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Bobby Bradford: Self-Determination in the Great Basin


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Born in Cleveland, Mississippi in 1934 and raised between Dallas and Los Angeles, trumpeter Bobby Bradford began playing with Ornette Coleman in Los Angeles in the 1950s, and replaced Don Cherry in an unrecorded Coleman quartet during the early 1960s. However, the most significant partnership in Bradford's musical life was with the clarinetist and composer John Carter (1928-1991), with whom he worked and recorded from 1969 into the 1980s a very different brand of free-bop. Now a professor at Pomona College, Bradford continues to lead his Mo'Tet and is being celebrated at the 2009 Festival of the New Trumpet in New York.

Bobby Bradford

All About Jazz: Could you talk a bit about who you're working with presently?

Bobby Bradford: I have a group called the Mo'tet, and for a while we were working about once a month in this Italian restaurant in Sierra Madre, but we could play whatever we wanted—no restaurant music or anything. That band has William Jeffrey on drums; Roberto Miranda on bass; I use Don Preston on piano and on saxophone Chuck Manning; Ken Rosser on guitar; and Michael Vladtkovitch on trombone.

But when I go to New York or Chicago, there's never enough money to bring my own guys. The same thing happened with John Carter and his Octets; when he'd perform outside of LA, they'd fit him in with some good players but they didn't know his music nearly as well. The only person he brought with him was me. When I go to New York, I work with great players—[reedman] Marty Ehrlich and David Murray,Andrew Cyrille on drums, Mark Dresser and Mark Helias on bass, and Benny Powell on trombone—but they aren't my working band.

AAJ: And how did you get in connection with the Festival of the New Trumpet?

BB: Well, I was introduced to Dave Douglas and played in the festival in 2005, which was dedicated to Lester Bowie. I had one set with my group before another Texas trumpeter, Dennis Gonzalez, went on. Again, I used New York musicians like Ehrlich, Dresser, and [bassist] Ken Filiano—it was two basses and two horns in a quartet. This year, since it was set up around what I'm doing, I'll have a quintet, an octet, and [trumpeters] Jeremy Pelt and Eddie Henderson will be playing as well as Ambrose Akinmusire, who has written a piece for me that I haven't heard.

AAJ: What about recording these performances? Have you given any thought to it?

BB: It's a serious possibility, but I would have to clear it with everybody involved. I remember a gig I was on with [drummer] Billy Higgins not too long before he died, at Yoshi's in Oakland with [saxophonist] Dewey Redman and [bassist] Charnett Moffett. It was great, they'd set up everything and Dewey didn't want it recorded or released so that was that.

AAJ: Could you give us some background on your growing up, early life, and how you got involved in music?

BB: In my family there were two boys (my brother and me), and we left Mississippi when I was about ten or eleven because my mother had remarried. We left and came to Los Angeles in 1944 or '45 because my stepfather had family out there and as they were doing well, he figured we would do well too. So we stayed in Los Angeles for one semester of the school year, and midway through we packed up again and moved across country to Detroit. We stayed there the other half of the school year.

In the summer of 1946, my mother sent my brother and me to live with my real father in Texas. I went to high school in Dallas and graduated in 1952, at which point I moved to Austin to attend a small Methodist college there called Sam Houston University. At the same time in Austin there was another small black Methodist college called Tillotson, and they merged in about 1954 to become Huston-Tillotson University. I went there the spring of 1952 and left in the end of the school year at the end of 1953. After that I went to Los Angeles to stay with my mother and stepfather. It was then that I got to play with Ornette Coleman.

AAJ: So you didn't know Ornette in Texas.

BB: I met him in Texas but I didn't play with him until Los Angeles.

Bobby BradfordAAJ: When did music first become a major force in your life?

BB: I was taking piano lessons when I was a kid in Mississippi, because my mother had told me to—but I wasn't involved on any deep level. Music didn't hit me until about 1949 or 1950, when I was in high school. That's when I first heard the beboppers and that's when I was swept off my feet.

AAJ: What made you choose trumpet—or were you able to choose?

BB: That was what happened to be available—the cornet, really. It's not like my parents laid out a bunch of instruments for me and said 'pick one.' There was a guy who lived across the street that had an old, beat up cornet which he was willing to part with. I played it in the high school band; some of my classmates in that band were [pianist] Cedar Walton and [saxophonists] David "Fathead" Newman and James Clay. When I came back to LA in the summer of '53, I ran into Ornette Coleman again after having met him in Austin. He came to Austin to be the best man at a wedding and afterwards they had a little jam session—that was the first time I heard him play. When I ran into him later, we furthered our acquaintance and he invited me to come over and rehearse tunes with him, and we became good friends. We played together until I went into the military in the summer of '54.


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