “Baltimore’s Best” Awards, Baltimore-Washington Critic’s Choice Awards, and was even summoned back after she had moved to receive Congressional and City Council Proclamations. Additionally, she was a well-known radio personality and storyteller, first under the tutelage of The United States first official, presidentially-appointed Griot (African storyteller), Mary Carter Smith. She later developed the radio show, “Learning Together” which aired weekly with co-host, Libby Johnson.
Ms. Alford has appeared in two movies: Barry Levinson’s “Avalon” and Jon Waters’ original “Hairspray”. She has written a book of poetry, I Sing You a Sunrise, and co-authored two books: Tales from the Sweetheart Gang, honoring the wisdom of mothers (including her own), and The Thing I Love About Baltimore, sharing memories of her home city, with the foreword by family friend, Congressman Elijah E. Cummings.
To honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 2020, Brenda created and directed a Jazz extravaganza for the Miami Jazz Cooperative featuring a stellar cast of participants from the South Florida arts community. She also collaborated with the MJC to produce a virtual tribute to Dr. King in 2021, featuring several community participants, including children. Additionally, Brenda co-produced the highly successful inaugural Continental Societies, Inc. Jazz Festival, which raised thousands of dollars in scholarship funding for local students.
Ms. Alford has performed in concert for Miami’s Fantasy Theater Factory at the Sandrell Rivers Theater– a musical tribute to the great Aretha Franklin; a virtual Mother’s Day Concert, “A Tribute to the Ladies,” that soothed the soul of the community in the midst of the Pandemic; and served as host and performer for their Annual Chief Sandrell Rivers Day Celebration. She has also performed in the Downtown Miami Jazz Festival, on National Public Radio at WLRN studios, and at the Jazz Gallery at WDNA-FM studios. Brenda performed in “Overture to Overtown,” a salute to Miami’s historic African-American community, produced by the famed Betsy Hotel of Miami Beach, Florida.
At the request of Miami’s world renown Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Brenda served as the educational facilitator for a Jazz Roots Series Concert featuring Kurt Elling and Rene Marie, singing and teaching in a coaching and performance session for high school student guests of the pre-concert Sound Check program. She also served as a panelist, with Arsht Center President Johann Zietsman as moderator, for the first presentation of the groundbreaking “Heritage Project: Songs of Freedom,” an online salon series of discussions to promote systemic racial equality. This discussion shed light on protest/inspirational music from the past up to the present. Brenda’s original music was shared with the panelists and featured on a worldwide National Public Radio broadcast in which she was interviewed as a part of the publicity campaign for the Heritage Project.
For its 2020-21 Season Children’s Educational Program, the world renown Palm Beach Florida Symphony Orchestra invited Ms. Alford to apply her storytelling expertise to narrate the script for their multimedia production, One Small Step, the story of the first moon landing. To follow up, she participated in virtual question and answer sessions involving, according to the orchestra’s Education Director, over 1,000 Palm Beach County students. More information about that production is available on the Palm Beach Symphony Orchestra’s website.
As the featured guest on the online production, Jazz and Conversations, sponsored by the Miami Jazz Cooperative, Sunshine Jazz Organization, South Florida Jazz, and the Gold Coast Jazz Society, Brenda Alford’s life and music were explored by hosts (Jazz stars in their own right) Nicky Orta and Wendy Pedersen. They interviewed her and her family, she performed her original music live, and there was discussion about her historic encounters and appearances. Some of the jazz luminaries that she has sung with include Horace Silver, Ron Carter, Al Foster, Keter Betts, Lou Donaldson, Tommy Flannigan, Philly Joe Jones, Pete Minger, Cyrus Chestnut, Herman Foster, Bob Cranshaw, Stanley Turrentine, Sonny Stitt, and Patience Higgins. Ella Fitzgerald shared her wisdom with Brenda and talked her into becoming a full-time singer. Carmen McRae also shared experiences and advice with Brenda in the beginning stages of her career. Brenda has also researched and hosted online events for the Miami Jazz Cooperative, with renown former accompanists, pianists, Cyrus Chestnut and Charles Covington, as well as bassist, Curtis Lundy as some of her guests.
With her own Jazz ensemble, Brenda toured throughout Baltimore City Public Schools for 13 years with her unique History of Jazz program as a mainstay of the Baltimore City Public Schools Office of Cultural Enrichment. She also collaborated with the Maryland Historical Society, touring schools all over Maryland and producing and starring in an Ella Fitzgerald tribute as well as the show, “Here’s to You, Miss Holiday,” paying tribute to singer Billie Holiday.
After moving to Miami, Brenda performed annually for several years at the Joseph Caleb Center at the behest of the Sunshine Jazz Organization for Magic City Mondays, where over 1,000 students were brought from their schools by bus to the center to experience her “Edutainment” presentations on the History of Jazz. She also continued to sing at several of South Florida’s most celebrated night spots such as the Van Dyke, as well as amazing audiences with her concerts. During this period, she recorded her classic CD, “My Favorite Things”, a live recording at the Old Dillard Museum with the legendary Othello Molineaux and his quintet produced by the great Mack Emmerman (producer of the “Saturday Night Fever” sound track).
More recently, Brenda and her band toured the Southern Region of Miami-Dade County Public Schools with her innovative, research-based Student Empowerment Rally. She has been sharing her own compositions as a vehicle to educate the underserved students of that area about this nation’s original art form, Jazz, while lifting morale, motivating them to pursue excellence, and, through her research-based musical program, addressing a currently trending educational mental health focus–emotional intelligence. She presented this concept at the Alpha Delta Kappa Sorority International Convention in an Educational Symposium in 2019, lecturing to fellow educators and performing her jazz compositions conveying inspirational messages. This original music has now been formatted for the general public as a c.d. recording and virtual concert video entitled “Messages…Songs for the Soul”.