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 wed started speaking, a lizard darted
into Bradfords 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
Despite his extraordinary talent as a jazz trumpeter, Bradford has always
put his familys well-being first, eschewing the standard jazzmans
lifestyle to preserve domestic tranquility. Hes probably one of
the few musicians whos turned down numerous invitations to work
in New York, the center of the jazz universeyet hes thrived,
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 worlds loss, many can appreciate
Southern Californias gainBradford 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. Hes reflected on those choices so much
that he often speaks with a novelists 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. Id go down to the Chinese dry goods store, where a wandering
guitar player would sit on the front porch. Hed stick a board off
the porch, and perch a little wooden doll there. Id 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
Bradfords family moved to Dallas in 1946. My father listened
to big bands, but I wasnt 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.
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 Colemans 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 bachelors
degree. Bradford was invited to take part in Colemans 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 Colemans group in 1961, it coincided with a period
when Coleman refused to work unless he was well paidwhich meant
that the group rarely played gigs and did not record.
Bradfords 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 couldnt find work right away,
Bradford remembers. So I first worked as a claims adjuster in workmans
comp. He pauses a moment and says, My life is reading like
dime-store novel, isnt it?
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 Bradfords career. They
shared a musical aestheticBradfords bluesy, flowing trumpet
complemented Carters 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 geographypromoters didnt want
to dig down into their pockets to pay a musicians 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.
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 Bradfords musical
flexibility: Most of those avant-garde guys who came forward after
Ornette Coleman could only play a very narrow vocabulary, Crouch
says. They couldnt 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 wasnt pretty flute music.
Off campus, John Carter opened Rudolphs, 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 Coastfirst 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 couldnt see myself sleeping on someones 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, its 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. Thats 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.
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 youre not just recycling repetitious
stuff, youll get new insights as youre teaching, and from
those you teach. Not a year goes by that a student doesnt 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 Bradfords most successful protégé
and is certainly his most prolificMurray 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. Id 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.
Bradfords 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 narrativeall in real time.
Many older practitioners of the art form claim this impromptu sound sculpting
is something that cant be taught. Bradford agrees with them, but
only to a pointyou can identify certain characteristics that
enable invention, he says, in jazz and in all creative pursuits.
I dont 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 boltsyou can say
these things are present: OneYou have to have a healthy irreverence
for what everybody else is doing; two you have to be willing to
take risks; and threeyou have to be really confident that what youre
doing is for you. This is true not just for jazz, but for any kind of
Bradford is himself an embodiment of all the above. Bobbys
an exceedingly brilliant man who has great ability to communicate ideas,
Crouch says. He truly understands what hes 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. Hes a special person
in that way.
Taking the road less traveled has not landed Bradford much fameno
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 hed heeded
the siren call of the prime time, he might have crashed up on egos
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 communityand hes shown that
feeding your family doesnt mean you cant 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
commentaries air on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.