CHAT WITH BOBBY BRADFORD
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.
JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.
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.
What made bebop so special?
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.
So to be cool, one would naturally play bebop.
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.
Did that change your conception of bebop?
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.
What route did you take?
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.
Being involved in the Los Angeles scene in the Fifties, you had an opportunity
to play with both Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman.
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.
Let's talk about your time with Ornette Coleman.
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.
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.
Did you know it would change the face of convention?
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.
Let's touch on your association with John Carter.
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.
Yet another reason for me to be ashamed of Los Angeles.
Jung is Jazz Weekly's Editor-In-Chief and is the fifth Beatle. Comments?