Born in Mississippi in 1934 and raised in Dallas, Texas, cornet master and composer Bobby Bradford
knows racism and segregation. When asked if Texas was completely segregated, Bradford said, "If there's a word stronger than 'completely,' that was Texas." In spite of the hate and discrimination of everyday life in the Jim Crow South, Bradford and his family were tuned in to events around the country that impacted African Americans. They "got the news from the outside world" from Black newspapers like the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier that regularly arrived in Dallas by train.
He first saw photos of Charlie Parker
and Dizzy Gillespie
in those papers and, around 1947, young Bobby heard his first bebop "78" when a musician neighbor invited him over and played a record for him. It was Dexter Gordon
and Fats Navarro
's "In Dex," and it almost "made my skull come off." After hearing this hip, new sound, young Bobby knew his life would take him down a creative, musical path. It was also around this time that Bradford became friends with another young man fascinated by the new music whom he met at a wedding: Ornette Coleman
. As Bradford has said, although they were still playing bebop, " I wouldn't have done anything like that (progressive music) if I hadn't met Ornette."
It was also in those same newspapers that, in 1947, Bradford read about Jackie Robinson and his historic shattering of baseball's racial barrier. African Americans all over the country followed Robinson's public challenge to Jim Crow on the baseball diamond, exulting in his successes and commiserating on those days when he went hitless.
Fast forward to the 21st century where, for the last fifty years century, Bobby Bradford has been the "Dean" of the creative music scene in Southern California. He has performed and recorded his music with many different bands, most recently the Motet, taught music for forty-four years at Pomona College, and even owned a jazz club in Pasadena called The Little Big Horn.
One day in 2019, while waiting in line at the bank, Bradford's life-long admiration of Jackie Robinson and his creative muse came together when he ran into an old friend who made him an offer he could not refuse. Terry Cannon, founder of the Baseball Reliquary, (an organization dedicated to the free spirited celebration of the human side of baseball's history and heritage), informed Bradford that even though the centennial of Jackie Robinson's birth was approaching, Pasadena, the city where he began his extraordinary athletic exploits, had no plans to celebrate this historic milestone.
Cannon and the Reliquary wanted to commemorate the birth of this heroic American who made such an indelible impact on the country and told Bradford that they wanted to commission him to compose some music about Jackie Robinson. Bradford responded immediately, telling Cannon "I'd love to do it, but I'm not gonna write something like 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game.'" But Cannon, who loved Bradford's music told him "You can write anything you want." And that was that. For Cannon, this project took on greater urgency as he was about to begin cancer treatment.
It did not take long for inspiration to come to Bradford. After that first discussion, the title Stealin' Home
popped into his head. Bradford wanted the suite to impressionistically capture several pivotal moments in Robinson's life, beginning with his army service.
In 1944, while training as a second lieutenant at an army base in Texas, Robinson confronted racial segregation in a way that would foreshadow his desegregation of major league baseball. Robinson was riding on a military bus on the base, when he refused to give up his seat to a white woman. The military authorities court-martialed Robinson but ultimately acquitted him of all charges, resulting in an honorable discharge and the end of this ugly racial incident in a country ostensibly fighting a war against fascism and for freedom and equality.
With Robinson's courageous stand against discrimination in his mind, Bradford sat down at the piano and spoke Jackie's last name, "Robinson." He repeated it, then broke the name into its three syllables and repeated that several times. Rob-in-son, Rob-in-son, Rob-in-son and suddenly, Bradford had a rhythm. Next, he wrote out a 12 bar blues with a martial sound, and that became the opening tune, "Lieutenant Jackie." The music begins with a roaring cacophony of sounds that captures the tense racial confrontation on the bus and Robinson's refusal to back down. Drummer Tina Raymond
, a rising star, sets the tone with a march, left right, left right. Chuck Manning
blows a bluesy tenor sax solo followed by cornetist Bradford, whose brass explorations often go "out" but are always rooted in the blues. William Roper
's tuba adds an unexpected deep and other worldly sound and his unconventional vocals express the barriers Robinson had to overcome.
With his military commitment complete, Robinson was free to pursue a professional baseball career. In 1945, Robinson signed with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. Meanwhile, as World War II ended and summer's end approached, stories about the integration of baseball began to appear in Black newspapers, particularly stories by Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier. By August, Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, arranged a meeting with Robinson that culminated in the historic signing of a contract which would begin Jackie's journey to destiny.
In 1946, Robinson successfully endured a tumultuous and eye-opening spring training in the South with the Dodgers minor league Montreal team. While some Florida cities like Jacksonville locked out the Dodgers in order to prevent an integrated game from taking place, other cities hoped to entice the Dodgers into signing a contract with them for future spring training seasons because they saw the profits that would increase as interest in the Robinson "experiment" grew, and large numbers of Black fans came to the ballparks to watch their hero.
Finally, 1947 arrived and with it came the call for Jackie to join the Dodgers major league team. Bradford opens "Up From the Minors" with a blaring of horns and banging of percussion to dramatically announce this momentous occasion. Then the mood shifts and the band expresses the seriousness of the task Robinson faced as he challenged the racial code of America's national past time. The focus on the lower register, first with tuba then with multi-reedist Vinny Golia
on bass clarinet, sonically reflects the heavy weight Robinson bore on his broad shoulders as he carried the hopes and dreams of the nation's African Americans.
William Roper's dynamic tuba not only blows the depths of dark emotions but also an appropriate playfulness since baseball is ultimately, just a game, in spite of the social and political conflicts that followed Robinson and the Dodgers wherever they took the field. Pianist Don Preston
, a veteran of Frank Zappa
's Mothers of Invention band, dances on the keys in a dialogue with the tuba. Golia cries out on the bass clarinet, blowin' like a man possessed, as Robinson likely did in private, since his part of the bargain with Dodgers chief Rickey was to endure the taunts and threats and to restrain himself from responding in kind to the white players' racist behavior. The band then shifts to a post-bop mood as Henry Franklin
speeds up the tempo with low notes dexterously running up and down the bass like Jackie rounding the bases. Drummer Raymond joins in the musical melee with a kinetic and highly animated solo.
Another highlight of the recording is the title tune, "Stealin' Home," a composition that reflects the excitement and the joy that Jackie Robinson's style of play injected into major league baseball. The up-tempo, big band swing sound gets people dancing just like Jackie danced off the bases, often unnerving the pitchers before stealing home, an especially audacious base running tactic that he perfected. Bradford plays cornet as if he were teaching a jazz history class, which he did for decades in Southern California. One can hear every style of jazz from New Orleans Dixieland, Chicago blues, swing, bebop and modern free jazz when Bradford solos. And he generously gives everyone in the band room to stretch out, first with Manning, Preston and Golia (this time on alto sax), who all explore the range of their instruments while remaining true to the blues.
Bobby Bradford's ensemble has performed together for many years, and their familiarity and mutual comfort level yields a complex and emotionally satisfying musical tribute to one of the great heroes in American history.
Sadly, Terry Cannon did not survive his brave battle against cancer. He passed in August of 2020, but he lived long enough to hear the music composed by Bradford performed "live" at Pasadena City College and at four subsequent concerts.
Lieutenant Jackie; Up From the Minors; Stealin' Home; Fatigue; 0 for 3; High and Inside.
Bobby Bradford: cornet, lyrics; Henry Franklin: bass; Tina Raymond: drums; Don Preston:
piano, gong; Vinny Golia: alto, baritone saxophones, bass clarinet; Chuck Manning: tenor
saxophone; William Roper: tuba, euphonium, spoken word, vocals, lyrics.