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Bobby Bradford: Musician, Educator, Survivor

Daniel Graham By

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"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.


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