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."

When Bradford got his first live experience of hearing Be Bop it was courtesy of trumpeter Johnny Coles (much later a Mingus sideman) who came through town with Bull 'Moose' Jackson. Bobby Bradford, Cedar Walton and James Clay were playing almost entirely by ear at that time, doing the best they could. One could conjecture that learning jazz this way, in an unacademic manner later married up to a more scholarly approach, is what gave that generation of musicians such distinctiveness as players and soloists. You have on the one hand a natural, instinctive understanding of the music, deeply embedded in the blues, that reaches a fuller expressive power through a more scholastic methodology. Listening to records was one thing, but the idea of making a career from playing jazz was inconceivable at the time. It would be several years until Bradford would become a teacher of jazz, let alone a full-time player.

"I never had any idea that I'd be involved in music as a profession or a career. If you were in a Black middle class family, there was a great deal of emphasis on going to College. In fact sometimes we said jokingly in the Black community "What's your kid going to be? Doctor, Lawyer, Preacher, Teacher." That was the reality of it. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billy Eckstine were all very visible at that time but we looked at them and thought "Now, that's very special. Not everybody's going to do that..."

A few years later Bradford would form perhaps the most significant musical relationship of his career before meeting saxophonist John Carter in the late 1960s. A favourite expression of Bradford's is "As fate would have it" and fate was about to shine its unpredictable light on the young trumpeter.

"In 1952, at Charles Moffett's wedding reception in Texas, Ornette Coleman was the best man. I didn't know Ornette but word was out that there's this guy from Fort Worth who wears his hair real long, he's weird and he plays some pretty far out stuff but that's all we'd heard."

In what must have been a pretty unique Wedding Reception band, Ornette Coleman and fellow saxophonist Leo Wright kicked off a jam session. Tin Pan Alley tunes were soon replaced by what Bradford terms "the Ornette Coleman assault." Coleman's harmonic extensions prompted bafflement from the guests and fellow musicians but instant approval from Bradford. It would prove to be a watershed moment in Bradford's life, both musically and personally. Coleman would not only exert a hugely important musical influence upon the trumpeter but a personal one as well. The influence of Charlie Parker at the time was immense, and on all instrumentalists, not just saxophonists. It took someone truly revolutionary in spirit, unafraid in character and utterly fluent in natural (not studied) technique as Ornette Coleman to break through that influence to forge a clear, bold new direction in the music.

"It was clear that he'd already heard Charlie Parker and had embraced, even digested, the articulation of the Bebop style. He was already inspired enough to think he had something to say that should be heard. I didn't understand what Ornette was playing, but I liked it."

Bradford goes on to explain the unique alchemy that Coleman possessed.

"Around 1953, Ornette wasn't very adept at precise notation. He had no formal music training, he was what one would call an autodidact. The things he did know, he didn't know them by the name that you call them. He once said to me "Sometimes I will yield to whoever is the strongest voice when we're playing." That kind of thinking made a lot of players nervous."

Up to this point, the formal structure of jazz was the determining factor in the creation and execution of the music. In other words, the chord structure of the classic song form would act as the bedrock, the safety net even, for the less adventurous players. However for the real trailblazers of the day, from Sonny Rollins to Charles Mingus, this structure was instead a point of departure to regions more far flung. For Coleman, who told Bradford "I don't want to do that. I want to be creative so that I can follow my impulses," this still wasn't enough. Bradford eventually understood that this approach to music was one that required a total command of one's instrument. With this bold musical conception came psychological freedom as well, including the freedom to move beyond the teacher's edict of 'Be Free.' One of the lost treasures of jazz must be the unreleased recordings that Bradford made with the Ornette Coleman group. Apart from Science Fiction and Broken Shadows in the 1970s, there remains no record of Bradford and Coleman playing together, surely one of the most sought after periods of recorded jazz that stubbornly remains lost. Bradford, however, hints this could change.

"He had tapes everywhere. There was one occasion where we recorded a piece of his called "The Sun Suite" at UCLA Berkeley with about 20 musicians from the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, me and Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell. There was also one occasion where we played at the Jazz Gallery, in the 1960s. Ornette had tons of recordings, he never threw anything out."

Jazz is characterised as much by soloists as it is by meaningful and fruitful collaboration between musicians who bring out the best in each other and in themselves, occasionally from opposite ends of the playing field. Indeed, it's this contrast that sets into relief each individual's special qualities. Think of the sparse, Byronic melodies of Miles Davis opposite the cascading ceaselessness of John Coltrane in the late 1950s, or the colossal abstractionist blues of Cecil Taylor alongside the pointillistic superbop of Max Roach in the late 1970s. Like minds come together just as opposites attract. Bobby Bradford and John Carter could be both at the same time, and pushed the boundaries of their instruments to electrifying heights over a steady, twenty-year period.

As recounted in the past, it was Ornette Coleman who introduced John Carter to Bobby Bradford. Although both men grew up in Texas, Bradford and Carter didn't know each other but were aware of one another. Carter was a precocious 16 year old musician who later moved to LA with his family to look for work. In 1967 the two met and quickly found common ground, both musically and personally. Despite their fast-formed friendship, there was some initial disagreement about what direction their music would take together. While Bradford preferred to keep the occasional standard in their repertoire, such as his beloved Thelonious Monk, John Carter, who was several years older than Bradford, was insistent their material be entirely original, non-chordal, compositions.

"We were kind of at odds about that initially but it was a healthy kind of conflict."

And that's the thing—like minds can also be at odds with one another and it is from this friendly conflict that grows true creativity. Getting work, however, was far from easy for the group which finally settled on the rhythm team of seasoned drummer Bruz Freeman and bassist Tom Williamson. Bradford and Carter went around LA playing their new music to club owners but were largely met with (commercially motivated) resistance. One could conjecture that, because the large majority of jazz musicians were in New York City at the time, change was slower to come to the typically Bop driven West Coast scene. LA was never the hotbed of new talent that New York City was with its constant (even aggressive) stimulus from new musicians. A breakthrough eventually came in the form of an invitation from club owner/drummer Shelly Manne to play at his famous Shelley's Manne Hole as a part of Black History Month. By this time the band was playing with an exceptional level of cohesion and empathy. Each man had day jobs and were therefore able to dedicate themselves to their music with the kind of patience and resilience that was required. Even people who didn't like their music responded well to the playing of the group.

In the same period as their 1969 debut album Seeking (Revelation), Bradford and Carter recorded two stunningly creative albums for Bob Thiele's Flying Dutchman label, Self-Determination Music and Flight For Four. Thiele, whose legendary Impulse albums with John Coltrane were already behind him, travelled to the West Coast to hear what was going on in the "New Music" scene. Musicians like Horace Tapscott and Arthur Blythe were on his radar as were Bradford and Carter. After a brief audition in the home of bassist Wilbur Morris, Thiele asked the duo to make a record with him and the result was the 1969 classic Flight For Four. On this album, which contains four Carter originals and one Bradford original, we hear a distinct, cohesive and unmistakeably new musical conception. Whilst influenced by the Ornette Coleman Atlantic albums of the late 1950s and early 1960s, it is Carter's compositional genius that marks this out as an altogether more uniform kind of freedom, to mix metaphors. The complex structure of the compositions, including Bradford's pungent blues lament Woman, more directly informs the solos than in Coleman's albums. Carter was still playing clarinet, alto and tenor saxophone at the time, offering a broader sonic palette, whilst Bradford's trumpet playing penetrated deeper than its smaller cousin the pocket trumpet.

Things seemed on the up for the group.

"We were getting good reviews, including the Japanese magazine Swing Journal, but couldn't get a job booked, including in Japan. Bob Thiele said to us "You're going to have to move to New York." John and I had to sit down and do some real soul searching about that. At that point we both had three kids each and a regular day job. In fact later, we experienced some ambivalence about whether or not that was the right move, to stay in LA. But I look back on it now and think that if either of us had moved to New York it would've been a big mistake."

Bradford would soon visit Britain for the first time on an educational trip that would lead to one his most stimulating collaborations with British drummer John Stevens and his Spontaneous Music Ensemble. Stevens was already familiar with the music of Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, placing him in an ideal position to join Bradford's band where group improvisation and enhanced listening skills were at the forefront. Introduced to him by the British writer Richard Williams, Bradford took an instant liking to the unconventional Stevens.

"On some level he was just a lunatic but he was a beautiful human being and a wonderful, wonderful creative artist. On the second trip, John introduced me to Martin Davidson who helped organise a tour in Germany, Holland and France at Le Chat qui peche where we played for five or six nights. From that we made the album Love's Dream on Emanem. We'd also played a few times at the Little Theatre in London and in the big ensemble Keith Tippett had called the Centipede."

Bradford put together an entirely new ensemble of musicians in the UK whose musical empathy was matched by the kind of listening ability required to fully grasp, and execute, that conception. Although from radically different backgrounds to Bradford and Carter, saxophonist Trevor Watts and drummer John Stevens understood their idiom and within it, discovered new expressive qualities. Watts' drumming on Love's Dream (Emanem) is a prime example of how a drummer can dramatically reconfigure group dynamics, especially in free jazz where constant listening and adaptability are paramount.

"Use this material as a kind of spring board," is what I used to tell them, "I want to hear what you want to play, not what I want you to play" which is something Ornette Coleman had said to me years before. Free jazz forces the player to be more resourceful...we're taking another tributary which means you don't have the safety net of sticking to the format of the tune. You have to be more resourceful in creating a direction for the solos. You have to find a place to go, tonally."

Bradford's approach to improvisation was quite at odds with other trumpeters who sometimes fell prey to the idea that they needed to cover every imaginable register, as though in competition with each other. Bradford's improvisational world was a more patient and less grandstanding one, much like Steve Lacy's musical conception on the soprano saxophone. Free Jazz has always been notoriously difficult for a trumpet player to grapple with, often forcing them into rather pointless, dead-end runs and sloppy glissando notes, avoiding the more challenging intervallic playing that can trip up unprepared brass players, especially at speed. Bradford's conception and execution, however, remained focused, thoroughly musical and always surprising.

"I do play in little cells and sequences. Intervallic relations are very important to me as opposed to thinking about what note I could play out of a particular chord that's coming up. I was never a big high note player but I never wanted to do that anyway. I liked the register that Miles Davis explored but Fats Navarro was one of my favourites. His playing had a kind of continuity I always liked."

Bradford's best was yet to come as he again teamed up with John Carter who by this time had devoted himself almost entirely to playing clarinet. Performed live between 1979 and 1982, Carter and Bradford recorded Tandem (Emanem), a dazzlingly virtuosic duet album that spans two discs. A uniquely challenging environment in which to play, the music was a result of both pure improvisation and prepared lead sheets. Driven in part by the harsh economics of taking a quartet on the road, Bradford and Carter worked on duo format pieces and rehearsed them the same way they'd rehearsed quartet pieces. Bradford describes the track 'Tandem' as being really outlandish...(and) insane to play." Indeed. More conservative writers may even question the jazz credentials of such a piece. Taking a more thoughtful approach to the matter one might instead question the credentials of the actual word 'jazz.' When the word no longer encapsulates the music it purports to define, then perhaps it's time for the 'word' to be ditched as the 'music' extends beyond it. "Tandem' is a masterpiece in modern improvised music. Partly comical, sometimes impish, often confrontational, always compelling, 'Tandem' pushes both men to new heights of instrumental virtuosity and musical clarity. Its jazz roots are unmistakeable but it's as though we've cut loose in a little dinghy from the main ship, the further we drift away the smaller the ship becomes, the more empowered and determined the dinghy is. The bare bones format of the duo brought out new tonal possibilities, mistakes even, from both Bradford and Carter, and in the process an enlightenment of the very act of creation.

"When you play in that format you're telling the listener "I'm trying to get your ear here." In the absence of a rhythm section, all these big open spaces have to be dealt with. The piece itself and your own imagination and your awareness of what was happening helped you learn more about your instrument and each other."

Bradford and Carter were now exploring the kind of music that modernist European composers had been mining, such as Luciano Berio, whose compositions for solo instruments, Sequenza, breathes the same oxygen as the miraculous music we hear on Tandem. It's not so much a Blues Connotation as a blues annotation.

In March 1991 John Carter passed away aged just 61, seven months before David Murray's Death Of A Sideman was recorded. It ranks as one of Bradford's greatest and most glorious moments on record as both composer and soloist. The album is suffused with a hard-won musical dignity and valour, perhaps the ultimate testament to Bradford's accomplishments. Whilst a sombre yet dignified portrait of Carter adorns the inner sleeve, Bradford explains it is not a tribute album, but rather an album that coincided with both the untimely passing of Carter and Bradford's musical thinking at the time.

"A lot of people thought there was something sad about that record and obliquely, there was some reference to John Carter but I'd been working on that music for some time. It was a serious documentation...and I'm glad we did it." Lisa Tefo's liner notes to Death Of A Sideman poignantly ask the reader "Does a life devoted to art have any meaning, in the face of death?." Many years from now when we look back at the entire career of trumpeter/cornetist/composer/educator Bobby Bradford, Tefo's inquiry could be rephrased to echo the thoughts of Luciano Berio when he declared:

"The work stops, it doesn't end"

Select Discography As Leader

Love's Dream (Emanem, 1975)
Vols. 1 & 2 with John Stevens (Nessa)
Bobby Bradford & the Mo'tet Lost in L.A. (Black Saint, 1984)
Midnight Pacific Airwaves (Entropy, 2009)

With John Carter

Flight for Four (Flying Dutchman, 1969)
Self Determination Music (Flying Dutchman, 1970)
Secrets (Revelation, 1973)
No U-Turn—Live in Pasadena, 1975 (Dark Tree, 2015)
Comin' On (hat ART, 1989)
Tandem 1 & 2 (Emanem, 1996)

With David Murray

Murray's Steps (Black Saint, 1983)
Death of a Sideman (DIW, 1991)

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