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Bobby Bradford: Musician, Educator, Survivor

Daniel Graham By

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In 1991 the prolific saxophonist David Murray recorded Death Of A Sideman (DIW), an album that put a spotlight on the compositions of Mississippi born cornetist Bobby Bradford. A long time coming, Bradford's music was finally receiving the kind of recognition it deserved, and from one of jazz's biggest names. Murray had been a student of Bradford's back in 1974 at Pomona College in California, where the cornetist still teaches to this day. Bradford's story, however, started in earnest in 1969 when he and John Carter released their debut album Seeking (Revelation Records) under their group name of the New Jazz Art Ensemble. Turn the calendar back another decade and we see that, despite having played trumpet in Ornette Coleman's band prior to Don Cherry, Bradford would have to wait many years before receiving the level of recognition his music warranted. Being a West Coast "Free Jazz" player would be an uphill struggle for Bradford and his long time playing partner John Carter with precious few records to show for their efforts. What they did manage to release, however, can today stand comfortably alongside the records of wider known exponents of the music such as Anthony Braxton, Peter Brötzmann, Cecil Taylor and Evan Parker. Although rooted in the free form blues of Ornette Coleman's early albums for Atlantic, Bradford's music took that initial inspiration as a point of departure to improvisational and instrumental realms that would mark him out as one of the most resilient, thoughtful and melodically aware trumpeters of the past fifty years. Over a period of a week in three separate interviews, I spoke with Bradford by telephone in his home in California where he has lived for several decades. A true gentleman and natural communicator, Bradford's long career encapsulates everything a musician must be prepared to face if they are to dedicate their life to the pursuit and creation of jazz music.

Bradford was born in 1934 in Cleveland, Mississippi, and for lack of a school music programme took piano lessons at the behest of his mother. After moving across the USA with his family as his father searched for work, they eventually settled in Dallas in 1946. It was here that Bradford first discovered the cornet, the shorter and punchier version of the trumpet that would many years later become his instrument of choice.

"There was a guy who lived right across the road from us who played the cornet. He'd sit there and play the cornet and I somehow became fascinated with him. He wasn't playing jazz, just pretty songs. I went over to this guy and said "I can play that!" and he said "Oh, you're kidding!! It takes a lot to play this horn."

In what was a very tight knit, Black community, Perry Como and Bing Crosby songs filled the radio airwaves of the day. Occasionally you'd hear Benny Goodman or Duke Ellington but jazz was something of a rarity. Bradford soon learned the Harold Arlen standard "Blues In The Night" on the cornet (as it required only the middle valve to be used, Bradford recalls), much to the surprise and delight of his cornet playing neighbour.

"All I had to do was be locked up in a room for a while and figure it out," Bradford explains.

Although Be Bop was the new music in jazz at that time in New York City, it wasn't quite making its way to Bradford's home town of Cleveland which had a population of around 5,000 in the mid 1940s. Access to Be Bop at that time was through records. Local musicians would gather together in their homes, listening fervently to 78s by the likes of Dexter Gordon and Fats Navarro who would prove to be a lifelong influence on Bradford. The song Bradford remembers most fondly was a 12-bar blues called 'Index,' a simple tune reminiscent of Charlie Parker's "Now's The Time." Indeed, it was the blues that would permeate most persistently throughout Bradford's later career, an influence consolidated some years later when he would meet, and subsequently play with, Ornette Coleman. Some of Bradford's schoolmates in the late '40s would years later rank amongst the great names in jazz such as James Clay, David "Fathead" Newman and Cedar Walton. Notable was their willingness to share ideas and compare notes, learning to play jazz together. As the saying goes, "A rising tide lifts all boats."

"Sometimes at the end of the day, we'd all trade ideas about something we'd transcribed off records. At the speed of the 78 record you could keep putting the needle back until you got the part clear. There were no books at the music store about jazz at the time."


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