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Bobby Bradford: Musician, Educator, Survivor

Daniel Graham By

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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.


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