Soul Note



Bobby Bradford has played with Ornette Coleman. He has long been a favorite of mine. I recently saw Bradford play with his quintet at the Knit in Hollywood and with Arthur Blythe and he was el fuego (poor Sportscenter reference). May I present Mr. Bradford, unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

BOBBY BRADFORD: Well, I grew up in a neighborhood, from around age eleven in Dallas, Texas. There were some professionals or ex-professionals who lived in the area, people who were retired musicians. T-Bone Walker's father lived in the neighborhood where I grew up in. There were a most of musicians around town who were older than me, maybe five, six, eight, ten years older than me, who played around town on the weekends in the various clubs and juke joints. So, in the community that I lived in, I could hear these guys practicing at home and pass by their places and hear them playing records of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie when I was a fourteen year old. I had heard jazz before because, of course, my father was a big jazz fan. He liked the big bands though. I wasn't particularly taken to jazz and interested in playing with big bands, the swing style. What drew me to the music, to want to play it, when I was inspired to play, was when I heard Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis, and Fats Navarro, the beboppers. That is what drew me into the music.

FJ: What made bebop so special?

BOBBY BRADFORD: Oh, man, Fred, that's a biggie. Bebop had, in addition to the vocal quality that all jazz music seems to have as a general statement, the New Orleans' style of Louis Armstrong and the swing era of Lester and Coleman Hawkins and all, but bop had an urgency about it. It was more polyrhythmic and in my ears, it was a more sophisticated music than swing or the New Orleans style, but that would take some talking about because of course people could say that you couldn't be any more sophisticated than Louis Armstrong. But the boppers were, as a general statement, technically more proficient than the swing or New Orleans players. What added to it about the boppers was the new social posture of the beboppers. There was no clowning around. They had that sort of pseudo-intellectual air. That was part of it too. They had their own language and dress code. It was so hip (laughing) for want of a better way to say it.

FJ: So to be cool, one would naturally play bebop.

BOBBY BRADFORD: Oh, yeah, growing up, as far as I was concerned, there was the Louis Armstrong bunch, which we sort of took for granted because we didn't have sense enough to know how important Louis Armstrong was, at least I didn't when I was twelve years old, and then there was the swing group with Basie's band and Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young and I knew who those people were. When I started to play the cornet, which I started on in what would have been junior high, but we didn't have junior high, we went up to grade eight in elementary school and high school was nine, ten, eleven, and twelve. I started to play the cornet when I was in tenth grade and bebop was the thing. That would have been around 1949 or '50, when Charlie Parker was at the peak of his powers. That is when I started out trying to play, trying to play like Dizzy and Miles and Fats Navarro and every trumpeter. As I began to get a handle on that, that was right in the middle of course of the coming of the cool jazz thing, especially the big West Coast version of it. And then the Miles Davis thing of 1949, that didn't somehow manifest itself to us in school until over into the Fifties, even though and those guys made that first record (Birth of the Cool) in 1949. At least as far as I was concerned, I didn't really grasp the cool jazz sound of that Miles Davis bunch. I am not talking about here like Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan. The Miles Davis cool jazz session of 1949, that was a big, monster event.

FJ: Did that change your conception of bebop?

BOBBY BRADFORD: That didn't change my idea about bebop, to me that was just a softer version of bebop. I still thought of that as bebop because of the chord changes were all pretty much the same. The melodic lines used the same chord alterations. It was just in my mind a softer version of bebop. That is the way I always heard that. In my mind, there wouldn't have been any cool jazz if there hadn't been a bebop. I just saw what Chet Baker played and Gerry Mulligan played and the guys on the West Coast as a less aggressive and less emotionally intense style of bebop. In other words, in my mind, Chet Baker was still from the Miles Davis perspective. That approach to playing the trumpet, that cool, laid back, almost no vibrato, interesting kind of attack, unlike Dizzy and Fats and all those really gymnastic kind of players. That still had the articulation of the bop style. So the West Coast players to me, and I liked a lot of them, Art Pepper, to me, was an interesting mix of Charlie Parker and Lester Young. There is two big routes in bop trumpet. There is the Gillespie route, which you would hook up with somebody like Fats Navarro too, even though they both had their own distinct styles, they both were really powerful trumpet players with super range. Then there is the other camp of players who didn't play so high or so loud and didn't have the range and power. Chet Baker and Miles Davis went the other route, the cooler, more restrained player, but it was still bop. I still see Chet Baker as a bop trumpet player, just more restrained and a softer approach than somebody like Dizzy or like Fats Navarro or like Kenny Dorham.

FJ: What route did you take?

BOBBY BRADFORD: As a kid, I grew up trying to play the best I could get from all of the boppers. I was trying to learn how to create that bebop melodic line originally, so I learned just as much listening to the tenor players or piano players as I did the trumpet players. Early on, like all the kids, I was trying to copy solos from Dizzy and Miles and Fats Navarro. When I started trying to figure out something that was Bobby Bradford, I don't think you could put me in any of those camps. I'm in my sixties now and I don't play with the kind of power as I did when I was thirty years old. I've never thought of myself as being like a Dizzy kind of trumpet player with that kind of power and range, playing all those altissimo notes on the horn, but then I wasn't a restrained player either and just stayed cool and laid back all the time. Whatever national attention I got came via my playing in association with the so-called free jazz. I had no reputation as a bebopper. But I could say I was a good bebop player. I could get up there and play. I knew all the bebop tunes. I knew how to play "Cherokee" and "All the Things You Are" and Monk tunes and "Round Midnight." I knew that because I grew up studying it. Leo Wright and I were roommates in college. Leo was very precocious. This guy was smokin' man. As a freshman in college, Leo was killing. The rest of us were scared to death of him. He was so mature at that point as a player. He was clearly a professional already when he got to college. We were all still trying to get a handle on playing those complicated chord progressions.

FJ: Being involved in the Los Angeles scene in the Fifties, you had an opportunity to play with both Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman.

BOBBY BRADFORD: After spending a year and a half in college with Leo, we both left college at the same time. In the summer of '53, I moved to Los Angeles where I ran into Ornette Coleman. I had met him in Texas, but not as a musician. He just happened to come to the part of the neighborhood where I lived because he had a close friend there. I knew about him. I didn't really know him. He came to Los Angeles about the same time that I did. We were all around town then playing jam sessions, which included the California Club at Santa Barbara and Western. That used to be a Monday night jam session. We were all running around town and we were all roughly the same age. Ornette is about four or five years older than me and Eric was probably around maybe three or four. Eric had just come back from the army and he was still playing the alto saxophone and the clarinet, which he played in the army. He was still playing everything that he could get from Charlie Parker. He was not playing any free jazz, nothing even close to it. There is a lot of people who would argue with that, but I was there. We would meet at these sessions and we would spend days, sometimes we would rehearse at Walter Benton's place because he had a garage with a piano in it. Most of us were interested in transcribing saxophone and trumpet solos from the recordings because that gave you some insight into what some of these guys were playing and how they developed their linear styles. There was no books. There were no schools. There were no Jamey Aebersold records. There was no place to go and study this stuff. All you could do was just listen to the records and get what you could from that and if there was somebody in town who was a professional, try and get some lessons. Most of us were just trying to figure it out from the records. We would get together and work on these transcriptions and check them for accuracies and inaccuracies. We would see each other around town playing at these various jam sessions. There were half a dozen places around town that had regularly you could go in and play, unlike now. We would come in around eight or nine and play until twelve or one at night and we saw each other a lot. We studied together sometimes, but Ornette and I having met in Texas, I ran into him one day on the red car, the old trolleys that we used to have here. We renewed our acquaintance. He asked me if I would be interested in going over some of his tunes and playing it. I would go over to his place and we would go over his tunes. The times that I would play with him, we would play a complete three sets of his tunes and the stuff was pretty scary, but he was still playing standards at the time, in addition to the stuff that he was writing.

FJ: Let's talk about your time with Ornette Coleman.

BOBBY BRADFORD: When I went to New York to play with Ornette Coleman, I had spent already three or four years in military bands during the end of the Korean conflict. I was in the service at that period and I played in military bands. If we had jazz bands, which we did, the guys in there were mostly playing bebop. There was nobody playing free jazz. I had played with Ornette, here in Los Angeles and had been exposed to that new concept as early as 1952. Getting a handle on that was no easy task because there was only so many places you could play like that. There were only so many people trying to work that out with you. So when I came back out of the military, I went back to college and Ornette, I suppose, had remembered that I had played with him here in Los Angeles and I understood on some level what it was he was doing and had been toying with that too when I was in the military, but still playing bop tunes. We had jazz bands that traveled around and entertained the rest of the troops and we were basically still playing the music of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and the beboppers, although, I was still pursuing this concept of trying to play melodic lines without referring to chord progressions. So I rejoined Ornette Coleman in New York in 1961.

FJ: Early on, there must have been a good deal of resistance to free jazz.

BOBBY BRADFORD: Oh, yeah, Fred. He especially. He would sometimes go out to the jam sessions and they would be playing standards and he would go onto his free thing and try to play that stuff over and above or against what they were doing. Now, he clearly knew how to play "All the Things You Are" and the Charlie Parker tunes in the conventional way. I can remember very clearly playing with him and we were doing "Stardust." He was playing beautifully and not playing anything that you and I would call free jazz. But in the course of the evening, we would play one of his that was totally free. Now, it wasn't quite like that record of his, Free Jazz. This stuff was just two horns, bass, and drums and if he had a piano player, the poor piano player would be trying to figure out what to do and on some nights he did. By the time Ornette got to New York, he had already made one record here in Los Angeles. They were playing those lines of his that was very bop-like, but he was trying to play them without following any chord progressions. Walter Norris was having a real problem with that. I remember talking to him about that once. He said something really interesting. He said, "I don't think Ornette knows his own tunes." (Laughing) Well, by the time Ornette got to New York and made that Free Jazz thing in 1960, I guess it was, all the connections between him and bebop were gone by then. There hasn't been any looking back since.

FJ: Did you know it would change the face of convention?

BOBBY BRADFORD: Well, I knew he was onto something back here in Los Angeles. Here he was the outcast and I wasn't going to fool with him unless I was going to get something out of it. I heard something in his music. I had no idea whether he was going to get to be a big star or not, but I wasn't interested in that anyway. I heard something valid in his music, which I wanted to access as best I could. Here was a guy who had something to say, who used the Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie tools to say it. It was always clear to me that this guy had a great story to tell and he can only tell it his way. But I knew he was onto something the first time I ever heard him.

FJ: Let's touch on your association with John Carter.

BOBBY BRADFORD: Well, everybody in this bunch we are talking about is Texas people. I didn't know John in Texas like I do Ornette. John is from Fort Worth and I am from Dallas and they are almost twin cities, they are so close together. I had never laid eyes on his until here in California. We both found ourselves in similar situations with families and wanting to play jazz, but having no opportunities to play what we wanted to play here in Los Angeles. I had come here after leaving the Ornette Coleman band in 1963. I was living out in the Pomona area and John had been teaching here in the city schools. He was mostly playing alto then, although he was originally and always a clarinet player. The jazz thing, he was playing mostly alto. He and Ornette were still in touch and for some reason came to Los Angeles and John was saying how he was thinking about organizing a band here and he would like to hook up with guys that were interested in similar things and so Ornette told him to call me. Finally, John called me and we had a meeting and decided to organize a band. That was the beginning of the New Art Jazz Ensemble. We used to rehearse Tuesday and Thursday nights for ages we did before we ever got our first job. We had been rehearsing for probably a year. We got our first job at a little place called the Century City Playhouse. There was no money involved, but we were playing our own music, either written by me or written by John. We kept that group together until about 1970, '71. Bob Thiele came to Los Angeles, apparently trying to see what was happening and we auditioned for him and we did two records for Flying Dutchman in 1970 and '71. At that point, we thought that we were getting such good reviews from this and this is going to take off. Nothing happened. We got jazz record of the year in Japan and got five stars in this magazine and four and a half in that one and we thought that this was it and we were on our way. Everything went right back to where it was. Bob Thiele told us that if we were to get anything more done than we were doing now, we should move to New York and neither of us were willing to do that. I had already been to New York with Ornette and it was clear to me that I did not want to go back there with my family and try to make a living playing jazz. I didn't want to do it and John had never been there working and he didn't want to break up housekeeping here with a wife and four kids. We just thought we would stay here and make something happen for ourselves. Nothing did and we were playing around town, but we couldn't play Howard Rumsey. They kept saying how they liked how we played and all, but no one was going to come here and hear that.

FJ: Yet another reason for me to be ashamed of Los Angeles.

Fred Jung is Jazz Weekly's Editor-In-Chief and is the fifth Beatle. Comments?  Email Fred.