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Interviews

Bobby Bradford: Self-Determination in the Great Basin

By Published: October 28, 2009
AAJ: Was it an immediately musical friendship or was it a regular friendship that developed into music later?

BB: Oh, this was music right away.

Bobby BradfordAAJ: What impressed you about his way of approaching music? Was it different that how you had previously approached playing?

BB: Well, if you go back to 1953-54, bebop was the music of the day and Ornette was still developing as a musician. He was still pretty much in the bebop mold, but he began to develop some very original compositions that had bebop roots, and had things that were different—trying to improvise on something other than a chord sequence.

AAJ: Had you been thinking at all in those directions before you and Ornette got connected?

BB: Absolutely not. Some people try to muddy the waters there, make me look like I was doing something that I had no thoughts about before. I was working my way up the bebop ladder in much the same way he was, actually. He is a very talented composer, and much of his early music sounds like bebop—the lines on the first couple albums, you can hear that connection immediately. But when you hear him improvise, there's also something peculiar going on outside that tradition. That's also where he caught all the flak.

AAJ: I think [pianist] Walter Norris
Walter Norris
Walter Norris
1931 - 2011
piano
said something to the effect that he didn't even know his own tunes. Clearly there was a lag between what he was doing and whether people had an inkling of what he was up to and then trying to catch up.

BB: That's what Walter said to me once. But yeah, after he left Los Angeles for New York in 1959, people realized they had to pay serious attention to what he was doing and could not dismiss it. My mother used to write me and tell me that the guy I used to play with [Ornette] was in the paper again. In fact, he made his first recording in LA in 1958 [Something Else, Contemporary]. But he went on to a jazz camp at Lenox, Massachusetts, and then to New York.

AAJ: What was the Los Angeles musical community like apart from Ornette, as you were climbing the bebop ladder?

BB: It was primarily bebop a la Charlie Parker, and also a sort of lighter—what would come to be called "West Coast Jazz," which I find totally inaccurate because the guys playing in a lighter style were clearly rooted in bebop chords and so forth. There was [saxophonists] Wardell Gray
Wardell Gray
Wardell Gray
1921 - 1955
sax, tenor
, Dexter Gordon
Dexter Gordon
Dexter Gordon
1923 - 1990
sax, tenor
, [trumpeter] Art Farmer
Art Farmer
Art Farmer
1928 - 1999
flugelhorn
, as well as [baritone saxophonist] Gerry Mulligan
Gerry Mulligan
Gerry Mulligan
1927 - 1996
sax, baritone
, [trumpeters] Chet Baker
Chet Baker
Chet Baker
1929 - 1988
trumpet
, Shorty Rogers
Shorty Rogers
Shorty Rogers
1924 - 1994
trumpet
and Don Fagerquist—good musicians that played a much less aggressive style of bebop. LA was full of players; it was very busy and I don't know that there was much money to be made, unless one was working in film or television. But there were lots of places to play and lots of activity during that period.

AAJ: How long were you in the military?

BB: I was in the Air Force 46 months. I went in September of 1954, and I got out in October of '58. I was discharged in San Antonio, and that's when I decided to come back to Austin and further my education.

AAJ: It seems pretty clear to me that as far as making a life for yourself, education and a more stable lifestyle were in the offing—something other than music would offer.

BB: The school I went to and graduated from, the only thing they offered was Music Ed. Growing up in Texas if you thought about going to college and you were Black, it was as a music major. The schools were very segregated at the time, and the little black schools only offered music education. You assumed that when you graduated, you'd get a job as a high school band director—you weren't going to play in the Dallas Symphony or be a concert librarian. That was totally unrealistic. I had no big master plan of going to New York and tackling the big city. Firstly, I wanted to learn how to play the music I loved—that was my concern, rather than to get famous playing the trumpet.

Of course, during military service I got married and had a couple of kids. So I left with a family and I had the GI Bill available to me—it was about 75 miles from San Antonio to Austin, and I was enrolled straightaway at university. I went to see the guy in charge of music at Huston-Tillotson and he gave me a pretty big scholarship offer to return. It made a lot of economic sense to me to go to Huston-Tillotson, have my tuition paid so I could make rent every month and put food on the table, and I finished in three semesters.

I think it was the fall of 1960 that Ornette called me to New York to make the Free Jazz album (Atlantic) and that was right in the middle of the semester. I told him I wouldn't do it—I talked to professors and they all said I'd fail or get an incomplete that I couldn't recover from. I wanted to finish my education, get a job, and provide for my family, so that was the answer. At any rate, I didn't go in 1960 and in 1961 I dropped out of school for a bit because I needed to work full time. Ornette sent for me again (he and Don Cherry had parted ways) and this time I decided I would go to New York.

Bobby BradfordI had about another year left in school, but since it was the summer my wife and I talked about it, and I left in summer 1961. During periods when he wasn't working, I came back to Texas (my wife and kids were in Dallas near her mother). I didn't bring them along on the initial trip, because I didn't know what was going to happen. Ornette was auditioning bassists and drummers; he finally got [drummer] Charles Moffett

Charles Moffett
1929 - 1997
drums
in the band, and at one point it was Jimmy Garrison
Jimmy Garrison
Jimmy Garrison
1934 - 1976
bass, acoustic
on bass (he left in 1962 to go with John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
) and at another, David Izenzon
David Izenzon
b.1932
. In 1962, I brought my family to the East Village, but Ornette was having serious thoughts about boycotting the clubs. He didn't think he was being paid enough (indeed, he probably wasn't), and there was a big gap between black and white players. He couldn't expect to go into the Five Spot and no matter how packed it was he wouldn't get paid what someone like Gerry Mulligan was making. He decided he wouldn't play for a while, and I left the band in 1963 for lack of work. The last band we had was with Moffett and Izenzon.

Once it was clear we weren't going to be working, I took my family back to Austin and finished college. I graduated from Huston Tillotson in May of '63 and got a job teaching in Crockett, Texas, out in the Hill Country. I was the high school band director from 1963 to 1964. My wife and kids packed up at the end of that year and we all came back to Los Angeles.



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