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Winter 2002
Volume 39, No. 2
Issue Home

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www.pomona.edu

PCMOnline Editor
Sarah Dolinar

 


By Michelle Mercer

The first time I called up Bobby Bradford for an interview, I was primed for a lofty discussion about creativity and art. But a mundane event stalled that discourse. Just when we’d started speaking, a lizard darted into Bradford’s kitchen from the patio outside. Bradford was called over to help his family strategize how to guide it back outdoors. “Bear with me for a moment while we find a creative solution to this minor family emergency,” the Knight of Small Reptiles said, with dry humor.

This momentary derailment of our discussion may seem a mere trifle, but the episode actually says a lot about Bobby Bradford and his creative pursuits.

Despite his extraordinary talent as a jazz trumpeter, Bradford has always put his family’s well-being first, eschewing the standard jazzman’s lifestyle to preserve domestic tranquility. He’s probably one of the few musicians who’s turned down numerous invitations to work in New York, the center of the jazz universe—yet he’s thrived, nevertheless.

“I can understand why Bradford stayed in L.A,” says critic and former Pomona College faculty member Stanley Crouch, who made a migration to the Big Apple himself. “But I wish he had moved to the East Coast. Had Bradford come to New York, I think his presence would have changed the course of the trumpet in avant-garde jazz.”

If no one can actually estimate the jazz world’s loss, many can appreciate Southern California’s gain—Bradford has been a vital catalyst of adventurous music on the West Coast for more than 25 years, and is a local treasure at Pomona College, where he teaches jazz history and directs jazz ensembles.

But Bradford has been forced to make some tough decisions in forging his particular creative path. He’s reflected on those choices so much that he often speaks with a novelist’s uber-awareness of himself as a protagonist in his own life. He was born in 1934 in Cleveland, Mississippi. “My music is deeply rooted in my early childhood there,” Bradford says. “I’d go down to the Chinese dry goods store, where a wandering guitar player would sit on the front porch. He’d stick a board off the porch, and perch a little wooden doll there. I’d sit there for hours watching him sing songs and make that doll dance.”

Aware that black musicians often try to establish credibility with apocryphal claims to church origins, Bradford asserts the authenticity of his gospel background. “I really grew up in a genuine Baptist area,” he says. “You know, with a capella gospel singers, with church music. I used to hear male quartets, and the rhythm of that music, their stomping to the music, that bass part, the rhythm in the voices. That stuff is a big part of my music, because it runs almost as deep as my blood.”

Bradford’s family moved to Dallas in 1946. “My father listened to big bands, but I wasn’t really drawn to that kind of jazz, the swing style,” he says. “I wanted to play music when I heard the beboppers: Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis and Fats Navarro, the beboppers had it going on.” Bradford took up the cornet in 1949. While he practiced his bebop chops, he supported himself playing in R&B bands with the likes of Buster Smith and Ray Charles.

During the same period another Texan, Ornette Coleman, was putting in some time in R&B bands as well. In the summer of 1953, Bradford moved to Los Angeles where he ran into Coleman on the red trolley. They played together and worked out some freethinking notions for a new jazz music, but before any recordings were made, Bradford was drafted into the Air Force. The trumpeter Don Cherry took his place in Coleman’s group, and it was Cherry who went on to make history with Coleman on recordings like The Shape of Jazz to Come and New York is Now.

After his military stint, Bradford went back to Texas to finish his bachelor’s degree. Bradford was invited to take part in Coleman’s seminal 1960 Free Jazz recording session, but he was too busy studying at the time, so another trumpeter, Freddie Hubbard, had to take his place. When Bradford did join Coleman’s group in 1961, it coincided with a period when Coleman refused to work unless he was well paid—which meant that the group rarely played gigs and did not record.

Bradford’s tenure with Coleman plays out like a collection of near misses with fame. But Bradford was intent upon supporting his young family, and when he graduated from college in 1963, the Bradfords moved back to Los Angeles where Bradford planned to obtain a stable teaching position. “But when I got to L.A. I couldn’t find work right away,” Bradford remembers. “So I first worked as a claims adjuster in workman’s comp.” He pauses a moment and says, “My life is reading like dime-store novel, isn’t it?”

Self-Determination Music

Bradford did find teaching work, first at CalArts and then at Pomona. Just as significantly, in the mid-60s Bradford met John Carter, a composer and clarinetist who was also from Texas. The two began an artistic association that would be the most significant one of Bradford’s career. They shared a musical aesthetic—Bradford’s bluesy, flowing trumpet complemented Carter’s angular woodwind flights. But the two also shared an artistic philosophy and were determined to explore those ideas on their own terms.

After working together for several years, their efforts seemed to pay off when producer Bob Thiele came to Los Angeles and commissioned Carter and Bradford to record two records for his Flying Dutchman label in 1970 and 1971. “He came to us, and at that point, we were getting such good reviews from those records, we said, ‘This is going to take off,’” Bradford says. “But nothing happened. Our careers sat there like a big toad. We got jazz record of the year in Japan and got five stars in one jazz magazine and four and a half in another one and we thought that we were on our way. But everything went right back to where it was.”

Basically, it all came down to geography—promoters didn’t want to dig down into their pockets to pay a musician’s airfare to the East Coast. “Bob Thiele told us that if we were to get anything more done than we were doing then, we should move to New York. Neither of us was willing to do that.”

By the mid-70s, Stanley Crouch had joined Bradford on the Pomona faculty. Crouch enlisted Bradford to compose tunes for his musical plays and also tapped the trumpeter for his band, Black Music Infinity, which included “Black Arthur” Blythe, David Murray ’77, Mark Dresser, James Newton and Walter Lowe. Crouch appreciated Bradford’s musical flexibility: “Most of those avant-garde guys who came forward after Ornette Coleman could only play a very narrow vocabulary,” Crouch says. “They couldn’t really play the trumpet. Don Cherry and Don Ellis were two exceptions, and of course Bradford, who had studied the whole tradition. He was special.”

The convergence of all these experimental musicians fostered an active community in L.A., and especially at Pomona. Don Palmer ’77 is now a program director at the New York State Council of the Arts and also works as a music critic. Palmer remembers a lively scene on campus in the ’70s: “I had a radio show on the college station and quickly learned that some of the same music I was spinning was actually being created on campus. It was very exciting.”

But Palmer says the music sometimes challenged listeners: “I booked a film series and concerts at the Smudgepot. Once, we had a performance with Bradford, David Murray and James Newton. People wanted their money back when it wasn’t pretty flute music.”

Off campus, John Carter opened Rudolph’s, and in 1977 Bradford and Carter opened a loft-like club called the Little Bighorn in Altadena, with sessions open to the public. As Crouch recalls, “Bradford inspired a lot of guys and was a force, though in a very understated way.” Bradford was perhaps too helpful. One by one, he watched his younger comrades move to the East Coast—first Blythe, then Crouch, Murray, Newton and others left to pioneer the New York loft movement. Carter and Bradford again considered moving, but stayed behind. “I had a family to feed and couldn’t see myself sleeping on someone’s couch,” Bradford says. A few years later, in 1984, Bradford recorded an album with a title many of his colleagues found all too appropriate: Lost in L.A.

Creativity in Teaching

Bradford drafted one of his former students, Mark Dresser, to record on Lost in LA. In the end, it’s through his students that Bradford may make his most significant contribution to the jazz world. Dresser, for example, is one of the top bassists in the world; his bold yet grounded expression makes him a popular sideman, and he keeps busy leading his own groups as well. Dresser has made it one of his lifetime ambitions to pay tribute to Bradford; the bassist wrote a composition titled “For Bradford” and has recorded five versions of the tune to date.

“He is the Real McCoy,” Dresser says. “That’s especially evident to me now after encountering other free jazz players. He showed me the whole tradition. Not just musical information, but also the musical attitude. He loved the bebop players, like Bud Powell and Fats Navarro, but having played with Ornette, he was a first-generation source for how to approach the new music too. He really had it, the whole spectrum.”

Bradford claims that he himself is the real beneficiary of the student-teacher relationship and says that after 30 years, teaching still renews him: “In any environment where you’re not just recycling repetitious stuff, you’ll get new insights as you’re teaching, and from those you teach. Not a year goes by that a student doesn’t come up with something really insightful. Even after all these years.”

No doubt one of his more insightful students was saxophonist David Murray, who studied with Bradford throughout the 70s, including his time at Pomona. Murray is arguably Bradford’s most successful protégé and is certainly his most prolific—Murray may be the most frequently recorded jazz musician of the last 50 years. Bradford, however, is characteristically self-effacing about his influence on the saxophonist. “David played in an ensemble here, and he just needed somebody to point him in the right direction,” Bradford says. “I’d suggest he listen to some musician, or check out a particular record.” With some prodding, Bradford finally makes a slight admission. “Well, I guess he did get some jazz history from me.”

Bradford’s modesty notwithstanding, his comments do raise the issue of whether one can effectively teach jazz musicianship. Jazz improvisation is basically musical storytelling, with the soloist stringing together rhythms and melodies into a coherent narrative—all in real time. Many older practitioners of the art form claim this impromptu sound sculpting is something that can’t be taught. Bradford agrees with them, but only to a point—you can identify certain characteristics that enable invention, he says, in jazz and in all creative pursuits.

“I don’t think you can teach creativity, exactly,” Bradford explained. “You can tell people what you do to be creative and show them what others do. And there are some nuts and bolts—you can say these things are present: One—You have to have a healthy irreverence for what everybody else is doing; two— you have to be willing to take risks; and three—you have to be really confident that what you’re doing is for you. This is true not just for jazz, but for any kind of creative environment.”

Bradford is himself an embodiment of all the above. “Bobby’s an exceedingly brilliant man who has great ability to communicate ideas,” Crouch says. “He truly understands what he’s teaching. I think most students who have him as a teacher will probably never be in the presence of a musician greater than he is. He’s a special person in that way.”

Taking the road less traveled has not landed Bradford much fame—no major label recording deals and not even a minor spot in Ken Burns’ Jazz documentary. But when Bradford tells me he has no regrets about the way things have worked out, I believe him. If he’d heeded the siren call of the prime time, he might have crashed up on ego’s rocky shores and wrecked his creativity. At best he would have adapted to an already existing scene. At Pomona, and in Los Angeles at large, Bobby Bradford has nurtured a community—and he’s shown that feeding your family doesn’t mean you can’t flourish creatively .

—Michelle Mercer is a freelance writer who lives in New York.
Her articles about music have appeared in a range of publications,
including The New York Times and the Village Voice, and her musical
commentaries air on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.